My life is in Jim Swett’s hands. With his boot heels hanging over the edge of a cliff, he’s standing right in front of my Land Rover LR4 trying to figure out if I can make the next turn without tumbling into the abyss.
We’ve made it almost halfway down southern Colorado’s Black Bear Pass, one of the most perilous 4X4 trails in America. The switchback road runs right along the precipice, the turns so tight that vehicles must reverse several times to get round. Scary.
"Turn the wheel all the way," shouts Swett, a Land Rover instructor. "Then let go of the brakes. You’ve got about two inches of clearance." Stepping out of the way, the smile never leaves his face. I hold my breath and comply.
Land Rovers are built, the company claims, to go anywhere. But most customers think the trucks are too expensive to take off-road. To counteract that concept, Land Rover hosts 4X4 adventures in places like Utah, South Africa and Morocco. The cost is around $1,000 to $2,000 a day, depending on location and hotels, including food, accommodation and driving instruction. A seven-day trip from Moab, Utah to Telluride, Colorado, is planned for the end of August.
I took part in an excursion late last summer, spending two days in the San Juan mountains. (The 4X4 season in Colorado’s high country is short due to snowfall, often only July to mid- September.)
Steepled with more than a dozen 14,000-foot high mountains, the region’s rugged passes connect the former mining towns of Telluride, Ouray and Silverton. Our caravan of 10 or so $50,000 LR4s and $80,000-plus Range Rovers traveled between all three, tires rarely touching asphalt.
It was a homecoming as I grew up nearby in the northwest corner of New Mexico. My parents took me into the San Juans nearly every weekend. Our GMC pickup was once almost swept away while fording the Delores River; another time the brakes gave out descending Independence Pass. I remember these as extremely good times.
Even my dad could have learned a few tricks from Swett, a veteran Land Rover instructor who lives in Connecticut. Swett is the best kind of teacher, allowing you to make mistakes for yourself, but keeping you out of the worst trouble.
Our first challenge was Imogene Pass, which begins from the edge of Telluride and leads vertically into the crystalline blue sky. It’s a tough trail and we rarely traveled faster than 10 miles an hour. Slow, steady and smart wins the day, and the instructors wouldn’t even let us crash through streams. A geezer with a limp moves faster.
The LR4 has a bunch of electronics for various off-road conditions, including settings for sand, mud, ruts and rock crawling. Good stuff, but Swett’s human touch was better. He’d jump out and use hand signals to direct me over cavernous trenches and boulders.
We drove directly over the most serious obstacles, choosing to put the tire treads directly over sharp rocks rather than brushing by and risking a sidewall puncture. Where else in life can you tackle the worst in such a head-on fashion?
That slow pace guarantees the time to enjoy the vast kaleidoscope of country. Well above the tree line, the backs of bare mountains rupture the skyline. Small lakes captured in cauldrons of rock are the color of turquoise. The air is so fresh you feel as if you’ve just brushed your teeth.
My mind, though, was on Black Bear Road, which we’d face on the second day. Swett insisted it wasn’t so dangerous — "just intimidating."
At first it seemed all right. But after the pass at 12,800 feet the trail turns sharply downhill and becomes a one-way road where two vehicles can’t pass each other. Did I say road? Actually it’s little more than a crumble of rock alongside sharp cliffs, with the town of Telluride visible directly below. Tumble off and you can imagine rolling right into the Last Dollar Saloon.
Swett and I were the first to go down.
"I want you to stay off the gas," Swett commanded. "You’re either on the brake or letting the electronic control keep your speed down. If I hear the engine rev, I’m going to jump on the hood and beat you, got it?"
He said it lightly, but I understood the gravity of the situation. He’d be standing in front of the truck guiding me. His life was in my hands, too.
And so to the moment when we try to make the turn in one attempt. I release the brake.
Swett’s smile holds firm — a good sign — and the truck doesn’t slide over the cliff. I’m pointed down the road. Leaning over, I can see a waterfall far below. Then I remember to breath out.
Swett appears at my open passenger window.
"See? I told you. No problem."