Iron Chest ...
The trail to the old Iron Chest mine takes off a short way up the Hancock Pass trail just south of Saint Elmo. After an aborted attempt in 2001 - called on account of rain - we were back again for another try. What can I say about this attempt? "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. ..." Thankfully, the carnage was relatively minimal and the weather was cooperative - at least to start out ....
This was our second shot at Iron Chest. The first, with two Montero Sports - Colorado Sport's '98 and my own '97 - and two Jeeps, was aborted less than a mile into the trail when the weather took a decidedly nasty turn. One short word can be used to sum up 90% of the Iron Chest trail. "Rocks." Ok. Five words. "Rocks, rocks, rocks and MORE rocks." Oh, wait! That was six words. Big rocks, little rocks. Rocks stacked on rocks, around rocks, over rocks, under rocks. Nothing but rocks. Lots and lots of rocks and, an important note regarding these rocks is that they're not rounded river rocks. These are more like crushed landscaping rocks with lots of very sharp edges. This is partially a good thing and partially a bad thing. Traction is slightly better but there are lots of edges that'll make a hash of anything they touch. And, these rocks are not too stable, either. Every vehicle that drives up the trail rearranges everything for the next vehicle. Anyway, when these rocks get wet they get very slippery and about the time it really started raining we hit a dozen vehicles coming back down the trail. Another important note is there are very, very few places for anyone to pass or pull off the trail and the few places there are will only accommodate 2-3 vehicles. If that. So, rather then brave the weather at 4:00PM in the afternoon and fight traffic trying to come down we decided it would be wiser to try Iron Chest another day.
Well, this was another day! We started early which is highly recommended on this trail. Its not one-way, but its much easier on the nerves - and vehicles - if all the traffic is going up in the morning and coming back down in the afternoon. This is an 'up and back' trail with no other exits. The weather started out good. Nice and sunny and dry. A good change from what it looked like the previous evening while we were setting up camp around Cottonwood Lake. We stopped at the trail head just above Saint Elmo to air down the tires, lock the hubs, turn the shocks down, figure out who goes in what order and just generally catch our breathes and say our prayers. The trailhead is a nice relatively flat, large area with quite a bit of space great for doing the above. I point this out because the majority of Colorado trails have a fair amount of space for vehicles to pull off, around or whatever if you decide maybe you really DID need to air down, adjust shocks or whatever. Iron Chest starts out nasty and NARROW at the trailhead. Past the trail head changes will have to be made in the middle of the trail where you'll back up everyone and just create ill will.
Incidently, this trail is rated a 9 on a scale of 1-to-10 with 10 being impassable and a 4 on a scale of 1-to-5 with 5 being impassable. Entirely due to the rocks and altitude, I'm sure. There are only two or three real off camber sections of trail. Only one section of which is of any serious note. But, I get ahead of myself.
The motto for this trail should be 'Be prepared!' Spare tire(s). Tools. Winch. Hi-Lift jack. Spare parts. And a well prepared vehicle. One of the things I learned on the first attempt is that Iron Chest will eat vehicles. This came to me suddenly when a Bronco coming down the trail blew a front U-joint at my feet with a sound like a high powered rifle going off in my ear. The driver commented that that was only one of several broken parts for their group for the day. If there are parts on your vehicle that tend to beak under hard usage, I highly suggest that spares be brought 'cause this will be hard usage. Knowing all this ahead of time we were prepared. Two Mitsubishi Montero Sports with 35" M/Ts, 25+" of ground clearance, heavy duty skid plates, rock skids, winches, etc. and a Jeep with 33"A/Ts, lift, Detroit locker in the rear and super low gearing.
33" M/Ts MINIMUM, REAL skid plates (1/4 to 3/8 inch plate for the front Mitsubishi differential area), steel rims (keep reading), winch and Hi-Lift jack, chain with grab hooks, tow hooks, recovery gear, rock skids - NOT nerf bars - and a lot of ground clearance should be the minimum for this trail. Additionally, CBs or two-way radios are highly recommended. Lockers are not really necessary unless it decides to rain and then only useful going up the trail, which you should not be doing at that point, anyway. Actually, lockers are more of a hindrance on this trail. Steering and finesse is much more important than a little more traction and brute force. Of the two Mitsubishi Montero Sports in the group only my 5-speed manual transmission LS Sport is locked front and rear with ARB air lockers and the lockers were never needed. A decent suspension with good articulation, low gearing and ground clearance is sufficient for this trail. 33"+ A/T tires will work but tires with heavy, durable sidewalls are highly recommended!
