The highs-and-lows of traversing one of North America’s highest passes in a luxury SUV.
In This Off-Road Article You Will Discover:
- The Secrets of Imogene Pass
- How to Off-Road in Style
- And more!
With the high-altitude effects of an 11,000-foot basecamp as a multiplier, every glass of Merlot I had consumed the night previous may as well of been straight Kentucky whiskey.
“You drive first,” I mutter, tossing my gear in the back seat and loading up the centre console with water bottles. He’s appreciative enough for me to know I must look better than I feel.
Yesterday, we had piloted a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon to the 12,800-foot summit of Red Mountain #3 — and traversed some serious goat trails all the while. A mere warm up, I’m told, as we’re headed skyward to Imogene Pass — the second-tallest navigable pass in America at over 4,000 metres (13,200 feet) of elevation.
It’s pleasant to be in the Grand Cherokee — with its leather upholstery, heated seats with lumbar support and electronically adjustable suspension. But the real star of the show is once again the boundlessly beautiful San Juan Mountain Range.
From our base camp, we wind through the famous Million Dollar Highway — a paved roadway once thought impossible to build — past the town of Ouray and up the “you can’t be serious” trails toward Imogene Pass.
Shortly after leaving pavement we pass by a wreath and flowers laid out next to a 200-hundred-foot shear drop, memorializing some poor soul who didn’t make the turn… Just in case we needed the reminder.
It’s one thing to tackle bare-rocks and 45-degree slopes in a rough-and-tough Wrangler — but we’re in a people-mover, shod with all-season radials! Still, we crawl upward, ever forward… with few challenges.
At one point, the Jeep driver directly ahead of us stops at the crest of a short-and-steep rocky hill. We are incredulous — and we are also stuck, having now lost our forward momentum. Slowly, we reverse for a second attempt — and the driver behinds us blasts his horn in protest.
They say water boils faster at high elevation; it seems blood does as well. I resist the urge to flip-the-bird and we make it over the hump easily with our second try.
I watch the altimeter on the GPS navigation screen climb past 3,000 metres — then to 3,500. Then up from there.
By the time we reach the our lookout point at the top of Imogene Pass, the Jeep’s altimeter reads a staggering 4,038 metres. To put it in perspective — airplanes supply passengers with oxygen if they exceed 2,500 metres.
Out of the Jeep, I take some time to wander around the treeless plateau. I’m almost immediately out of breath. We are in the first stages of oxygen depravation and it’s as noticeable as a kick in the gut.
Imagining the scariest trails have already been passed, I enjoy the scenery while driving downward to the town of Telluride. I even take a prideful moment as I navigate a particularly dicey 180-degree switchback without the need for three-point-turn… one of only a couple of people to pull it off.
Then the road narrows. And narrows again. And again.
A voice sounds out from the walkie-talkie resting on our console, “I know the scenery is nice but keep your eyes on the road and be aware of your wheel placement. Follow the vehicle ahead of you.”
Dan and I wonder aloud… “Unless of course, it goes over, right?”
Next to the sheer drop of who-knows-how-far, I actually have to lower my window to keep an eye on the cliff-edge. It’s that close. Crazy close. (I wish I had a photo, but I couldn’t take my hands of the wheel!)
It does occur to me at this time that “Imogene” is one extra letter away from being a perfect anagram for “I’m gone!”
As we near Telluride, I peer over the drop-off. It plummets at least 150 feet straight down to — of all things — a cemetery below. Good thing I have a dark sense of humour.
We finish our descent in Telluride and everyone is still accounted for. Maybe it wasn’t so dangerous after all?
But then there was that memorial…