How to bash up your Land Rover in 3 easy steps: a practical guide (or, "How I learned to stop worrying and love the Northwest Challenge")

Damaging your Land Rover is quick and easy if you do it right.  With a little practice and the proper attitude you can achieve professional results in just minutes. Follow these 3 steps to get the look you want:

  1. Drive black diamond trails in Oregon’s Coast Range mountains at night in thick fog.  (Pro tip:  spearing your quarter panel with the ends of downed logs can exfoliate sheet metal in a flash!)
  2. Reverse up a slick hill hemmed in tightly on both sides with ninja alder, a rare species of tree that suddenly appears at inopportune moments in the most inconvenient locations.
  3. Back into a tree.  Or two.  Or six.  Why stop when things are getting good?

Prior to the 2015 Northwest Challenge I emailed the organizer, Doug Shipman, to ask if my close-to-stock Land Rover Discovery would be able to handle the terrain on the multi-day competition.  Having survived the 2014 edition as navigator in a highly modified Defender 90, I wasn’t sure if my own vehicle would be up for a repeat of that experience.

“Nick, you shouldn’t see anything too extreme,” Doug replied.  “I have been trying to make it more of a non-damaging event.  Hope to see you there.”  By the end of the weekend the casualties included every body panel on the left side of my Discovery.  Other entrants put me to shame.  One smashed in a window.  Another snapped an aftermarket driveshaft.  A third broke an axle and a driveshaft.  Dents were as common as the autumn leaves.  Not one of the 13 vehicles emerged unscathed.  Yet the smiles and laughter made it clear that all of this crunchy business had sparked a pandemic of fun.  Every single person was excited about the experience.

Andy loads the Disco. Unbelievably, even though this wasn't a Yeti cooler, it still had ice in it three days later.

My navigator, Andy Lewis, and I were the first team to arrive at the rendezvous.  Andy and I have been through countless adventures together, from multiple Rainier summits to backcountry skiing to rock climbing to mountain biking and years of saving each other’s bacon as whitewater rafting guides.  Entering an off-road driving competition seemed like a natural extension of our partnership.  Andy didn’t know much about Land Rovers, which was fine, because he could focus his attention on making sure we took the correct unmarked trail.

The rendezvous point was next to the Nehalem River.

We left the rendezvous at 7:30pm as darkness was settling over the misty mountains.  Through rain and fog we found our route to camp with a few pauses to locate ten paper plates that had been concealed along the trails containing clues we had to record.  With our mountaineering backgrounds we were often more comfortable reaching the less accessible points on foot rather than driving all the way to them.  This saved us some hassle, as we avoided driving some sections of trail that caused woe to other teams. 

At 11:30 we rolled into camp.  Doug was surprised how quickly we’d completed the night task.  We handed in our paperwork and were fast asleep as the other teams trickled in, some as late as 3:30 in the morning.

Volunteers Wayne and Cathy Phelps found the best campsite with their 1984 Defender 110.

Saturday morning brought sunshine, bleary competitors, and a fresh set of tasks.  Walking around our primitive camp I was impressed by the array of vehicles.  They represented a diverse cross-section of the Land Rover lineage, although it was clear where preferences lay:  every single entry in the competition (that had made it to camp) was a solid-axle model built in the golden years between 1990 and 2004.  I was pleased to see a stock P38 Range Rover – my Disco wasn’t the only bare bones truck in the running.  It was also nice to see a few more women participating this year.  Although Breanna, Monica, and Abby were relatively new to the event they all had just as much enthusiasm and competitive spirit as the guys did.

Camp was a gravel clearing, but we didn't spend much time there.

Andy and I were paired up with returning competitors Dean and Allen Minner for the day’s events.  Dean had prioritized function over fashion in preparing his Range Rover Classic for its purpose in life.  It meant business and would have elicited hushed comments of bewilderment and condescension among restaurant valets but it could have crushed any BMW in the garage.  We received a tulip chart, which is a set of visual directions for plotting a course on a rally, interspersed with a few clues, coordinates, and problems to solve along the way as we traveled between special tasks.

 

Our first task was a winching challenge.  I had to drive my Discovery over a gravel pile, then we had to winch it back over using an indirect-pull technique in which we redirected the winch cable through a pulley strapped to a tree.  We cooperated efficiently to complete the task before proceeding along the next section of trail.  Soon we reached a boulder-strewn creek crossing that I only managed to traverse undamaged thanks to some sharp spotting from Allen.  Dean trundled over it in short order.

