Wednesday, April 30, 2014

No Fear: Taking on Mount Pinatubo in the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

Photos by Ulysses Ang
UPDATE (1): We have included the official video of the Jeep Thrills Pinatubo at the end (5/19).

“It’s the fear that kills you,” muttered our instructor, Kenneth Rialp, as he gave us this off-roader’s golden rule to live by. And with that, The Philippine Star writer Angel Rivero and I set off in our bone stock Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited CRD to tackle one of the most challenging off-road destinations in the Philippines: Mount Pinatubo. And we’re not doing it alone. We’re doing it with at least 20 other Jeep Wranglers and a handful of Jeep Grand Cherokees as part of Jeep Philippines’s Jeep Thrills Pinatubo.

I’ve driven the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon once before and while I found its highway behavior on the way to Calatagan, Batangas much to be desired, the last five-kilometer of muddy and sandy trails made be a believer. It’s the same exact sensation I got the moment we flagged off from Jeep Greenhills on EDSA. The Wrangler Unlimited shuddered and bounced itself all over NLEX on the way to the meeting point at Shell Clark. There, Iñigo Roces of The Manila Bulletin simply had to rub in comforts of his assigned ride: the Jeep Grand Cherokee. To that I replied: “I’ll ask if you still prefer the Grand Cherokee after we tackle the off-roading part.”

After making sure everyone had enough gas, washer fluid (a must when going through dusty roads), and photo ops, it was time to get rough, literally. We bled our tires from a highway-friendly 30 PSI to a more off-road friendly 23 PSI and I swapped driving duties with Angel (who elected to do most of the off-road driving because of an unsettled score with Mount Pinatubo). She quickly settled into the driver’s seat and was advised by Kenneth to adjust the driver’s seat more upright as not to jar the spine when going through rocky terrain repeatedly. With that, the 20-something convoy split into five smaller groups with us leading the Violet team which was coincidentally the Grand Cherokee group.

Though drivers of the Grand Cherokee had it easy thanks to the smart Selec-Terrain control, we in the Wrangler Unlimited had to do things the old-fashioned way. Still, we had everything a hardcore off-roader could wish for: Tru-Lok front and rear electronic differential locking, the Rock-Trac 2-speed transfer case with a 4:01 low range, and deeply grooved 245/75R17 all-terrain tires.

As the roads started to disappear only to be replaced by deeper ruts and the occasional river crossing, we were told to lock the Rear Differential. This essentially “locked” both wheels on the rear axle together ensuring we had all the available power the Wrangler Unlimited could give regardless of whether we had one or both rear wheels on the ground. From there, the Wrangler Unlimited simply plowed through any obstacle thanks to its 256-mm ground clearance and heavily armored undercarriage. It made short work of deep inclines and dips with its 42.1-degree approach and 32.1-degree departure angle. In comparison, the Grand Cherokee at its highest Off-Road 2 setting had higher ground clearance at 270-mm but with a slightly less approach (31 degrees) and departure (29.3 degrees) angle.

As the group started to spread out, Kenneth gave Angel another valuable piece of advice: observe the ground carefully and tread where there are other tire marks. This is most likely where others passed through and marks the safest path to traverse. In no time, we made it safely to the half-way point: the famous Puning Hot Spring and Restaurant in Barangay Sapang Bato. With no time or inkling to take a dip in the hot springs (it was a 37-degree Celsius day after all), the group set off after a couple of group photos to Delta 5—one of the trails that led up to Mount Pinatubo itself.

Named after one of the five watch points set up by the Philippine government to warn of impending lahar flow to the villages below, Delta 5 is now one of the most popular ways to get up Mount Pinatubo, only of course if you have a capable off-roader.

The convoy inched its way through a small grassy field when the instructor noticed something odd with our Wrangler Unlimited—it was way too bouncy on the hole-filled terrain. Only then did Kenneth realize that we still had our sway bars engaged! He quickly told Angel to disengage the sway bars to give our vehicle more wheel articulation thus producing more wheel travel (and a more comfortable ride). As soon as we cleared the dusty, grassy field, head instructor Beeboy Bargas made an announcement via two-way radio: “Guys, slow down. This is going to be fun. [Insert evil laugh].”

We’ve known Beeboy for quite a while and when he does his evil laugh, we knew we were in for something rather “interesting”. Up ahead, the entire convoy ground to a halt and then you saw the Wranglers and Grand Cherokees make their way down one-by-one. Kenneth stepped out to see what was going on and rushed back, “Guys you better come and see this”.

Lo and behold: it was one of the steepest terrains this entire afternoon with just enough width to fit the Jeeps, enough terrain for the wheel tracks, and a deep cut in the middle. In other words, if we didn’t do this right, we’ll end up three- or two-wheeling—a precarious situation we’d rather not be in. With spotters positioned, we were given specific instructions to turn the wheel left or right, go straight, or stop. Angel faithfully followed the instructor’s every command and got through almost unscathed. There was one scary moment when our Wrangler Unlimited lifted itself onto three wheels causing CATS Motors Marketing Communications wonder girl Grace Enriquez to let out a scream. Behind us, the Grand Cherokee wasn’t as lucky: he ended up on two wheels before the spotter successfully coached him through the obstacle and back onto solid ground.

After we tackled this challenge, Kenneth gave us a tip: when going through a road with a huge dip in the middle, it’s always important to plan ahead and look for a straight path of travel. It’s something you may not see at first, but after a while, it becomes second nature.

With sunlight running out, we had to abort the Delta 5 climb. Instead, the convoy re-grouped at the lahar bed beneath the SCTEX. There, we happen to see Iñigo again who seemed like he wanted to trade vehicles. Though all vehicles including the Grand Cherokees made it out without a scratch, Iñigo appreciated the Wrangler Unlimited’s mountain goat-like abilities—clearly this is the vehicle made for terrains such as Mount Pinatubo.

After the heavy merienda in Angeles City, it was time to head back to the concrete jungle of Manila. Some customers already started making their way back when Angel and I swapped driving duties again and I handled the cemented pavement. We made good time and on the NLEX, we passed by several other Jeep Wranglers who all gave us approving honk on their horns. I returned the gesture and honked bank. Going through an experience such as the Jeep Thrills Pinatubo not only raised our confidence in vehicles such as the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, but it also opened us up to a new world of adventure and possibilities. This is a badge of honor and camaraderie that only Jeep owners would understand.

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