Daily Archives: July 9, 2016

Black Rock Desert, Getting Stuck in the Playa – June 1, 2016 (Day 1)

Jon digging. Note how deeply the boxes and back tire are embedded.

Jon digging. Note how deeply the boxes and back tire are embedded.

To understand how we got so very badly stuck, you need a little background information.


The Black Rock Desert Playa

The Black Rock Desert Playa is basically a dry lake bed formed by the evaporation of Lake Lahontan over a period of more than 100,000 years. The playa currently covers approximately 200 square miles. The lake sediments, primarily made up of fine silt and clay minerals, are as deep as 10,000 feet in places. The playa is typically wet in the winter and early spring which makes it completely impassible by vehicles. (Think very deep mud).
When the playa surface is dry, it may appear to be the same all the way across, but it actually varies significantly in durability and hardness.
A view of the Black Rock Desert Playa.

A view of the Black Rock Desert Playa.

In some parts, it forms the distinctive cracked mud flat pattern.

Dry, cracked mud flat texture

In other areas, it has transitory ripples and a more textured surface. The cracked mud flat areas tend to be firmer than the more textured surface. Because the playa was formed by evaporation, the soil is highly alkaline. In areas where there is occasional fresh water, the minerals and salts may form a crust on top of a more fluffy and moist surface.
Crust on top of fluffy clay.

You can tell we were breaking through the crust into the fluffy soil below.

Why we thought we were prepared.

We stopped at the Friends of the Black Rock office for general information and to find out about the current road conditions. We were told that the playa was mostly dry and roads conditions were good. We read over the Black Rock Desert – Know Before You Go Guide before going into the Desert.

Know Before You Go

On our drive to the Soldier Meadow Hot Creek, we saw the dust clouds formed by vehicles driving along the road along the playa.

We were well supplied. We had front and rear winches that were rated for the weight of the Fuso. We carry a Pull-Pal (a land anchor), Hi-Lift Jack, pink MaxTrax (traction device) and a lot of recovery gear. We thought we were very well prepared for spending time in the Black Rock Desert. We have spent quite a bit of time in the deserts around Death Valley/Saline Valley. We’ve been traveling in the Robinson Fuso vehicle off and on for the last four years. We’ve gotten it stuck several times and have been able to self rescue every time. Jon is an incredible driver with a lot of experience driving off road.

So back to the Story

When Jon and I left the Double Hot Spring, we planned to camp at Black Rock Hot Springs almost directly south of Double Hot Springs. We had the GPS coordinates for the springs, but none of our maps showed any roads going from Double Hot Springs to Black Rock Hot Springs. We had been told that we could reach the hot springs by going this way by two old timers. So we continued to following the road we had been taking.

Black Rock. Areas of gravel vs playa

The Black Rock. The grey areas are gravel. The tan areas are playa.

The road turned west, away from the Black Rock and headed onto the playa.

Our choices were to:

  1. Back track to try to find the correct, unmarked track that turned off from the road that we had been on
  2. Turn around and camp at Double Hot Springs
  3. Continue along this road and plan to pick up the southern road to the Black Rock Hot Springs where it crosses over the playa.  We had directions for reaching the Black Rock Hot Springs from the south in our Nevada hot springs guide.

We decided to take option three. The road we took across the playa was very obvious as we started out, but the tire tracks started peeling off and we eventually were following just one set of tire tracks. There were lots of intersecting tire tracks as we continued. Since there were no way to tell if this track would eventually reach the road to the hot springs, we started following well defined tracks that were headed in the right general direction. Distances are deceptive in the desert. There aren’t many things to provide scale.

It turns out that well defined tracks are not a good thing. It means that the playa surface is not very hard, so tires are cutting through the crust.

It was also very hot outside. Temperatures hovered around 100 degrees F.

The Fuso tends to run hot, especially over surfaces like this. When it would get too hot, we stopped to let it cool off before continuing on our way. At one of these time, we stopped and suddenly my side of the vehicle dropped by about 1 1/2 feet. It was very dramatic and unexpected.

By driving forward at a reasonable pace, Jon was able to use inertia to keep us moving. It was only once the vehicle stopped that we realized how soft the playa had become. Initially, Jon tried to get the Fuso to go forward or backward under its own power, but we were truly stuck.

After assessing the problem, Jon went to work pulling out recovery gear. I wasn’t nearly as productive. Out came the Pull-Pal, winch controller, shovels, MaxTraxs and other miscellaneous items.


We set up the Pull-Pal in front of the truck and attempted to winch the Fuso forward out of the hole. On the first try, we dug a trench and didn’t move the Fuso at all.

Another trench dug by the Pull-Pal. Notice that the playa is highly textured here.

The first trench dug by the Pull-Pal. Notice that the playa is highly textured here.

There was a shrub in front of us, but much further out. We hoped that the ground would be a little firmer and the shrub’s roots would provide a more substantial tow point.

The "Black Rock" that gave the desert its name.

The Black Rock looks pretty close in this photo

You can get a sense of how far away the shrub was in the photo above. The thin blue line starting at the bottom left corner is the winch line leading to the shrub.

Jon pulled out additional winch line. We dug in the Pull-Pal on the other side of it and gave it another try.

The Pull-Pal is buried deeply.

The Pull-Pal is buried deeply.

It dug a much more impressive trench. We tried it again without any success.

The Pull-Pal has dug an impressive trench.

The Pull-Pal has dug an impressive trench.

In the picture above, you can see the initial trench as a dark line in the background to the left of the Fuso. The first trench at the shrub is on the left edge of the photo and the Pull-Pal is still in the second trench.

Since the passenger side tires and storage boxes were deeply embedded, we dug around them to free them up.

Jon trying to dig out the boxes. Note the pink MaxTraxs and the red Hi-Lift Jack.

Jon trying to dig out the boxes.
You can’t tell how much the vehicle is leaning in this photo.
Note the pink MaxTrax and the red Hi-Lift Jack.

We attempted to lift the vehicle by putting the Hi-Lift Jack at a mounting point for the lower rub rails. It broke off. Jon continued to dig around and under the vehicle.

When it didn’t looked like we were going to get out tonight, Jon used our deLorme InReach to text a friend and contact rescue services. We didn’t have any kind of cell phone coverage, but the InReach is a satellite based, two way texting device that allows us to contact help no matter where we are.

It had already started to get dark.

The sun is setting. The vehicle left very deep tracks in the playa.

The sun is setting. The vehicle cut very deep tracks in the playa.

Jon attempted to lift up the passenger side of the Fuso by setting up bottle jacks underneath it, but they just sank into the mud (even when putting wood blocks under them to distribute the weight). Jon kept digging. I started to get really claustrophobic under the vehicle. We turned on our lights to make us more visible.

Getting darker and the Fuso is still very stuck.

A good example of how tilted the camper was.

Jon finally called it a night around 11:00. He used the Hi-lift jack on the rear bumper and a bottle jack under the vehicle to lift up the camper enough to allow us to sleep inside. After snacks and a shower, we finally went to bed.





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