Dean eases over the boulders.

With Andy’s precise navigation we had no trouble finding the second task:  tee ball.  Each truck had to drive around a course in which three tennis balls were balanced on tees.  In a specific order one team member had to pluck the balls from their tees, then the other had to replace them on the tees in reverse order.  It was an exciting blend of precision driving, coordination, and problem solving – what was the optimal route to take and how quickly could you grab/place the tennis balls?  Andy kept advising me to take it slowly – the temptation was to tear around the course like a maniac – as time saved through speed would be lost by misjudgment.  There was also a real possibility of rolling the truck.

Ryan Phelps races around the tee ball course in his TDI Defender 110.

Easy does it...

Now back the other way.

After more technical and tight forest driving along the Ginsberg 4x4 trail we reached the third task, the simplest of the day.  Here’s a log.  Cut through the log with whatever tools you have in your truck.  Fastest time wins.  Andy trains at a boxing gym and is at a high level of fitness.  I suggested he grab the axe and in 52 seconds he was through the log.

Typical scenery along the Ginsberg Trail in Tillamook State Forest.

The final challenge of the day was where the wheels started to come off, figuratively speaking.  It was where the body parts started to come off, literally speaking.  As we arrived we watched Todd attempt to reverse up a steep, narrow, slippery, rocky slope in his Discovery 2.  Some fruitless tire-spinning led to a loud bang, then some ugly metallic crunching as he eased down to a flat spot.  A quick inspection revealed that he had sheared his front drive shaft clean in two, an impressive feat considering it was an uprated aftermarket model.  I loaned him my Land Rover driveshaft socket tool and a small crowd gathered to watch Todd remove his broken pieces unceremoniously.  This didn’t bode well.

Todd removes his front driveshaft, now in two pieces.

This takes some force to break.

I made it most of the way up the hill and thought I had cleared the crux of the problem.  Looking over my left shoulder I was concentrating on the trees that were two inches from the back of my truck and forgot there were trees right next to me.  Those were the ones that neatly snapped off my wing mirror as I reversed onwards.  Damnation.  This proved to be the toughest challenge of the day.  It broke a bumper, dented fenders, and multiple competitors collided hard with some of the trees.

Back at camp we shared war stories and compared the damage on each other’s vehicles.  Relative to others I got off lightly.  I found it interesting that the more damaged a truck was, the more enthusiastic about the mishap the driver was.   People were really having fun bashing up their Land Rovers, even though that was not the intent of the contest.

Relaxing back at camp.

Ryan Ribary's Defender had a brush with some foliage.

 "Now I can turn this into an ice cream truck."

"Now I can turn this into an ice cream truck."

Sunday morning the top 4 teams advanced to the finals.  Two more tasks would establish the winner.  Everyone else convoyed to the arena to watch.  Andy and I caught a ride with Joseph and Breanna in their P38 Range Rover.  Nothing like getting chauffeured around in a refined and capable limousine.

The first task built on the hill climb concept, another timed precision driving challenge:  navigate down a narrow trail avoiding cones placed along the way, then reverse back up.  It called for excellent communication between driver and navigator.  All the teams did well, it was hard to tell one standout performance.

Neal Shipman dodges cones and stumps.

The final task was inspired by the Camel Trophy and relied on good old-fashioned pioneering skills:  construct a log bridge over a simulated ravine using materials nearby in a pile of timber cuttings, then drive the truck across.  Each team took a different approach to solving the problem, and amazingly the winning time was about 2 minutes 30 seconds.  A real ravine would have made the task more interesting, but maybe that can be part of next year’s event.

Ian and Paul Tydeman rush to construct their bridge.

Chasm of eternal peril safely traversed.

After closing ceremonies and collecting our prizes for finishing 7th, Andy and I stuck the important bits back onto my Land Rover with duct tape for the ride home and made our farewells.  We drove back to Seattle along the coast, stopping for fresh oysters.  We reflected on the event and, despite the pain I inflicted on my uncomplaining Land Rover, we agreed that the competition had been enormously fun.  Just like last year I was grateful for the experience but unsure if I would return to repeat it.  In 2016 the contest will be held in British Columbia.  Upon recounting the weekend's excitement to my father, he pointed out that I of all people should know about cars driving into trees.  I did, after all, write my masters thesis and academic journal articles on the very subject.  One more good laugh courtesy of the Northwest Challenge.

A briny end to the weekend.