Four Hard Days at the Hammers, pt 1


Basic User
Nevada City
I haven't written much this past year as I'm holding down two full time jobs and pretty much working 7 days a week. It's time.
"My son Matt suggested that instead of doing our usual Moab Pilgrimage this spring, we spend our Jeeping time at the Hammers, also know as the Johnson Valley Recreation Area in the Southern California desert east of Los Angeles. We just completed a 35 spline, D60, Detroit, 4.10 geared rear end for his Jeep C104 and needed a venue that could take advantage of the increased strength. Our rigs were pretty evenly matched and it looked like we would be alone out there. We never saw another rig on the trails. Not one.
For those of you who are not in-the-know about the 'Hammers', it's a rock crawler's dream, a locale for jeepers designed and serviced by the Victor Valley Jeep Club. They have made the routes 'just' passable by very well built, and specifically rock crawler style rigs. You need big clearance, very low gears, lockers on both ends, and a drivetrain that can take brutal punishement. The place eats rigs. The landscape is variously sharp ignious rock, some sand, and a little sandstone. Almost nothing grows there and the whole area is open to wheeled travel, no restrictions.
We arrived on Wednsday afternoon, travelling the 3 miles of sandy road, across the Means dry lake and up a rocky arroyo and around a hill to a sand dune area just a half mile from the start of the Sledgehammer and Jackhammer routes. We had to traverse some of the sand to get to the site and the Cummins quickly dug 4 holes. It was time to unload my CJ8 from the trailer. That being done, and the tire pressure taken down to 10 lbs., the Load range 'E' truck tires were dropped from 80 down to 20 lbs. I was then able to grunt the Dodge with empty trailer over to the camp site. The site was picked because it was on the lee side of windward, in the wind shadow, a savvy choice we found out, as the wind was incessant. Except for the afternoon we left, It blew, 24 hours a day for the whole time we were there. With no tent set up, we decided to sleep in the bed of my pickup with the tailgate up and the lid down, mostly. Except for the wind (which was a lot less in camp than out on the flat) camp was a pleasant place with a good view to the south to Landers.
As soon as we set up camp, we were ready to tackle the first route. I don't use the term 'trail' here, as it conotes something that's passable. Route is a more apt description. We hit the "Sledgehammer", the grandaddy of the the hammers at about 4pm. It gets you right away with some large 'gatekeeper' rocks that make sure you have that very high clearance, super low gears and stout, locked axles. We didn't have much trouble with this one, finishing it in about an hour and a half. (The first time I went through this route, it took us about 4 hours, with breakdowns, lots of jacking and stacking). It did remind me that I haven't been rockcrawling for a while and my 'chops' were rusty. After a while I started picking better lines so as not to get high centered. We took the sand hill exit and mushed back to camp before dark and made dinner. It was a good run. We were preparred. Here's a rundown of the rigs:
Jefe's CJ8: '82 CJ-8, SOA (YJ- 7 leaf front springs, CJ- 10 leaf miltary wrap rrs) 4.4L, H.O., MPI (Hesco RV cam, Cloyes timing gears/chains advanced 4 deg., high vol oil pump, adjustable fuel pressure regulator), AGR steering, NP435, D300/4:1, D44, D60, 4.88's, ARB's, 130:1, 36" TSL Swamper Radials, reinforced front frame horns, Currie steering brace, Currie dual sticks, Warn 8274, 24 gal tank with steel skid, D rings all around, CO2 tank, Onboard stick welder, lots of recovery equipment.
Matts '73 Jeep Commando, C-104: SOA, 304V8, wide ratio Jeep T-18, Scout D300 with Tera low 4:1 gears, 6 states driveshafts, Scout D44 front axle (4.09) Detroit, outboard of frame, with Waggie outers and Parts Mike spring-over steering arms with H.D. Waggie tie rod and drag link. Rear axle: 35 spline D60, Detroit, 4.10, cut down to Scout width. 36" Swamper TSL radials on 8" alum rims. His final drive in low/low is 104:1, fine with the torque of the V8.
So, pretty evenly matched for the trail. He stopped on the way to the area a bought a complete set of front axle shafts, assembled.
(continued in pt. 2)


