Surrey Off-Road Specialists Limited

Our small party of four Jeeps - myself and Kath in Daisy (70 KEN), our two good friends Pat and Lyle Koen (Eye Surgeon) from Austin, Texas driving our Jeep Cherokee Orvis as a support vehicle, Patrick Kear (Yankee Jeep Club) with Mark Askew (Jeep World Magazine) in Patrick's mega YJ (JEEPEY), and Will Edwards (PIAA Lights) with Alex Notley (Churchfield Publicity Silverstone) in Will's smart YJ - all in all a motley crew decided to sail overnight from Hull to Zeebrugge on Sunday evening and then drive down through Belgium into France making Dijon our first stop for the night. On the way down we bumped into the Jeep UK team and spent a pleasant 20 minutes talking to Chris Bashall, Brian Rees, Barry Stallard, Peter Robain and Bob Cooke along with Peter Roach who had tagged onto the Jeep UK party in Godzilla his own TJ. It is always nice to see Rubicon I and II as my own vehicle was based on Rubicon II and built by Chris Bashall.

We had a pleasant overnight stay in Dijon then went onto Orcieres the following day (Tuesday). We all got settled into our hotels and moved onto some fun on the Skidoos (highly recommended by Patrick from his previous visit to the Croisiere). We were joined by our friendly Pinzgauer duo David Seager-Thomas and Rod Leighton. It is always entertaining to watch Dave and Rod in the Pinzgauer - it is also good to watch them off road too. The motorised skis lived up to their reputation so much so that we forgot that is was minus 19 degrees!! Then back to the hotel for some excellent food and copious amounts of beverage.

Its Wednesday already and we find where we have to go to get the Jeeps plastered in Sponsors Logos so that we can at last get down to some serious off roading in the Prologue - this gives the Marshall's an opportunity to check that your vehicle is capable and safe for what lies ahead.

Day 1 - Thursday: Out of bed at 5am - a quick bite to eat before checking the three vehicles over and then up to the meeting point in the village of Merlette where we were told to put on the snow chains (its a lovely job in minus degree temperatures - a bit like handling razor wire on a warm day without gloves - but the excitement keeps you going!) closely followed by instructions on how to not drive off the end of a mountain. The main problem is that it is all in French (tulip maps and briefings) so this time we had brought our secret weapon - Alex Notley - who is fluent in the lingo and could point out to us where certain death lurked around the corner!

7am and we are off with all three vehicles "mountain ready". Patrick and Mark take the lead as my navigator Kath has had to move into the back to make room in the front for an enormous Texan who took one look at the Tulip map and the Rally Trip (remember these are the two things that in trained hands keep you thousands of feet up the mountain and in untrained hands get you down again in a straight line!) and decided he needed practice and lots of it. We placed Will and Alex between Patrick and myself if you will forgive the pun. Will is another 9 foot Goliath who wears his vehicle somewhere around his waist. The next thing you know we turn a corner behind a small farm building and we are on a steep downhill ledge in deep snow with a huge drop to my left. Lyle takes one look and realises he should be back home looking after his patients and then tells us he is terrified of heights and prefers to live longer than this next five minutes. Half way down and to add to their terror (and ours) there is a deep rut of solid ice running across the ledge sloping downhill so that when you drop your front axle into it pushes you towards the edge - remember the ledge is only the width of the Jeep to start with - when the back axle drops in and you realise you are only in two wheel drive high range you also want to be in Texas looking after Lyle's patients. I got out of the rut with three wheels on the ledge and at this stage with a good six minutes into the days events we all find ourselves in desperate need of a toilet and thinking what a good idea Skegness might have been!

Now you might wonder why we put Wills Jeep in the middle - well it was so that he could be rescued from either the front or the rear and on the first day this proved to be the case however once Will found his feet he was doing a bit of rescuing himself. He is a great competitor and was driving at a slight disadvantage as with his snow chains on he lost most of his clearance when the axles flexed. I thought at one point that he was going to rip all four wing flares off on a nasty left-hand steep climb with a killer of an axle twister on the bend. There was very little room for manoeuvre but after a couple of attempts Will was up and away (great driving Will!).

