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Rugged riders: Mountain roads no match for campus club

Photos by Courtney Smith/Arizona Daily Wildcat
The Arizona Wildcat Off-Road club travels to Chivo Falls in the Rincon Mountains for their first trip of the season.
By Seth Mauzy
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 13, 2005
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The sun rose above the Rincon Mountains Sunday morning as the members of the Arizona Wildcat Off-Road club revved up for their annual trek to Chivo Falls.

The 60 club members and guests piled into 24 four-wheel-drive vehicles, ranging from stock pick-up trucks to jeeps.

These trucks are a source of passion for the men and women who make up the core of the group. Their vehicles all began as stock without modifications, but enthusiasts soon begin adding adjustments.

"You start out and you realize pretty quick that you need more lift," said Bernie Stewart, a UA graduate who continues to ride with the club. "Then once you get more lift you need bigger tires, bigger tires need better shocks, then you need new gears, but it all depends on how you want to drive it."

Stewart said he has put about $20,000 into his '97 Jeep TJ Wrangler since he bought it two years ago, including an 8-inch lift kit and a custom roll cage.

Before leaving for the trailhead a last check of engines and shocks was made, and the air was filled with the hissing of 96 tires being simultaneously deflated.

"Lowering the pressure helps the tires conform to the rocks," said Stu Sherman, a mechanical engineering junior and club president, as he knelt deflating his massive 35-inch tire. "It increases your traction by about twice as much."

The Chivo Falls trail is traditionally the first of many trips for the club. Other trips include Gardner Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains as well as a Thanksgiving-weekend trip to the Imperial Sand Dunes in Glamis, Calif.

The trailhead is about four miles up Redington Pass Road wedged between the Rincon and Catalina mountain ranges northeast of Tucson.

From there, club members climbed and bounced over a seven-mile strip of sand, mud and rock vaguely resembling a road wound to the falls.

"Ideally you want to straddle a (rock) ledge so you can crawl or hop up it," said J.K. Lowther, an ecology and evolutionary biology senior who has been riding with the club for almost three years.

"You have to be careful when you're hopping though," he said. "That's how I blew my rear axle on this trail on last year's trip. It couldn't handle the strain and just exploded."

After a few miles, the caravan reached the first of three "play areas;" wide sections of road that offered multiple paths depending on the strength and lift of the truck and the nerve of the driver.

"I actually apply a lot of what I've learned in school to these trails," Lowther said. "It takes a little physics, a little geometry, some engineering and even a little geology, to know which rocks will give you better traction. It also takes a lot of problem solving."

It was here that the first of many hang-ups slowed the pace even further.

The 7-inch clearance on Sherman's 1990 Chevy Blazer was not enough to keep his front differential from getting caught on an outcropping while his front tire slid into a 2-foot rut.

"With a group this large you're always gonna get someone who gets hung up," Sherman said. "It's all part of the fun."

Seven miles and a few more hang-ups later, 23 of the 24 trucks approached Chivo Falls. One truck had a power steering line shake loose and had to be left behind until more fluid could be procured on the return trip.

Once the last truck was parked and the exhaust cleared, the crew took some time to relax, have lunch and cool themselves by the water's edge.

"It's a great release from the stress of studying. You can totally unwind out here," Lowther said.

But the tranquility was short-lived as the caravan soon loaded back up to conquer the same trail on the way back.

The return trip went more smoothly, albeit a bit slower, as the craggy slopes of the "play areas" made for treacherous climbing.

More than once, one or more wheels spun freely in midair, and the team aspect of the sport became more apparent as passengers leapt out of their trucks to pull and push in attempts to gain leverage and overcome the rocky obstacles.

Others, called spotters, stood ahead and shouted instructions as drivers teetered on slippery slopes or came within inches of rock walls.

"Sometimes you'll have three guys yelling directions at you and each one has a different plan," said Jeff Allman, a friend of the club members who tagged along for the ride.

Once the majority of the trucks tackled the last steep hill, a few eager drivers took their trucks for a last romp among the rocks, careening up and down the slope in an effort to exhaust all possible paths to the top.

This last precarioius burst was an obvious attempt to push their trucks harder than they had during the trip, even if it meant expensive repairs later.

"We're not leaving until we break something," someone shouted as the last of the trucks strained over a ledge for a final time.

Soon, all 24 trucks emerged from the trail with only the a few minor setbacks, and the members of Wildcat Off-Road returned to Tucson to celebrate.

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