August 31, 2018.
Unbeknownst to us, the first flash of lightning traced it's way across the sky. But there was no mistaking the thunder that followed. It was 2:30am, and the next flash was followed by a boom 11 seconds later. And then the rain started; sporadic at first, it quickly turned torrential. Then, more lightning, eventually the thunder a mere 4 seconds behind.
And then, as quickly as it started, it was over - the storm cell had passed, the thunder pounding away in the distance. As I fell back asleep I wondered - would there be more?
If there was, I never heard it, and as the morning light lit up the valley I slept soundly. Until I heard a thump, thump, thump outside the tent. As I poked my head up to the window, a huge cow stopped in it's tracks, having caught my movement in it's peripheral vision.
Obviously curious, the cow hung out for a while around camp, eating the wet grass and chewing it's cud. A few other's followed, wondering what strange animals our trucks were. I too was curious - how tame were these cows, and I climbed down out of the tent to investigate and enjoy the morning.
The storms from the night before had obviously passed, and the sun was out - a beautiful morning to be sure, the sun illuminating the rocky hills on the other side of Moraine Creek.
As the rest of camp rose, we set about what were now our morning routines - Dan @drr and I eating a quick breakfast, Mike @Digiratus enjoying his coffee, Zane @Speedytech getting his tent stowed at least 30 minutes before the rest of us, and Monte @Blackdawg sleeping in a bit before joining me to take photos in the morning light. It was a great, relaxed morning and that meant that it was close to 11:00am before we were packed up and ready to go - through the creek and out the other side of the valley.
We all took our turn, having a great time through the mud - so photogenic in it's splashiness! Only Dan didn't bottom out his rear bumper here, the drop into the mud pit a long one for the rest of us.
Mike kicked out quite the flurry as he dropped down into the hole, and was more restrained as he cleaned off in the creek.
Muddied and cleaned, we continued across the valley - one more water crossing before climbing out the other side. As Mike dropped down into the creek, his position reminding me of the one we found Monte and Frankenstein in last year - first gen Tacoma butt high in the air. Of course this time, there was no corresponding "Oh shit!" over the CB, as Mike was on-trail.
And it was with that that we climbed out of the valley said our goodbye's to one of the most beautiful camp sites we'd visit on the trip - a real gem in the Bighorns. As we crested the ridge, we stopped for one last time - the sun on the mountains, the clouds in the sky - a splendid day to be on the trail. Even Mike was in a waving mood.
The truth was, this was a day we'd all been looking forward to - but perhaps no one more than me. This was the day that we'd return to what was the trail that pushed me the hardest the year before; the trail on which, I confided to Mike - "This is right on the edge for me." It was also the trail where Frank had called it quits - nearly twice - and where we'd banded together to get out in one piece. It was Boulder Basin.
But first, we had to get there, and that meant more dirt and an overlook. And probably lunch. And definitely a stop at Shell Reservoir, which was on the way. Sweet. We carried on, making our way down, and then up a steep climb towards our first overlook.
As is often the case with our crowd, it was impossible to make it to the overlook without stopping. In my head - and probably for all of us, since we're all a little crazy in the same way - it goes something like this...
Awesome, we're headed to an amazing overlook where we're going to have great views and pictures to die for. In fact, I can see - up there in the distance - what looks like the place, and oh man it is going to be amazing! But holy smokes, it looks so great right here - I'll just stop here too. And maybe here. And...-My Brain
So of course, before we ever made it to the overlook, we were out of the trucks, pointing off into the distance, and enjoying ourselves thoroughly.
Well, most of us anyway - Zane was out of his truck and opening the hood, his check engine light (CEL) having come on. As I recall, he was pretty certain that it was due to his catalytic converter finally having died but of course he wanted to make sure that everything looked ok there in the engine bay - it is Zane after-all, the guy who built this truck essentially from scratch.
Satisfied that nothing major was wrong, we carried on towards the overlook, literally less than a quarter mile away at that point, and we circled the trucks on arrival.
This made for what I thought was a cool photo-op: truck and mini truck. Gotta love that green though.
Oh, and I shot this to remind myself why big-ole-35" tires are no bueno. It's clear why Dan's moving from a shell to a GFC... with an RTT, his stuff would get too dirty!
We looked around for a while and took in the sights - you know, the same ones we'd seen just a few short minutes before. Way to go guys, wreck the overlook for yourselves, ehh?
It was at this point that Zane realized he was a bit low on oil, so he added some and solved his CEL! Not to be left out, Mike also piped up and mentioned that he felt like he heard a strange noise from his engine bay - so we popped his hood and took a look around. Sounded like it was coming from the alternator belt... or the alternator itself. Mike was still getting good readings from it though, so we carried on, for now.
Overlook accomplished - even if it wasn't as sunny as we'd have preferred - we were all anticipating the main attraction, and so retraced our steps back down the mountain towards Shell Reservoir and Boulder Basin.
As we pulled up to Shell Reservoir (essentially, the entrance to Boulder Basin), Monte came over the CB to say he'd never seen the water level so low. Now, my recollection from last year was that it was also very low - so low in fact that we couldn't see any water in it at all - but that could have been due to the nearly white-out snow conditions at the time! At any rate, the levels were quite low this year, and we couldn't resist driving out to take a look; we were far from the first to do so.
