me and my truck

I’ve never really been a “car guy”. My step dad tried to teach me mechanical principles but in retrospect I realize he wasn’t really a “car guy” either. I learned to change my oil, swap air filters, and keep the tires full. These are important tasks, but it’s a far cry from having a well worn impact gun and wobble sockets.

I was going to buy a new Jeep Wrangler: I actually drive off road a lot and who doesn’t love a new car. Fortunately while on a backpacking trip my friend talked me out of it and dropped some science on me:

Look at Africa. Look at the Australian Outback. Shit man, look at ISIS. Know what they all drive? Toyotas, and the Land Cruiser in particular if they can get their hands on one. Go to Africa and see if you spot any Jeeps: you’ll be looking for a long time.

So instead of buying a ~$30,000 Jeep with the associated payments, taxes, and cranked insurance in 2015 I found myself a 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser down at the border.

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My beautiful truck the first time I laid eyes on her.

It was listed for $3,900 but with a leaky valve gasket and bald tires I got him down to $3,000 cash. When I went to register it the dealer had put a sticker over the “EXPORT ONLY” stamp, meaning it wasn’t supposed to be sold in the United States. My would-be truck was caught up in some international crime syndicate. An honestly dumbfounded look on my face at the DMV convinced the agent I wasn’t a part of it, and the registration was done.

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Filled up with search and rescue gear, headed to San Jacinto with some other team members.

I had done a bit of homework and learned that the FZJ-80 was one of the preferred Land Cruisers. Early enough that it still had tank-like construction (solid axles, body-on-frame construction, etc) but new enough that you’re not futzing with a carburetor or pulling a choke knob. Don’t get me wrong: nearly all Land Cruisers pre-1997 are dope whips with their respective pluses and minuses: go figure I’m in love with mine.

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Me and my little girls, waiting for a fellow Land Cruiser buddy to show up. Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

And basically for $3,000 (base) + $1,000 (tires) + $1,000 in various mechanical fixes I had a truck that could keep up with the bulk of true offroad vehicles. And I was pretty happy with that: no need to do any fancy upgrades, no need to get bigger tires, no need for a bro-dozer off road “rig”.

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Car camping with a friend and our kids, Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

But then we moved to Mammoth and winter happened.

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The snow hat on top of the roof there is from 1 night of snow. Mammoth got over 40′ this winter.

This winter I saw:

  • People losing traction and going into snow banks.
  • Big powerful 4×4’s stuck in snow ditches.
  • Tires spinning around all over.
  • Folks putting chains on in horrible conditions.

And through it all, I drove around in comfort. To be sure, much of snow and ice driving is about your skills. I got high centered myself trying to drive (like an idiot) through thigh deep snow. There is a reason snow cats exist, and it’s similar to why you’d take a snowmobile out and not a motorcycle: once the snow gets deep enough it’s simply not passable by a wheeled vehicle.

But in general, minus a lifted version of my own truck with more ground clearance, my Land Cruiser was a top performer here in the Eastern Sierra.

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Pulling a UPS truck out of a snowbank with my Toyota Land Cruiser.

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My Land Cruiser even towed all (seriously) of our worldly possessions from San Diego to Mammoth Lakes.

In the late fall, terror left my heart stricken: there was a leak coming down the tire of my trusty vehicle. A little bit of research led me to the problem: a broken seal in the inner axle area and a tougher-than-most-humans-will-ever-do repair job. I considered taking it to a mechanic but hardcore Land Cruiser fanatics shouted their disapproval.

As I’ve come to understand it, barring full engine rebuilds nearly all other jobs can be handled in your driveway. Indeed, many can be handled out in the middle of nowhere provided you were wise enough to pack tools and spare parts (affectionately known as “trail parts”).

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The leaking differential fluid that caused me to throw down and pick sides: am I Land Cruiser guy or just some dude who drives a Land Cruiser?

I knew I could hobble along through the winter, filling up fluids and grease all the while making a huge stink in my driveway from differential fluid constantly pouring out. I acquired the tools I would need. I acquired the rebuild kit. I watched the youtube videos. I found the factory service manual on Ebay. I waited, silently sending mental vibes to my truck, “You’re getting me through this winter so well. Come spring, I’m going to take care of you. I promise.”

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I have no idea what I’m doing, but I try to hard to follow along with the instructions from those who do.

And so I completed my first knuckle/inner-axle rebuild. A job so intense that full grown men walked by me and commented, “Jesus… I hope you know what you’re doing.” I learned the value of my impact gun. I learned about impact swivel sockets. Aerokroil. Brass drifts. I even pounded a race in upside down and couldn’t get it out. No problem, said the Internet: use your dremel to cut some notches into it for more purchase.

