Autobiography: Jeep Near-Death Experience on Rollins Pass

Cliff edgememorial to drivers of a Jeep that went over a cliff

The first time my brother and I took his newly purchased used CJ5 out into the Rockies, we almost died.

We never went four wheeling before, but were determined teens who moved to Colorado to attend university and live the High Life. We skied, snow-camped, hiked, and mountain climbed whenever we had the time and the money. After living in a basement apartment, my brother had enough to finally purchase that Colorado icon – a used 1971 CJ5.

Rollins pass 1

We couldn’t wait to take it into the hills to tackle Rollins Pass.

Rollins Pass_Trestle

Rollins Pass was an old train grade that was infamous for it’s insane hanging trestles, and for its rough terrain. It wasn’t steep, so we believed it would have been an easy trip. It was late September and if we didn’t get up to the mountains that weekend, we would have had to face snow closing the Pass for the season – and snow was predicted soon. We tanked up and headed for Rollins. We packed, brought along a tool box in case we discovered a problem with this new used Jeep, a first aid kit, then water and food. We left late.

It was too cold to drop the top, but we still did. We removed the doors, cranked up the heat, wore winter coats and had a bota bag full of cinnamon schnaps. The smiles never left our faces as we were climbed up the Pass, along with a couple other 4WD vehicles. Being the last weekend for the season before winter, brought out a few weekenders, but by the time we began to cross, it was late afternoon.

Rollins Pass Yankee doodle lake

The trip was uneventful right up and around Yankee Doodle Lake. The lake is famous because the Pass climbs steeply up a mountain wall above it. Since it is located near timberline, folks climbing the Pass could have an unobstructed view directly down into its deep blue waters. The mountain wall forms a perfect conical shape with Yankee Doodle Lake spectacularly circular at the mountain base. There are no guardrails and the road is barely single lane, with occasional spots where two vehicles could pass if necessary. However, at this time of year, there weren’t many vehicles. The overall view of the Lake is superb and as the road climbs up the wall of the mountain, the view below becomes more spectacular.

However, at the apex of this part of the road, there was a fresh wall of snow that had crested diagonally across the road. This required each four wheeler to climb over and through to reach the top of the hill. My brother needed to put the CJ5 into 4WD and climb through the snow, and we were excited to see his Jeep do its first four wheeling!

We inched up to the snow and tried climbing over. But we had a problem. The tires failed to give us enough traction to slowly climb over the snow at the angle needed to remain on the road. Instead of going through the snow, we ended up sliding across it. As we started to slide, my determined brother accelerated more, causing the wheels to spin, causing the Jeep to slide faster and further towards the edge of the road. We knew we were in trouble.  He ended up jack-knifing the CJ5 at an angle on the snow with the Jeep’s rear wheels only inches away from the edge of the cliff. We got out to see how bad our situation was, and it was worse than we imagined.

The only way my brother could get the CJ5 off the snow drift safely would be to somehow swing the Jeep towards the cliff without going over, while backing up and swinging the front end towards the cliff, without putting the front axle over. I didn’t think he could do it, but he thought he could. He wanted to try, but all I imagined was seeing him driving over the cliff, rolling down the mountain, and into the lake. Being the bigger brother, I had to protect him. He, however, felt lucky and being embarrassed, wanted to get his Jeep out of this danger by himself.

We looked through our packs to find anything that could help, but came up empty. Sensing my fear, and becoming more aware of the situation, my brother finally agreed to wait if one of the other 4WD vehicles could help. The idea was to hook a rope to the back of the Jeep, just to be safe. So, in case he failed, my brother would at least have something to keep him and the CJ5 from doom.

We got lucky and two helpful guys drove up in a big Chevy Blazer. They had a tow hook, perfect for this safety line. We all attached their tow hook from the winch at their front bumper to the rear bumper of the Jeep. After securing the tow hook and line, our volunteers hopped back into the Blazer.

My brother put the Jeep into reverse and then drove right off the cliff.