Airing down on this trail is virtually required. I've seen vehicles do this trail aired up to street pressures but it's not a pretty sight - vehicles or drivers. This could the 'poster trail' for why airing down is a GOOD thing. Both the Montero Sports were aired down to 10psi (as well as having their Rancho shocks set as soft as possible). The greatest problem with airing down on this trail is the risk of pinching and ripping out a sidewall but most M/Ts and anything like a Goodyear MT/R or Interco TSL should have a heavy enough sidewall to take the abuse. Still, there are the off times when it's still possible to catch a rock just right and puncture a sidewall (in other words, bring spares). Airing down on this trail accomplishes two things. First, airing down the tires decreases the abuse to the rest of the vehicle by making the tires act as a low-pressure shock absorber, cushioning the impact of the wheels (with 5000 lbs. of vehicle weight behind them) against the rocks. This greatly decreases the likely hood of bending, breaking or cracking something in the drive train, suspension, body and chassis. Second, and of primary importance to those of us with pathetic transfer case ratios and not a lot of engine power, airing down to 10psi on a 35" tire decreases the rolling resistance of a tire over a large, hard object. It also lowers the effective gear ratio at the ground. So, it's a considerable boost when you're trying to crawl at 11,000 ft. at 1000 RPM up a boulder trail.
Anyway, after airing down to 10psi in the Montero Sports and 12psi in the Jeep we were off slowly but surely. The first two thirds of the trail are probably the worst - rock'wise. After the first fifty or so feet of trail a hair pin turn to the right is made and then it's into the rocks. The initial couple hundred feet or so were not too bad. But, then we made a left hand turn up the ridge and abruptly it got worse. There's something to be said for 25"+ of ground clearance under the body and good skids but crawling a 5-speed with a 1.92:1 ratio t-case over and around 30" tall rocks going up hill in a slot where you can't maneuver is an experience. Without the rock skids there wouldn't have been anything left of my rocker panels or lower doors and that's something to say since my rocker panels are 30" off the ground. Another hundred feet up the ridge and I have a problem. Butted up against a huge rock and I'm stuck in a hole on one side. Dang. Almost take out my newly relocated stabilizer. Eeak!!! Under direction I back up a tad and "WHOOOSH!!!!!!" Sigh. Well, there goes a sidewall. Great, we're less then an hour into the trail and its tire replacement time on a hill, on about 20,000 bar-fridge sized rocks. AND, by this time we now have another group behind us waiting. And, there's nowhere for me to go, so, get the Hi-Lift out and start moving rocks so there's somewhere to put the base of the jack. Some guys from the other come up to help for which I am VERY grateful! CoSport manages to strap my rear axle to the frame cross member above it so when we lift the body we'll also lift the axle. That's a bad thing about lots of articulation but I figure I'll live with it. Run the winch cable out to a tree and tighten the cable up so the truck doesn't roll back down the hill. Little more jockeying and we've got the tire off and the spare on and we've re-packed and ready to go. That only took an hour and fifteen minutes. ARG!
It gets worse from here and stays that way for quite a while. Rocks get bigger and the trail gets narrower. Roots and rocks stick out from the banks on both sides and the incline gets steeper. At this point I'm the only one in the group that's been this far on the trail. The last trip, I'd had no choice but to come this far so I could turn around. Well, so far so good. Wait, there's no one in the rear view mirror! ?!? Ok, this is NOT a good sign. Get out and go look back down the trail. Good. Nothing horrible. The Jeep with the low gearing is doing ok but the lack of ground clearance, smaller tires and the usual 37,000 dangly things to hang up on are slowing things down. The CoSports's LS Sport in the back is going great! This is definitely a trail for automatics with big tires. We're all going to have a LOT of rock rash when we get down but the automatic equipped Mitsubishi Montero Sport is doing the best so far.
Finally, the number of rocks in the trail decreases a bit. They don't get any smaller but at least we get a little breather. Abruptly, the next obstacle is in front of us. At first glance - especially after dealing with the condensed Hell of getting this far - this obstacle appears pretty tame. This is the only real off camber section of the trail worth mentioning. The obstacle is an off camber dirt and grit covered, inclined slab of rock sticking out of the bank maybe 15-20 feet long and 10 feet wide with three steps about a foot to fourteen inches in height. More or less evenly spaced so that left and right wheels will hit them at almost the same time. Leading up to the shelf on the downhill - passenger - side is a rather deep trough. Following the shelf is a short off camber section of dirt trail with two or three rock points jutting out of the dirt on the uphill - driver - side. The downhill side of the shelf is a bare 50 foot drop to an old mine.