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Goodbye factory sheet metal bumper, hello Sleep Off Road badass bumper.

I don’t think it’s masochism to say that I enjoy a challenge. Living and sailing on our boat I really enjoyed having problems thrown at me that were above my paygrade. I screwed some of them up, many I didn’t, and where I made mistakes I’ve tried to learn so I don’t ass-it-up again. I think any tradesman who’s being honest can point to stupid things they did when the learning curve was steep: it’s no big thing to make mistakes predicated that they make you better in the long run.

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Slee Off Road rear bumper with (a) Hi Lift (b) CB antenna (c) spare tire (d) gay pride Mammoth Sticker because rainbows are cool and if you can’t wear a gay pride sticker without worrying about what others think about your sexuality than you might be gay, bro.

And so, dear reader, this has been my little tale of a boy and his truck. It’s a tale that will be told for decades and possibly centuries to come and no doubt some guy was tricking out his horse and carriage two hundred years ago.

No matter how much money I pour into this Land Cruiser, I’ll still stay under the stock price of a baseline Wrangler and my mechanical skills are coming along for the ride.

And now I must go to pick up my kids from school. It’s snowing out with low visibility on my rural busted up road, but Land Cruiser don’t give a f.


Post Script: A reader sent me this, and to correct the record you can find Jeeps in Africa:

I just wanted to point out the following blog, about a Wrangler currently making its way around Africa:

http://theroadchoseme.com/the-jeep
http://theroadchoseme.com/national-park-tai

it’s all about eagle

I wrote a previous article about getting to the slopes and I think it’s still pretty accurate early season. And really, most of the logistics is particular to where you’re at. If you’re in a ski-in/ski-out location right by Main Lodge, that’s obviously a lot different than being down in Bishop.

So the applicability of this will depend on where you’re coming from, but hopefully my own experiences can be useful. In short, I fell in love with Eagle.

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Powder day, Canyon Lodge. One hour after the lift was supposed to open, we’re all still waiting for “fresh tracks” : dumb.

For me, I avoid Canyon and Main in general for two reasons:

a) They tend to be mobbed. Canyon has 4 chairs (excluding roller coaster) and a massive lodge infrastructure. Main is where most of the team programs are and the parking is basically dog shit even if you get there on a good day. This can be mitigated by rolling into The Mill (chairs 2 and 10), but that’s not really Main.

b) The stuff to do at Eagle is just better, especially when it’s soft or recently-powdery.

On the last point, chair 25 (south side of Lincoln Mountain) has some of my favorite terrain on the mountain for powder days. Super steep so you keep moving. A near infinite amount of lines to choose from, and because the only real ways back down to 25 are single or double blacks it doesn’t tend to get too mobbed. Additionally, unless you’re a jacked up steroided thug you can only ride so many double blacks in deep powder before your legs are cooked so no one’s hanging there all day anyway. There are also gazillions of trees, chutes, and rocks so it doesn’t generally turn into a mogul field.

There’s also chair 9, which even when busy is still a 6-pack chair that covers a ton of ground. Bonus: it’s definitely the most wide open and random long run on the mountain. As it basically offers you access to a big valley that’s a quarter mile across and over a mile long.

Even more of a bonus, as long as you head left off the Eagle 15 chair (skier’s right), you can access chairs 9 and 25. From there no matter what you do and how much you screw up, you’ll end up back at Eagle.

To make all this happen, I try to park at Eagle by 7:45am if I’m going over there on a weekend or busy day. That gives me 35 minutes to hang out in Eagle lodge drinking a cup of coffee and reading the news, getting all my gear together. 10 minutes to get into the line and wait for the chairs to spin, and I’m golden.

old mammoth loves the snow

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Guess which car is from Old Mammoth.

Weather in Mammoth is tricky for a few reasons. First off, it’s in the mountains and more than once I’ve seen snow materialize from a 0% forecast and a foot of snow vanish on the forecast vanish to a clear sky.

Also, there’s the altitude. Down near the 203 and 395 intersection, the altitude is around 7,000. Where I live (Old Mammoth) is 8,000. Main lodge is 9,000, McCoy station (gondola mid-point) is 10,000 and the summit is 11,000.

So between the 395 turnoff and the top of the mountain is 4,000′ feet of difference in elevation (4/5 of a mile). An inch of rain in town can easily be a foot of snow at my house and four feet at the summit.

If you move to or are staying in Old Mammoth, find a good snow shovel. Learn to love it.

Rain + snowboarding = suckfest

Trying seeing out of those on a cloudy day flying down a mountain.