Basic User
Nevada City
(Part 2. this is a continuation from part 1)
The second day we got a bit of a leisurely start which was just fine since we had lots of time. The route-du-jour was to be the Jackhammer. I'd been over this one several times and didn't think it was so tough. This day would prove me wrong. We entered the gauntley of VW sized rocks that you had to get a tire up and on to make the route. There was lots of frame/spring hanger/ axle pig srapage, but we got into the route with not a lot of trouble, taking time to film the caravan. Then we came upon a very large pair of rocks in the middle of the route. Hmmm? Has the Victor Valley Club been trail hardening again? I don't know, but it looked like quite a few VERY large rocks were rolled down from the hillsides above and strategically placed on the trail. This one of the rare times this trip where a long wheel base was a hinderance. Matt straddled and climbed the pair of rocks with about 4 feet under his trannie. I got out and tried to spot him over. He was beached and beached hard. We spent some time jacking using a 4 ton, a 12 ton and a high lift jack. It got worse. The rocks moved into more agregious positions. More jacking and rock stacking. Finally, I got out the winch cable, snatch block, several D rings, and a couple lengths of tow strap. After traingulating with the snatch block, the huge anchor rock rolled down in the middle of the route. Things were looking bad. We spent some time jacking the 2000 lb rock with the high lift, stressing it to the max, lifting one end to almost verticle and then pushing it over and trying to stay out of its way. A couple hours of this nonesense passed and several of the big rocks were moved into a passable position. Just barely passable. It was ugly. It was the worst I'd ever seen the 'Jackhammer', and I for one was glad when we finally topped the ridge and drove out the bypass to the dunes again. At the end of Jackhammer you have a choice. The other choice is down a parallel canyon known as "Back Jack". Last time I went down this route, a Jeeper broke his front D44 axle u-joint, yes, going downhill. There are lots of sharp turns, not the ideal for a 104" w.b. We would save this for the last day and try coming up "Back Jack", something we'd never tried. Thoroughly humiliated by the "Jack" we stuck our tail between our legs and retreated to camp. At least we had a fine dinner. Every meal we had 'desert grits'. Sand in the food from the wind.
Friday dawned cool and windy, as usual. Unusual was the arrival of fellow Jeeper Steve Griggs in his '69 Suburban about 8am. He said he might come out and ride along with us and he did. I don't have space or time to fully describe his SubZilla, but try this on: 1000 ft. lb.(@1200rpm) Detroit 2 cycle Turbo Diesel engine ( 6 cyl with about a 6" bore on the cyls), 18 gears forward, Rockwell t. case from a crane, cement mixer axles (2"shafts) with 42" tires, custom frame, 20K PTO winch, Air bag suspension, body actually made from two '69 subs cut almost in half (the long way) to make the composite 8" wider than stock, 150 gal. fuel tank. He a crazy man.
We hit the trail and headed for Claw hammer. It was a piece of cake with few even slow downs. Our trail technique was improving day by day again, and we picked good lines to get over some pretty tough stuff. The machinery was taking some major abuse, but nothing had broken down yet. We finished in good time and wanted to do more so we headed out to "Outer Limits", an area that Steve had been to a few weeks prior, but so many breakdowns occured that the group had to turn back after only a couple hundred yards on the trail. We travelled the 10 miles or so around some hills over sandy desert roads and arrived at the mouth of a dry canyon know as "outer Limits". This one had a personality all its own, as do all the named trails in the area, but this one had a lot of steep pitches up 10' rocks and waterfalls that made it a great rock crawl. The suspension on our rigs were right at the max, a lot of the time with occasional wheels off the ground, even as flexy as we were. It was a great trail. Fairly long too. We completed the route and still had daylight left and went back to camp. After a good steak diner, and a windy campfire, we retired to the back of the pickup for a long night's rest.
Saturday dawned a little less windy and not so cold. We packed up some of our things after breakfast, and headed out for lower and upper "Back Jack". Up is not the usual way for this route and it proved to be very technical, with much off camber running and so many parts of the rigs dragging, screeching, and thumping over rocks and obstacles. My licence plate, "ROK HUGR" is so scraped up now (it's bolted around the curved part of the steel quarter panel armour) it has become a self fullfilling prophecy. We eventually got back to camp before 2pm and packed up the rest of the stuff for the trip home.
It is difficult to convey the pressure on one's rig running 'the hammers' for 4 days. I had a look under there when I got home and the pigs, axle housings, frame, springs, spring hangers, skid plates, all have fresh white scrape marks on them, with another mm of metal scraped off the bottoms of the pigs. I bent a drag link during the last day and we quickly put on a replacement I had along. The rims just got chewed. I was very impressed with the way the Swamper TSL Radials held up. Not a flat. They took tremendous abuse, folding all the way to the rim on sharp rocks, over and over again.
The story does not end here, however. After loading up the Jeep on the trailer and starting down the rocky dirt road to the dry lake, one of the trailer tires had a blowout. Hmm? No spare for the trailer. We find that the trailer works with one wheel removed, at least at low speed on dirt, and drive to the pavement. We air up the single side tire 20 lbs. over max. Steve takes the blown tire down the road to try to get a replacement at 4:30pm on a Sat. I start down State route 247 toward Victorville at 45mph, Matt following in his C104 keeping an eye out on the overloaded tire. After about 10 miles he radios me that he smells burnt rubber and I pull over just as the single tire is descinigrating in a smokey pyre. So now we have a two wheel trailer with no tires on one side. Matt takes the 2nd wheel/tire and mushes on to find out where Steve is getting a replacement. Via cell phone they find someone who will install a couple used tires of the same size, if not as strong as stock. As the sun is setting we are finally underway again and stop for dinner before heading home. I've never done so much hard core at one pop. It was great.
I've been on previous trips to this area, and with larger groups or 4-6 rigs and someone is always breaking down, breaking axles, breaking spring hangers, drive shafts, shock mounts, etc. We did have some breaks. Both Matt and I cracked our frames. His in 3 places, and mine on the pass side of the steering brace. Steve is a certified welder and he patched Matt's frame up enough to continue, but he's going to have to put full length plates over the front 5 feet of his frame horns to secure things.
regards, as always, jefe
Great trail report Jefe... My little sister and brother in law just moved to that area and he is realy looking forward to running his TJ there.

I told him he better do some more work on it though,,,,he had a good set up for his Kentucky wheeling (i.e. 4" teraflex lift, 3.73 gears, ox up front, dana 44 with trac lock in rear, and 33" MTR's), but that ain't gonna cut it on the hammers.

He's already talking Atlas, 4.56's, detroit in the rear, new ox up front,,,,,holy poop my sister is gonna kill him :D ,,,,,,

I look forward to finishin my rig up and finishin up my new trailer (See Jeep Hauler Pics) ), so I can start hittin some trails....

keep up the reports and stories, I like read'n 'em....



Legacy Registered User Member
RE: a hard day's night....

Great, Jefe, thanks for taking the time to fill us in. Any pictures of Steve's rig around? Also, I don't know if you are interested in this, but I recently saw on website that you can upload your homemade videos on their site so that others may view them. Let us know if you do that...thanks again.

Edited below:

I spoke too soon. After I posted this I went to and looked a little closer...they want video taken at events that the public was invited to. Sorry...
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