The Jeep came down the cliff, across the stones and rocks, then swung like a weight across the face of the mountain. My brother in horror was gunning the wheels in reverse, like Wile E. Coyote’s feet running in mid-air.  As the Jeep dropped, it jerked the Blazer horizontally across the road and dragged its front tires sideways into an arch with the Blazer’s front tires stopping at the edge of the cliff. As this was happening, I saw in our Good Samaritans’ faces an acute panic as their vehicle was jerked and dragged towards the cliff, they opened the Blazer’s doors, ready to jump. I thought I would be a witness at a horrible tragedy. All I could do was watch, yell and curse, and hug my backpack across my chest in horror. There was a lot of panicked screaming above Yankee Doodle Lake at that moment.

We all froze. No one wanted to move. My brother kept spinning the wheels fruitlessly along the side of the cliff. The guys in the Blazer got out, slowly afraid that by doing so the weight of their vehicle wouldn’t be enough to prevent it from also going over the cliff. My brother gave up, had turned off the engine, and ended up standing on the Jeep’s dashboard, looking for some kind of escape. The Jeep couldn’t get back up the cliff and it was only the tow rope kept the CJ5 from a watery grave below.

All four of us stood wide-eyed on the edge of the cliff realizing that neither vehicle could move as things stood, and there was zero hope there would be another vehicle crossing our paths before nightfall. Snow was in the air. It was getting dark. We stood there marveling at our situation for another thirty minutes when I finally said what needed to be said.

“Cut the rope!”

But before I said this, I also considered bracing the CJ5 so that it could have a chance remaining on the cliff. So, as my brother protested over cutting the only thing that kept his new Jeep from being destroyed, I began rolling heavy stones down the cliff and chocking the Jeep’s wheels. By the time it was almost too dark to see. My brother was still not convinced that his new toy would be safe, and the three of us non-Jeep owners had to agree that it’s situation looked quite grim. My brother then remembered the tool box we packed. We did the best we could wedging it against a back tire that didn’t look like it could hold.

It was funereal. Before doing the deed, we emptied the Jeep of any personal belongs we had in it. We all felt that we would be witnessing a spectacular crash when the rope was cut. It felt like we were burying a body at sea. We prayed like only a bunch of new desperate believers could. Then we slowly cut through the thick tow rope. No one wanted to do it, but we saw no other choice.

When the knife made it all the way through, the rope snapped and sounded like a thick rubber band being released. The Jeep’s back end lifted high like it was going to somersault towards the Lake. Instead it did a sloppy head stand with its square butt exposed to the heavens. It held. It didn’t move further. We couldn’t believe our eyes. None of us ever saw such a thing. We all waited a few minutes to see if it was as real as it surreally appeared. It looked like anyone could shoved it over and watch the mountain toss it into Yankee Doodle Lake. The great Jeep gods heard our pleas for mercy that day and gave us a break. (I guess almost being a virgin probably helped too.)

Emotionally exhausted, we climbed back into the Blazer for an silent ride downhill to Rollinsville. I will never forget seeing that tiny Jeep stranded cliff side hundreds of feet above the lake, as the Blazer rounded the mountain and down the Divide. It looked like it was doing yoga at the edge of civilization.  There wasn’t a single light to be seen in the mountain night. I really didn’t expect to see the Jeep again. One good gust of wind was all I imagined it would have taken. We gave our lifesavers $20 to replace the tow rope and they felt enough pity for our situation to take it. We thanked them for their help. They never did laugh at our predicament. It wasn’t funny.

We were dropped off at the nearest service station in Rollinsville. It was night. The snow was falling and the Jeep seemed far away. One of the clerks at the station was willing to take us into Boulder for gas money. The next day as the snow was blowing into the Rockies for the winter, the guys at the service station had a blast taking a small caterpillar tractor through a snowstorm, to the Jeep, where they used it to pull the Jeep up off the cliff. There was no damage to it as it was driven back down from its doom without a single problem. They loved the adventure and admired the Jeep for holding on. My brother was told that it was in great shape and fun to drive.

That ended up as being the most expensive towing job I ever had. We borrowed the money from my parents and paid them back throughout the winter. Saving the Jeep was worth it. My brother hadn’t even made a first payment on it before we left it on that cliff. My brother kept the Jeep for three more years and sold it for as much as he paid for it. It also gave us a thrill of a lifetime.

Then he got a new CJ7!