As good a place as any, and now 1:00pm, we decided that we'd eat lunch before continuing on and attacking the main event. Better to do that on a full stomach for sure, especially since many of the guys didn't really eat a meaningful breakfast. So we pulled up out of the reservoir and found a nice spot to circle the trucks, make sandwiches, and talk APRS for a few moments - our setups all "working" so far, but not well together - Mike could only see me, I could only see Monte, and Monte could only see Mike. Super strange.
Our cursory look at configurations couldn't uncover anything out of the ordinary, so we wrapped up lunch with a few cookies and headed up past Adelaide Lake, then over the last bluff to that would take us to Boulder Basin. For me, excitement was building.
As we approached the entrance to the trail - where, if we're honest, it looks like there is no trail - I picked up the CB and told the group about my experience the year before and how I couldn't wait to try again this year, having a more capable truck and much more experience under my belt.
And then we were off, the trail almost immediately living up to it's name - large boulders everywhere, driving lines and skid plates important elements of the attack. I found myself smiling as we went, enjoying every moment - a very different feeling than the year before, when my heart was beating out of my chest, adrenaline flowing.
Both, great experiences!
It wasn't long before I recognized where we were on the trail and mentioned on the CB, "Hey Monte, don't forget the trail turns up here. You don't want to go straight." That got a good laugh, and then an explanation to Monte that we were in fact coming up on the place where Frank had done a hand-stand. Naturally, we got out to look around.
The first time here for Dan and Zane, we recounted the story of the previous year; positioned ourselves where the four trucks necessary to extract Frank from the creek had been. And we found Monte's tire tracks - he, the last person to have "attempted" that section of trail. And then we carried on.
Like me, we all had our memories of this trail from last year and the next obstacle was one that two of us were looking forward to. I was excited because it was one that I'd bypassed the year before - unwilling to take my Tacoma on 31" tires into the rear-diff-eating monster. Mike, excited because he'd attempted this section of trail last year but had required a winch to complete the climb.
Leading the pack, Monte was the first to head in. And up. And ultimately through, though not without a bit of scraping on the skids and some spinning of tires - the lack of lockers meaning that he didn't have quite the low speed control that he'd have liked.
Mike was next, and looking for redemption. In the end, he took a different line than the rest of us and frankly made it look easy - powering up through the tricky parts slowly and methodically. No skid use, and definitely no winch for Mike this year - the grin on his face at the end of the climb said it all. Victory!
Zane followed Mike and used his SOP for conquering the trail: the skinny pedal. He did it of course with finesse, but not before landing pretty hard on his OEM stock skid. To anyone out there who's afraid to get out on the trail because they don't have enough armor, let me introduce you to my friend Zane here. Follow his lead, you'll have fun.
I was up next and as I gazed up the hill I thought to myself, "Sure looks easier from the top!" Then I locked the rear axle and headed up. Not as graceful as Mike, and with the same bash on my front skid as Zane, I muscled my way up...and then stalled.
Yep, it was embarrassing. But hey, I started the truck back up and made it through without any lasting ill-effects to the truck, and my ego will recover eventually I'm sure. After-all, I hadn't even attempted this part of the trail last year!
Finally it was Dan's turn. And on 35's, Dan took the approach of "just go straight up; yeah, the line is a lot harder, but who cares when you're on 35's?" It was a sight to see - something the rest of us would never have attempted - and he plowed right through it, only getting hung up on his slider for a second before bumping up the 24"+ boulder.
All happy to have made it up under our own power, we continued on - up over the infamous, off-camber granite ledge, over rocky trail, and through beautiful landscape criss-crossed by babbling creeks; photo-ops frequent.
Until - we reached it. The spot where Frank had met his match last year. Where a lower ball joint had been broken, and where a three-hour fix in the snow had elicited, "Either Frank's done or I'm done on this trip." from Devin.
And it was no problem this year for anyone. We crawled up that section of trail with essentially no fanfare, despite all the cameras ready to capture the moment should anything at all go wrong.
I think we were all just a little surprised how easily we'd made it through, but as we looked ahead, Monte reminded us that the last real tough section of trail was one that we'd completely skipped on our previous trip - so intent on "getting out of there" once we'd gotten Frank patched up. This section was steep, rocky, and the line was important.
So we lined ourselves up and watched each truck in front make it's way through - everyone taking a similar line. It was the only line really, and everyone one of us on 33" tires scraped our driver-side lower control arm just a little bit. Dan however, didn't.
Dan showing us how it's done. No need to scrape an LCA here, just drive over the rock, like a boss.
I'm still not getting 35's.
And with that, Boulder Basin was behind us. As Mike paused to capture the beauty we'd been through, I couldn't believe how different it had been from the year before. Even then, it was the trail I'd appreciated the most - at least, before we got to Moab, Utah - and now I was convinced that it was in fact, my favorite trail.
Still relatively early, camp wasn't far away - and given that we were out of the rocks and on well-graded gravel roads, we made good time - arriving by 5:30pm, camp deployed a few minutes later.
And then, camp fire. Dinner would come later this evening, as we all relaxed and chatted about the great time we'd had on that amazing trail. Eventually, as the sun went down we picked up our cameras for the last time on this day; because really - how could we not?
And only then did we eat our respective meals (tacos and guac for this guy) and partake in some more of Mike's chips and salsa. It was a great night, as usual and once again that kept us up late. Before heading to bed, we decided that we'd take the next morning easy - even for us - and make a big breakfast, splitting up the task of cooking between several of us; ingredients contributed by all.
And then we climbed into bed; the creek behind camp lulling us to sleep.