Driving A Range Rover To Near-Eternity

In Ouray, Colorado, the Beaumont Hotel is said to be haunted. Reportedly, in the late 1800s two newlyweds checked in and the groom stabbed his new bride to death, dragged her down a hallway and hung her. Standing in the sumptuous lobby of this beautifully restored three tiered gem in the heart of this San Juan mountain town, it is difficult to understand how someone could dig up enough hate to kill his new bride once, let alone twice.

But Ouray is a town of many haunts. After a day of traversing the Imogene Pass in a 2011 Range Rover, I was good with sleeping with the bathroom light on, and letting the spirits do their best.

Setting out from Telluride that morning, we followed the rocky path carved into the harsh mountains by early miners. In a half dozen 2011 LR4s and Land Rovers, we were embarking on some of the most ambitious off-roading trails in North America, edging steadily upward between heart sucking drop-offs on one side, abandoned mines on another. Land Rover has done almost too good of a job of convincing buyers of their luxury appointments; their stellar off-road capabilities – the prowess that earned them their stripes – often goes untested.

These vehicles have been ‘refreshed’ for 2011, which means more refinement than big change over 2010 models. More Limited Edition models with even more luxurious options are a response to a healthy uptick in sales throughout North America. The Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport and the LR4 are all available with a 375 or 510 HP highway purring elegance as well as the cliff-sticking Terrain Response system.

The 4000 metre climb up to Imogene Pass and over to Ouray is not particularly difficult, though taking over 5 hours to traverse just 40 kilometres gives you an indication that ‘difficult’ is a relative term in this part of the world. We encountered our first traffic a few hundred metres along the trail. It was to be the first of several traffic jams as we tucked into the world of previously hidden off-roaders. Jeeps, ATVs, dirtbikes, even a desecrated old Hummer, passed us or held back, a fraternity joining in an unspoken joy of conquering these ancient trails yet living to tell about it. An enormous 1974 blue Bronco went barreling by, its bed laden with spare gas, tires, saws, fire extinguishers and winches. I’d wondered who took care of downed trees. Now I know. First one to get there.

Land Rover is a founding member of Tread Lightly!, a movement started in 1985 by the U.S. Forest Service. Essentially created to promote responsible use of protected roads like the one we were on, Tread Lightly! specifically mandates responsible driving techniques, litter elimination and respect for the environment. It must be working; I saw one wrapper in two days, which was picked up by an instructor.

Because ruts cause erosion, proper driving technique is crucial. Sides of the mountain are frequently shale, and slippage can be fatal. Introduced in 2005 by Land Rover, the Terrain Response System continues to be a marvel of exacting control. While much of our driving was in low gear, selecting Grass/Gravel/Snow or Mud and Ruts ensured better traction on the slippery shale sides of our upward climb, while Rock Crawl performed just as advertised: you can walk these vehicles up the side of a cliff.

Descending into Ouray at the end of Day One, it was easy to appreciate the comfortable appointments of the Range Rover. Through hairpin cuts and huge sharp rocks, driver and passengers alike are nestled in absurd luxury, even when they’re holding onto an overhead handle for dear life.

I’d been apprehensive at the start of this journey. When you see a map full of the wickedly tight switchbacks to come on Day Two on Black Bear Pass, and four hours to travel about 15 kilometres, you do more than glance at your ride.

Range Rovers and LR4s seem more dressed for a prom than a tractor pull. They had looked totally at home in Telluride, a town of big money and much pretty. We literally headed for the hills, and were definitely the belles of the ball. But could the guts match the veneer? As we passed more and more battered soldiers on the road, it became apparent to me that if you buy a vehicle with these capabilities, you are denying yourself a fantastic experience by never climbing anything more challenging then the curb into your driveway.

Land Rover is firming up a program to bring the public on a trek through this trail next year. With a contingent of some of the best trained instructors in the world, this experience should head to the top of any off-road lover’s Bucket List.

Day Two dawned sunny and cool in Ouray. The plan? 109 kilometres – just 24 on pavement – 9 hours. The road to Silverton, our lunch destination, didn’t require anyone jumping out of the vehicle. That’s how you measure the difficulty of your ride – if the instructor can do his work from the inside, you’re really just puddling along, even if you’re clinging to the side of a cliff, or you can see only hood in your windshield. At lunch, the talk was only about Black Bear Pass. Officially rated a 5 (out of 5) for off-road difficulty, it is also rated Extreme. I hereby anoint my own rating system: Crazy.

At an altitude of just over 4000 metres, posing for photos above the tree line at the apex of Black Bear Pass was easy. With views stretching hundreds of kilometers in all directions, the ore soaked San Juan mountains are Crayola gorgeous. And while the vehicles had been performing to exacting measure, I still wondered what the real test would be.

I soon found out. The descent from Black Bear Pass into Telluride is one way. Down. It is deemed too dangerous to head up. Switchback after switchback requires 3 or 4 point turns, with your tires brought to the very edge by an instructor. In low gear all the way, I switched only between Mud and Ruts and Rock Crawl; once set, the truck automatically adjusts its own electronics for maximum traction and control. Like a high diver who never looks down, Land Rovers have more instinct than some people I know. More gumption, too.

After a day of relative ease for our instructors, they spent nearly all of the afternoon outside of the trucks. Using hand signals, they tell you where to turn your tires, how to position yourself for the next obstacle, and they peek around the corner for you when it appears the road has ended and a freefall will be your only way down.

The most important hand signal? Stop. Because you need every inch of this narrow ribbon of road, your positioning is crucial. Over and over, an instructor stood at the loose edge of the road, hundreds of metres dropping away behind him. He beckoned me forward. I inched forward. He indicated more. I envisioned toppling him over the side. I inched forward more. I asked if he had nerves of steel, or rocks for brains.

What you finally have to believe is these instructors know these trucks better than anyone, and as far as they’re concerned the only danger involved is with the unknown factor: the driver. With the Land Rover mantra running through my head – as slow as possible, as fast as necessary – I put my life, literally, in his hands, as he put his in mine.

At dinner that night, it turned out that one of these instructors had been visited the previous week at the Beaumont Hotel by some creepy, otherworldly presence. I watched his face as he described an incident that had sent him bolting from his room.

The man who spent the day unflinchingly perched on the edge of rock faces, beckoning 2600 kilograms of truck to push him to the edge.

Room 204? Now, that he was afraid of.