There’s an “atmospheric river” overhead which is a warm jet of moisture that lasts days. Too warm, sadly. There’s rain everywhere. Just a few degrees lower and it would be snow. Instead it’s wet during the day and ice at night. I rode in it a bit a couple days back and needing to wipe my goggles every 100′ got old fast.

Lower gondola (g1) line extending to infinity.

Because it rained and froze overnight the lower gondola and Broadway was the only thing open. Worse, Broadway was basically a glacier.

The good news is that some snow did drop and it’s the wet bondo base snow that the mountain snowmaking team loves because it doesn’t blow away and new snow adheres to it.

My new Capita Mercury, staring out a rainy window.

Living up here I definitely get first crack at all the good weather days but I get the garbage ones too. 

A much colder storm is predicted in a few days so we’ll see if that forecast holds and keep waxed up. Today looks like trash duty, laundry, and catching up on work.

getting from your car to the slopes at mammoth mountain

One of the reasons I wanted to write this blog is because Mammoth Mountain, bless their souls, is terrible at explaining how some things work. Maybe they don’t want to highlight certain aspects of their operation and instead focus on SHREDDING POW BRAH. But other stuff matters, so let’s talk about dealing with your car.

There is also the Mammoth bus/trolley/shuttle system which I won’t cover much in here beyond the parking shuttles.

Unless you’re coming from outer space, you’ll take the 395 to the 203 to get to Mammoth.

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The 395 to the 203 to shred-city.

Mammoth has three lodges (aka places that have chair lifts, sell coffee, sell lift tickets, and have parking): Main, Canyon, and Eagle. Main is the biggest and is open when the others aren’t as it’s the highest in elevation. Two other quasi-lodges exist that are worth mentioning.

The Village. Open year round, there is a gondola that will take you to Canyon Lodge. There’s also coffee, places to eat, places to lose lots of cash on clothes, and you can buy lift tickets here. But if Canyon isn’t open I’d skip it. There is a bus every ~30 minutes that makes laps between the Village (across the street, near the parking lot) and the Main Lodge.

The Mill. At the base of chairs 2 & 10, there’s a parking lot and a small restaurant. Early and late season chairs 2 & 10 aren’t running, so this might not be the smartest idea at those time. No ticket sales, so you’ll need to have your pass on you as you’re just walking up to chair lifts here. There’s a decent parking lot if you show up early.

When the mountain is “fully open”, that means that all the lodges and all the runs are online and you can pick whatever you like. But figure that out in advance and if you don’t know shoot for Main. Drive your car as far up 203 (Meridian / Main St) as you can and try to park near one of these signs:

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These run A through F (I think?).

A constant stream of free busses run between the Main Lodge and the parking signs doing laps. You probably will only wait 5 minutes, but sometimes in severe weather or really busy weekends I’ve seen it take 15.

If you’re at Parking A, walk unless you’re really beat up or in ski boots. If you’re at B and have the legs (and again, aren’t in ski boots), go for a stroll. C or further down you’re dumb as a post if you walk. Make sure you grab the bus on the going-to-the-mountain side of the street.

Also, even if you want to walk remember that it’s probably windy/snowy/icy and that busses are flying around. It’s not the safest place to be on foot.

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Snowboards go inside the bus, skis have slots on the outside that you can pop them into.

Bring all your crap with from your car that you’ll need for the day. You can always grab the bus back to your car but that wastes time unless you’re done for the day.

Remember what parking zone you’re in, what side of the street, and whether you’re before or after the post. All SUV’s and Subarus look the same when covered in snow.

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Parking zone A, looking up Meridian towards Main Lodge. This is considered great parking.

At the lodges you can also pay $25 to park right up close. Although this is rather dumb for most people, I would recommend it for first time visitors especially those with kids or that just has a big group. It’s hard to know everything you’re going to want and it’s easy to forget stuff when you’re worried about your kids. Also consider that locker rentals are $5 per use. So if you open a locker up and close it again you’re halfway to the cost of having your car right there in front of the lodge building.

Hopefully this can help some folks navigate the rather dizzying web of lodges, quasi-lodges, gondolas, roadways, parking zones, and shuttle busses that Mammoth has to offer.

my diy boot-glove-stuff dryer

Sure, it looks like a crazy science experiment gone wrong. But this thing kicks ass at drying lots of gear so the next day you’ve got warm and dry gear to put on.

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Pellet stove on right, hideous hose beast dryer on left.

I started with a prototype made of cardboard. I’d really recommend that to anyone as you probably have plenty of it laying around and with some tape you can make a design and see how well it will work. In a pinch, you can even get by with a cardboard model for quite some time.

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Believe it or not, this piece of crap worked great for a week as I theorized my final design.