After a couple of hours of fabulous off-road driving and some of the most spectacular scenery, you could imagine we came across a queue of vehicles. We all bailed out to investigate the problem. The problem turned out to be an exceptionally steep climb up through the woods with very little room for mistakes. The Organisers had a winch station at the ready for failed attempts after three tries. By this time Lemy Gresh had joined us in his YJ and become the fourth member of our group. From the 10 to 15 vehicles in front of us in the queue including some extremely well prepared Landrovers, Toyotas and Suzukis etc., not one made it up the hill unassisted.

Patrick and Mark were the first of our group to go - nine inch rear axle screaming, the YJ more in the air than on the ground, the rev counter in the red and the engine limiter coming in repeatedly - and made the climb in one. The French crowd loved it - by now they must have thought the hill unclimbable - well done Patrick! . Will and Alex came next with me waiting to take photos as he headed up the climb. Unfortunately as Will got nearer and nearer I realised he was heading straight for me with a glazed look in his eyes at 80 miles an hour and with every intention of clearing the hill and the mountain in one along with anything else that got in the way. Will made it in one - two Jeeps up and two to go.

After picking myself out of the snowdrift Will had knocked me into it was my turn. We had decided it would be too much to ask of the TJ to try the hill fully loaded with four people so Lyle and Pat walked up the hill to spectate. Off we go and we sailed to the top with our pals shouting and screaming encouragement - three out of three. Lemy then crept from bottom to top in one go - four out of four - we were well and truly delighted and by this time we were looking forward to our lunch stop. This really showed the true capabilities of the Jeeps and of the man who prepared three of them for extreme off-road use Chris Bashall Surrey Off-Road.

The lunch stops are always pleasant affairs with plenty of good food, leg pulling and conversation no matter what type of vehicle you drive. The afternoons driving was on a frozen riverbed with some good drop offs, axle twists and plenty of fun to boot. We eventually arrived back in Merlette in the late afternoon, signed off and went in search of food and drink as we had an hour to wait before dinner at the hotel. When you have to get up at 5am each day in cold that makes talking difficult (on account of the fact that your face is seized up) it seems to always make more sense to have a hangover!

Day 2 Friday: What goes up has to come down enventually!Down to Saint-Jean-Saint-Nicholas - this cute little village was at the bottom of the mountain - we get our maps and instructions (Alex interprets) and we are off across the frozen riverbed again but in the opposite direction. Virtually as soon as we were off-road I picked up a piece of wood in one of my snow chains on the near side front - I felt it scrape round the wheel arch and drove on not thinking too much about it. We climbed back up the mountain along some great ledges and snow trails but what goes up has to come down. There was always going to be some great descents on packed snow and ice so we decided to stop to take some photos at the top. That was when I found I had absolutely no foot brake at all - just a loose pedal getting in the way of everything! On inspection, we discovered that the piece of wood I mentioned earlier had ripped the brake pipe off with no chance of repair. The first thing to do, as always, was to get Chris Bashall on the mobile to see if he had an extended brake pipe with him and of course he did but he was on another mountain. A pick up point was arranged in true James Bond style aided by the GPS satellite system in Wills Jeep and timed to co-incide with the lunch stop. However, nobody could think of eating until we had decided how to get down the mountain with no brakes. The sensible thing to do was to winch ourselves slowly down using our own rear winch which would have been extremely hard work and hazardous in itself but that did not appeal to the team even though I had friends from America to think of. So after some consideration it was decided that if we had to fall off the mountain it is better that we all fall together - that way there is no-one left to take the blame - of course we felt it necessary not to mention this to Lyle and Pat.

MARK ASKEW had a plan!! - Plan A of course - Lyle was to get in with Patrick in the lead Jeep to act as final emergency brake i.e. much like a door stop - and Mark would act as Handbrake man in our vehicle. It was the only time that Lyle did not have a problem getting out of the TJ! His parting words to his dear wife Pat were "its been nice knowing you kid". Mark, Kath, Pat and myself looked at each other and thought are we really going to do this? We had only moved 20 feet when a message came over the two way radio - "tell Kenny under no circumstances should he attempt the descent coming up - it is far too dangerous". This was waiting for us some hundred yards down the track. You must remember that my TJ is an automatic so I don't even have the luxury of engine braking as such.

