Operation Glacier Girl: The 5-Month Recovery of 2 Snowbound Rigs on the Rubicon

The first rule of the Off-Roaders code is a simple, but important one: No one is left behind. Whether you're a Yota guy, Jeeper, desert racer or overlander, the cree among them remains the same. While most recovery stories are interesting, this one in particular really kept us on our toes due to the mammoth scope of the operation.

This story is about a few heroic members of a local off-road community who came together, formulated a plan and executed one of the longest and most difficult recovery efforts ever documented on the mighty Rubicon Trail — all for a couple of guys they had never even met.

Track-equipped ATV above Lake Tahoe

When a post surfaced on Reno4x4.com pleading for help recovering two stuck rigs on the Rubicon on New Year's Day, several local members of the forum sprang into action. Before long, word of the stuck rigs had spread to Pirate4x4.com, and a number of key players had begun to gather their resources to formulate a recovery plan. The recovery effort became known as "Operation Glacier Girl" on the forums, after a WWII fighter plane that was restored to flying condition after being buried under an ice sheet in Greenland for over 50 years. 

The Original "Glacier Girl" Fighter plane found under Greenland's ice sheet

The biggest challenge for this recovery was Mother Nature herself. Nicknamed "Snowmageddon," the record-breaking 2016/2017 winter season in California brought over 250 inches of snow to some areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in January alone. With such a deep snowpack, constant snowfall and no end in sight, the recovery itself had to be put on hold until conditions improved. Although without their rigs, the owners were in good spirits about waiting out the weather.

NASA Images showing a comparison of California's snowpack from 2014 to 2017

In late April, Nick Bailey, an experienced ATV rider and off-roader from Stateline, Nevada, made plans along with the owner of the rigs to scout the trail for the first time since January. Treading lightly on track-equipped ATVs, the two left pavement behind to locate the first rig, a Jeep Cherokee XJ, thanks to GPS coordinates the owner transmitted via an emergency satellite beacon the day they got stuck.

Although they had the exact location recorded, getting there was no easy task. Nick had to clear several fallen trees, as well as smooth out transitions to tank traps, which are deep and abrupt holes usually filled with water runoff and snowmelt. The trail itself was very difficult to navigate due to the heavy snowfall. While some areas were heavily covered, others were more shallow, leading to steep drop offs and lots of off-camber wheeling.

Nick Bailey riding his track-equipped ATV

Finally, they had reached the GPS coordinates. After four months of relentless snowfall, the Cherokee was buried under roughly 10 to 12 feet of snow. Just out of reach with their 8-foot-long probe, the two decided to head back home and formulate a plan to return with recovery rigs.

After several attempts over the next few weeks of digging the XJ out with other members of the two forums, the group was finally able to completely uncover the Jeep for the first time on April 30. Though heavily damaged, the interior cage held the body from caving in completely under the weight of the snow. The windshield was broken, and a few other parts were damaged, but surprisingly, all the tires were holding air. 

The spare tire mounted to the roof of the Cherokee was the first sign they were shoveling in the right place.

Slowly, more of the the Cherokee became unconvered.

Now that the Jeep was uncovered, it was time to extract it. Tim Wardlow, Matt Wardlow, Scott Bruns of Sacramento and Jim Murphy from Reno4x4.com, along with several other members, all attempted to pull the XJ from the hole by combining their winching power, but the angle of the pull was too steep to yank the Jeep out. They headed home, again, without the XJ.

Three Rigs winched up to the XJ

Fast forward a few more weeks to May 10. Once again, Nick Bailey, joined by his friend Gregg, headed out on the trail with the owner of the Jeep, all riding ATVs with tracks. Their objective for that day was to get the Jeep out of the hole and as far down the trail as possible. After utilizing a combination of farm jacks, shovels and traction boards, the group was ready to give it a shot.

operation glacier girl 13

Nick and Gregg were able to fire up the old trusty 4.0L inline-six, then strapped the front end of the Jeep to their ATVs. With Gregg behind the wheel of the Cherokee, and Nick and the owner of the Jeep pulling with the quads, they all put the hammer down at the same time. That coordinated, high-rev pull was just enough to finally get the XJ out of its hole. Finally, there was a light at the end of the tunnel for the Cherokee. 

The three were able to pilot the Cherokee about three-quarters of a mile down the trail before the engine temperature began to skyrocket. With the possibility of overheating and several very difficult obstacles ahead of them, the group decided to park the XJ on a nice flat spot until they could come up with a better plan for getting it back to the pavement. This would be the last time they left the trail without the Jeep.

The lineup of the recovery vehicles with the rescued Cherokee in the center.

On Saturday, May 13, three days after getting the XJ out of the hole, a final group effort led by Nick headed out to get the XJ off the Rubicon Trail. Scott, Gregg, Kenny and Mike from Reno4x4, joined the effort with their Jeeps. On this day, the hero was Kevin Fenley, who wired up a pusher fan to the front of the XJ grill. It was just enough to keep it from overheating, and the XJ made it the entire way back to pavement under it's own power — an incredible feat considering it lay dormant under 12 feet of snow for nearly half a year.

The rescued XJ at the entrance to the Rubicon, with the makeshift cooling fan still attached.

With Phase 1 of "Operation Glacier Girl" complete, those who are taking charge of the recovery effort on Reno4x4 and Pirate4x4 have set their sights on a weekend in early June to make way for the second rig that's still stuck out there, likely buried under several feet of snow as well.

The Rubicon Trail is still too treacherous beyond the location where the XJ was found, so a few more weeks of warmer weather may be all they need to get there safely. We can't wait to see how this amazing story ends.

Stay tuned for Phase 2 of "Operation Glacier Girl."

(Photos courtesy of Reno4x4.com and Pirate4x4.com)

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