There are two core concepts with a snowsports dryer:

  1. Have everything spaced out so they can dry. This is pretty easy to achieve as you can just hang things up, no big deal.
  2. Blow warm and dry air inside of things like gloves, mitts, and boots. This is the tricky part and why you can’t just leave wet gloves out on a table and expect them to be dry anytime soon.

For $19 I got a 120mm muffin fan that pushes 51CFM. There are more powerful ones, but I wanted something relatively quiet and honestly even with almost a dozen wet items to deal with this fan has been doing the trick.

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How cool: a box with a fan in it.

The fan sucks air into the airtight box, and then you’re faced with the challenge of getting it to your boots/gloves/whatevers. I decided to go a little hardcore and use 1/2″ hose barbs, screwed onto fittings between a piece of particle board. That the whole box was done with 3/4″ ply and particle board was no accident. The hoses are tough and pull on the box. The fan needs to be mounted firmly. You can expect the box to get kicked, bumped, and treated with neglect. I opted to make it beefy.

What’s cool about using barbs like this is that you can get creative with the types of hoses you use after the fact without really doing anything to the dryer itself. I even installed some T fittings on the ends.

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The top, before it went on. 1/2″ hose barbs screwed to PVC fittings on the underside.

Before I put the top on (with all the fittings) I used some foam crack filler to seal up the interior as much as possible. The whole thing is screwed together in the hopes that it can handle a lot of abuse. The fan is rated at 67,000 hours, which at 100/days of service per year running for 5 hours at a clip I should be able to snowboard 134 seasons before I need to replace the fan.

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Top attached, playing with the hoses, getting closer.

For the hose I found 25′ of 1/2″ conduit for $10. It’s pretty stout stuff and maintains its curve fairly well which is a blessing if you want it and a curse if you don’t. I slashed the bottoms that fit over the barbs so they can come off easier, and put little holes near the ends in the sidewalls that go into the boots/gloves.

I can dry 10 items at a time, and the whole thing breaks down relatively easily. I place it (safely) near the pellet stove so there’s plenty of warm air about and no need to add a separate heating element. It’s sort of obvious: after a day of snowsports you want to be warm and dry too so the heater will most definitely be on.

If I had to do another, my shopping list would look like this:

  • 10 pipe fittings, cost around $15.
  • 3/4 ply or particle board, maybe $5-$20.
  • Fan, $20.
  • Hose, $10.

Done cheaply you’ll be in for around $50 and have something that absolutely clowns on the piece of garbage plastic jobbers out there, nevermind you’ll have 5x the capacity and a much longer product life. The only downside is that you’ll have an octopus of death dryer in your living room.

t-minus 72 hours to mammoth opening day: my plan

Yes, there’s a general election happening tomorrow but for anyone in the 93546 zip code Thursday, November 10, 2016 is the big day: Mammoth opens for snow season.

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Looking up at Broadway from Main Lodge. November 7, 2016.

The snow season has been a little “meh” so far, but to be fair it’s on November. If you peel into the data a bit you’ll note that Mammoth’s snowfall really kicks in December – March. So big dumps in November are terrific (but rare) and big dumps in October are like hitting an arrow with a bullet while drunk and blindfolded.

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November gets more than 2x the snow of October, and December is 3x the snowfall of November. I’ve been checking in with MammothSnowman for a while now: it’s a terrific place to get a bit more narrative on conditions. Armed with info from the Snowman it looks like Chair 3 will be open. This is super cool because Chair 3 is totally awesome.

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Short and fun, Chair 3 rocks.

Chair 3 sits just above McCoy Station, which you can take the Gondola (G1) or Broadway Express (Chair 1) to access. It’s basically a bunch of single black bowls which are this author’s favorite thing to shred. Because the base looks pretty terrible on Broadway, it looks like the fun will be had on Chair 3 and heading down to Main Lodge on Broadway will be to stretch some legs but is more about “access” than “fun”. IE: rather than take the gondola back down you can ride down, but don’t expect great conditions.

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Looking up at Chair 3 from McCoy, the gondola’s upper half (G2) on the left. November 7, 2016.

A couple of strategies I employ, consider them for what they’re worth:

  • Don’t go unless you have a season pass. Sure, the tickets are $50, but it’s essentially one chair that’s open with somewhat okay-ish conditions.
  • Don’t bring your good board/skis. With the thinned out coverage you should anticipate some rocks poking up and this is why you should keep your older board/skis around.
  • Remember, you haven’t ridden/skied in months and you’re going to start on a black (again, with less-than-great conditions). Take it slow, stupid hurts, and remember that the real stuff is still ahead.

I’ll be up there for sure with my goal of riding every day that I can this year. But that might mean half a dozen runs to work the kinks out and remind myself where my toe and heel edges are.

See ya up there!