The idea is to more or less - mostly more - hug the uphill side of the shelf and simply drive straight across until you get to the off camber dirt and then angle to the downhill side a foot or two to miss the really off camber uphill side and rock points. When approaching the slab the driver side tire will already be on the shelf while the passenger side tire will be in the trough. This tends to tilt the vehicle down hill towards the drop at an alarming angle. This shouldn't be an issue for any lifted sold axle vehicles with a decent amount of articulation on both ends or even most minimally lifted IFS vehicles. Alarming but if taken SLOWLY the chance of rollover is minimal.
Well, I'm up. Get lined up on the uphill side and off we go. At least is not much of an incline so I can keep the RPMs at 1000-1200 and just crawl my way through. Almost there ... ok, over the shelf and onto the off camber dirt area. I take the high uphill side of the trail and crawl over the jutting rocks. Ok. Bad. My spotters are running for their lives. Apparently that was a TINY bit more off camber then I thought and they're running to get out from under what, to them, looked like a certain rollover. Dang! Well, I didn't notice a thing! Surprising since bad off camber stuff usually gives me the willies.
Next vehicle up is the Jeep. Sigh. This Jeep has a Detroit Locker in the back and 33" BFG A/Ts all the way around and the rock shelf is covered in grit. Wonderful. Oh, well, we've been though this before. How much more death defying can it get? Inch the Jeep forward, thought the trough and onto the slab. So far so good. Little further ... little further ... 'SLIP!' ARG! Sure enough. That %!@# locker. Ok, now the Jeep is sitting diagonal and is in definite risk of going completely sideways and the passenger side tire is two inches from going over the edge. Ok, stand there for a minute or two and contemplate backing up my Sport and strapping the Jeep off the shelf. No, we'll give this one more try. Very slowly. VERY, VERY slowly we inch the Jeep forward and backward a couple times and get it to a place where he can just drive it forward away from the edge. Now, wait for my heart to stop pounding and the urge to subside to find the creator of the Detroit Locker and have him rubbed out. Painfully.
Last vehicle is CoSport's IFS Montero Sport. Get it lined up. Start forward. Front passenger side dips into trough. Keep going. Ok, getting really off camber so we stack a couple rocks. Inch it forward a bit more. Start the front up the step. Ok. Getting more off camber and now its getting worse because now the back is starting to get into the trough. Dang. This is not looking good. The IFS in the front is pulling the body all over the place like usual and its just getting too unstable for my tastes. We decide to back the IFS Sport up and park it on the side of the trail and take the Jeep and my Sport the rest of the way. This automatically means, of course, that when the IFS Sport is ready we'll be going back to Iron Chest. Well, better safe then dead. A rollover is not what we need.
At this point we're maybe about 1/3 of the way up the trail. Off we go. There isn't a whole lot to note for a while. Not as many rocks as lower down but the trail remains very narrow. Most of which allows for almost no maneuvering. Actual dirt trail here rather then just rocks with theoretically some dirt underneath somewhere. Some lightly off camber sections now and then. There are some big 300-600lb, 20-30" tall solo rocks in and around the trail, though, along with quite a few smaller ones. Still requiring close attention and the use of a good set of rocks skids and skid plates. After a couple of switchbacks we come out on a very narrow shelf road working its way above timberline. The view is great!. Gorgeous! But, the trail still requires strict attention. There are still too many rocks and now there is almost no maneuvering room. If there's a big rock in the trail then you have no option but to drive over it. There are no turnaround spots or bypasses until you're past the shelf road section.
A little more driving and you're at the old Iron Chest mine. Very pretty and very nasty if the weather turns ugly. At about 11,500 feet its gets really cold even in the middle of summer if the weather isn't perfect. Heavy outer wear and rain gear is highly recommended. Even if it's 90 in Buena Vista it can still drop below freezing at this altitude.
After a little exploring and a late lunch we're on our way back down. About three quarters of the way back down the shelf road a call comes through on the CB. Flat on the Jeep. Another sidewall. And this is nasty. There aren't any pullouts on the shelf section and the Jeep is a good ¼ of a mile from the end. Ok, well, time to change another tire. I stop at the beginning of the shelf, flip my flashers on and block the trail so we don't have anyone coming up and making this worse than it is. At least there's a possibility of maybe getting someone past where I'm parked. There's no way that'll work further up. So, after a couple trips up and down the trail between vehicles for tools we've got the tire changed. Getting better. This one only took 40 minutes. And sure enough, I'm told we've got company. And to make matters worse the weather is threatening to get nasty and really rain on the trail rather then just sprinkle like we've been getting off and on since we made it to the top.
