The Great Western Expedition of 2011, pt6...Black Bear Pass

Ranger Joe

Feed the Rangers, not the wildlife!
Jan 27, 2012
Time again for yet another episode of "As the Duratrac Turns"...

Today, we head for the notorious Black Bear Pass. The Jeep Jamboree doesn't officially run BBP because of its reputation and difficulty. The Ouray JJ Coordinatior, Chris Timmes, runs it with his trail leaders a day or two before the actual Jamboree starts, and puts out an unofficial invitation to any Ouray JJ participants who might want to go along. It's not a trail to be taken lightly, and bad things can happen...but if you're with people who know what they're doing, well, it's a heck of a ride.

We met up at the Best Western where we weren't actually staying (it's where all the TLs stay) to get a head count and a quick briefing by Chris. The white Libby is owned by...

...this 5' tall 80-year-old grandmother named Sally who drives alone, kicks butt and takes names. She's awesome. She did BBP last year with her Libby and was awarded the shirt as a prize. We had purchased our own "I Survived Black Bear Pass" T-shirt the day before...the shopkeeper said we could have our money back if we didn't make it.

Our group of 21 Jeeps head for the trailhead on US 550.

On the way to the trailhead we passed this rustic old antique store perched on a cliff on the other side of the Uncompaghre River canyon. Apparently it's a joke on the the tourists by the locals, as it's a two hour strenuous hike to get there.

Signage at the trailhead. There used to be a sign that said in effect, "Jeeps Only...You don't have to be crazy to drive this road, but it helps."

Chris gives us the rules of the road. We would divide up into three groups of seven, each group with a TL and a tail gunner. We would end up in the middle group.

On the way up.

Still going up.

By the time we reached the actual pass, it was snowing. We posed at the sign

From the pass, we head into Ingram Basin, with more snow falling.

By the time we got to the first difficult spot called The Steps, the snow had changed back into rain. If you had said that our first transit of BBP would be in the rain, I would have said you were out of your mind.

The Steps are loose shale, dropping down steeply towards a tight right turn at the top of a huge set of switchbacks.

The town in the valley below is Telluride. Views of it came and went as the mist blew around.

Our turn, as TL Than guides us down. Linda drove, mainly because she knew I would try to take pictures as we descended, and because I knew I could take better pictures from the passenger side.

We got down the Steps and were now headed around the corner, on to the first switchback. Note the shale wall on the right.

The first switchback.

We made it past the first switchback, and parked with Ingram Falls in the background.

It was about here that we heard trouble on the radio. A Jeep CJ, driving alone behind our last group of seven, was allowed to pass them before the group to the Steps. We had stopped as well, expecting this guy to pass us as well. However, the CJ's brakes failed as he was descending the Steps...he stopped himself by steering the Jeep into the shale wall on his right side. This was all occurring right above us...had he not steered into the wall, he probably would have shot off the Steps, hit our Libby and taken us both down the express route to Telluride.

(They tell you that wearing seat belts up here is mandatory...not so much that the belts will save your life if you go off an 800' cliff, but because it makes recovering your body that much easier. They're not kidding when they say this, either.)

We continued downhill as the TLs figured out what to do with the situation. The TLs tried to repair the brakes, but the brake line fitting was damaged and not repairable. The damaged CJ would be slowly strapped down from the Steps and down the switchbacks as well. This was all accomplished by the volunteer TLs, who didnt know this guy at all, stepped in to help and kept him from having an even worse day than he was already having. He was strapped all the way to Telluride.

Mist over the mountains above Telluride.

Heading downhill.

We approach the tightest of the switchbacks. We would be guided down by the TLs.

The TL would help in making the 3-point turn around the switchback. They also make absolutely sure that you're in reverse before you start backing up...some years back a TL found himself hanging onto the hood for dear life, dangling over the edge as the driver put it into D instead of R.

The switchbacks are one way, downhill, until you reach about this point, just even with the old power plant perched on the side of the canyon, next to Bridalveil Falls. From here on, the trail is two-way, and the switchbacks are nowhere near as steep or tight.

Telluride. Pompous, self-absorbed <redacted> with overdeveloped senses of entitlement. The dogs in Telluride are far friendlier than the people.

We left Telluride and had four options to return to Ouray: 1) The paved road, about 45 miles, and, well, it's paved...2) Last Dollar Road, a nice dirt road through the hills that turns to mush when it rains...3) Imogene Pass, the most direct but also, at over 13,000' might be snowed in, and 4) Ophir Pass, a fairly easy Jeep road that we had done twice when we were out here in 2009.

The other two times we drove this, it was from Ouray to Telluride. I could have driven my mother's Thunderbird on this road with little problem.

We pose at the pass, with freshly dusted mountains in the background.

The descent down the other side, towards US 550 and a nice, big steak at The Western Hotel.

Next up, a wet Jeep Jamboree.

View Part 7, Poughkeepsie Gulch


Jan 19, 2012
I definitely need to spend some time in CO!!!
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