When we reached the descent it was a corker that had everything from deep snow and ice ruts, twist, turns, and axle twisters plus a huge fall off to the right of the path - it was a killer. We then moved to part B of The Plan - when Mark thought that Daisy was getting away from us he was to wallop the handbrake on to slow us down. Well here goes then folks says I - 50 yards into the descent and we are doing 40 miles per hour - "handbrake Mark " I shout thinking that this action will save the day. " It's fully on " he shouts back. By now Daisy was more in the air than on the ground and the awkward thing was I could not take my usual course of action and save myself - if I jump out of the drivers door I jump off the mountain and get down even quicker so I did the next best thing and ditched Daisy to my left into a large snow drift letting the passenger side take the impact. By now we were so terrified that we were ready for anything so with Patrick "the door stop" back in front (he has big Rokraider bumpers like mine), Mark " the handbrake man" and Daisy in first gear low box we somehow got to the bottom only to be faced before too long with a bridge crossing. The bridge was constructed of split tree trunks laid together and just the width of one vehicle with no sides or barriers of any kind and completely iced over on the surface. To add to the difficulty it came off a sharp right hand turn and whereas everyone could shunt back and forth to obtain the best position I had to calculate the approach in with the descent and bend to it with no room for error and the handbrake being probably more detrimental than good. It was probably the hairiest moment of the whole event for me and getting to the other side without falling off was a great relief. Our next stop was at the restaurant for lunch and Will and Mark then departed complete with GPS satellite system to locate the new brake pipe and I was inundated with offers of help from all directions as is always the case on these events when the camaraderie is really wonderful. I am not a trained mechanic so expert help is always welcome which always provides me with a good learning curve. Unfortunately when the brake pipe arrive it needed altering and an angle grinder was needed (no-one seemed to have one of these in the back of their vehicles) so we had to push on for the rest of the day brake-less! Never the less a huge thanks to Dave Seager-Thomas, Rod Leighton and Donie MacPherson who tried every trick in the book but it was not to be.

We completed the afternoons driving with not too many hairy moments and went onto the garage where we filled up with fuel every night. Chris Bashall had already been in touch with me to arrange hire of the guy's workshop behind the garage for the night so that we could get Daisy up on the hoist. By 8.30 pm that night Chris had given Daisy a right going through - he then sorted the brakes out on my TJ - thanks a million Chris.

That evening everyone was supposed to go to the top of the mountain in cable cars and stay there until midnight viewing the igloos that had been built and a laser light show (there was also the offer of sleeping in an igloo but no-one was too keen!). It was unfortunate that the Organisers had failed to take into account the fact that some of us had driven up to 1000 miles to get to the event in the first place and the thought of getting to bed in the early hours of the morning and then getting up two or three hours later certainly did not seem like a good idea to us so hot food and lots of good company and beverage got the vote.

Final day - Saturday: We drive to Ancelle to get the maps and general info - much of this days route has been deemed impassable so this would turn out to be the shortest days driving - a huge disappointment to all of us. We have some of the best-prepared vehicles in Europe and are always in search of difficulty. We work as a team on these events and feel that we can get through just about anything but is was not the case this day. The scenery was breathtaking and the drive included some good climbs and descents. One particular descent spiralled down to the left with a long drop off into the valley below if you came unstuck as Patrick and Mark almost found out coming round a sharp left hander. Patrick was probably admiring the view when the YJ jumped out of a rut and landed inches from the edge - we expected take-off and when Mark eventually regained consciousness he was so happy he could not speak. That was the only real drama of the morning and we had finished the course by lunchtime.

In the afternoon we headed back to the river bed in search of the perfect Christmas Card photo and to play for a couple of hours.

All in all, it was a fantastic few days with all of us escaping serious damage save for my brake problem and Patrick's lost tyre along with some damage to his brand new soft-top. Will despite his valeting bucket and attention to his sponsors logos did suffer some paint damage - a small price to pay for so much fun. Thanks to Patrick, Mark, Will and Alex and our American friends, Lyle and Pat, for being such good company - a great team - roll on the Trophy Cevenol in late May - We can't wait!!