As I get back to my Sport I see, stacked up in front of me, three or four Jeeps. Thank God we ran into them here, at least. After a little jockeying and spotting by CoSport we managed to pull the remaining Montero Sport and the Jeep off the side of the trail and give them enough room to run up the side of the embankment around us.
That accomplished, we resume heading down the trail. Next thing we encounter is the shelf. I get lined up and drive down it with no problems. I give it a bit more gas on the last step just 'cause I want to see how much this thing will bounce and how stable it'll be with the new Alcan springs I installed this spring. Aside from almost giving everyone in the group a heart attack the experiment goes very well. The new springs are wonderful. Lots of articulation while the spring rate is still high enough to give good stability. Very, very happy!
Next it's the Jeep's turn and thankfully it comes down the shelf with no further antics. We get CoSport's Montero Sport back on the trail and we're off again. We're also back into the worst of the rocks. At this point, all of us are pretty sore and beat up. Passengers and drivers alike. We've been on the trail since 9:30AM and its close to 5:00 at this point and we still have a 1/3 of the trail to go. Has to be the worst 1/3 of the trail, of course. Sigh. Well, here goes.
The first thing I notice is that going down is WAY worse then going up. You can always compensate for tall gearing with a bit more torque, a few more cubic inches in the engine, a bit of velocity or such. Going down hill all you've got is the brake. And with a 5-speed trying to maneuver over, around and between those rocks that's just one too many pedals. I even resort to turning on the air-conditioning for a bit more drag on the engine. It does help, but its still a real chore. I do actually manage to get stuck a couple times heading down hill. The second time takes me a good 15 minutes to get unstuck and angle around the hole/rock combo and keep going. The Jeep and other Montero Sport LS aren't faring much better. Nothing is helped by the fact that heading down hill it's very hard to see where the rocks are right in front of your vehicle and you're constantly fighting gravity which seems to want to slide you one direction while you want to drive the other.
Eventually, we make it to the bottom of the trail and back to the trailhead. Everybody stumbles out of their respective vehicles to stretch sore muscles and count heads. Everyone is agreed. Great trail. Challenging. But we want a camp spot, a chair that isn't bouncing around and a beer. NOW!!! Time to relax, lick our wounds and tally our losses. All the center caps on the Jeep are gone except one. All of us have major rock rash under our vehicles although no body damage - due mostly to the fact we all have enough armor to outfit an M1. Two tires are dead - one 33" BFG A/T and one 35" Yokohama Geolandar M/T - as well as at least one aluminum Jeep rim and one steel rim on my Montero Sport. Both my locking hubs have new scars and one rim had the lip shaved almost completely off by a rock. My heavy-duty ¼" wall crome-moly tie-rod is bent in three places and I have NO idea when or where that happened. The other Montero Sport has some very impressive scars on the rims but over all held up better then either of the manual transmission equipped vehicles. At least in the rim and tire arena. Thankfully, nothing major was broken or damaged. It could have been worse. I've heard stories of dead clutches, drive shafts, transmissions, axles, wheels and other parts.
What is my opinion if the trail?
First, if you're looking for a quiet, relaxing family vacation spot this is NOT it! This is not a 'sight-seeing' trail. There really isn't anything to see besides rocks and trees until the very top and the trail requires all of a driver's attention 100% of the time. You can not relax on this trail.
Second, if you do go, DO NOT GO ALONE!!! Bring one other vehicle. The likelihood of mechanical difficulty is high on this trail and having another vehicle along is only common sense.
Third, go up in the morning and come down in the afternoon. Do NOT try going up in the afternoon. Trying to jockey opposing vehicles just sucks all the fun out of the trail especially when you're sore and tired.
Fourth, if you can't have your vehicle out of order the next day, don't take it. Again, the likely hood of mechanical problems or damage is high.
Fifth, if for any reason you or your 'SO' are bothered by dents, dings, scrapes, gouges, cracks, scars or other cosmetic blemishes on your ride or yourselves find another trail.
Sixth, and last thing, I wouldn't recommend this trail for people who plan to bring babies or very young children or pets. The trail is just too rough; even adults who can hold on get thrown around a lot and there isn't anywhere outside a vehicle in most places that doesn't put kids and pets in the trail underfoot and in harm's way.