Getting stuck in the mud is seldom noteworthy. But every once in a while someone gets their vehicle so prodigiously stuck, in a place that is so preposterously far from civilization, in the nastiest and slipperiest mud imaginable, that it draws the attention of people from all over. Such is the case for one Toyota 4Runner that spent Christmas in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
George Sukhanov is an intrepid Canadian engineer who got himself stuck in the middle of absolutely nowhere on a surface that will soon be totally impassable. The lakebed is dry in the summer and fall, usually, but as winter comes it starts to become an actual lake.
If you hit a wet patch, it’s often best to just stay in the throttle until you get to the other side. Sometimes, as in Sukhanov’s case, you don’t make it to the other side. With winter rain on the way, the other side will soon be many miles away.
Fortunately for Sukhanov, he had enough signal on his phone to contact authorities. Fortunately for his truck, he had enough signal to post to Facebook. According to the local Sheriff, Sukhanov initially turned down rescue because they could not also get his vehicle. So he went on Facebook, posting to a nearby 4x4 rescue group. “Someone tried to reach me last night from Gerlach side, got stuck there. Not sure if they are out now, but they did not seem keen to continue towards me,” he said in the post, “I do have enough food/water/gas for at least another day.” Weather reports showed more rain and snow on the way.
In a matter of hours, his predicament had spread across several facebook groups into several states and had captivated thousands of off-roaders. A recovery group of four rigs was organized through the 775 Offroad & Recovery Public Facebook page and made contact with Sukhanov at 1:30 in the morning.
Several hours of pulling, digging, and cursing later, they managed to get another vehicle stuck.
Live updates were posted on the facebook page.
“0330 - it is pretty bad. May need a second team. One jeep is stuck but we can get him out. The Toyota is in bad shape. Need a daisy chain multiple rig with how sloppy this is.”
They were able to get the stuck Jeep out, and continued, “digging, more digging, jacking and wood. If this doesn’t work, we will need a second team with lots of straps and connectors.”
Playa mud, like you find on dry lakebeds that aren’t especially dry, is different than typical mud. When it gets wet, it turns into a slippery clay that stacks up on your shoes as you walk, and will never come out of your floor mats. You DON’T drive on it when it’s wet, partly because it ruins the lakebed, partly because it’s illegal, but also because it is super easy to get stuck in. It will fill up all the gaps in your tires, turning your truck into a fat dead weight with Teflon wheels. It suctions itself like glue to every surface except your tires, seemingly mocking physics by simultaneously being both slippery and sticky in exactly the opposite ways that you need. The wetter it gets, the worse it is.
Watching this unfold, I felt empathy for the mud-soaked off-roaders in the freezing temperature, and also relief that I wasn’t there. I made some hot cocoa and turned the heater up.
At 4:30 a.m. they called it. Sukhanov grabbed a few of his things and hopped in one of the Jeeps for a ride back to civilization. They made it to the pavement at 8 a.m. and changed out of mud-soaked clothes. The team left the stuck vehicle in the mud over Christmas, hoping conditions wouldn’t get so bad that it would be there until Easter. The worst possible time to get stuck on the lakebed is the beginning of winter when rain is on the way. In that case, it is possible that your vehicle will live on the lakebed for months, slowly sinking. When the summer comes, it will be buried halfway up the doors, and the lake will dry out just in time for the Burning Man setup crew to show up and make your vehicle part of the Orgy Dome.
That was a week ago, and Thursday night another group of George’s new best friends went back out for another attempt.
The team loaded up lots of tow rope and assorted traction devices, then picked up Sukhanov in Reno and made the long drive to the tiny town of Gerlach where they fueled up and headed to the 4Runner. At 4 a.m. they made it to the site and found a frozen lake. A week of cold weather and not much rain had frozen the mud into something that could be more easily driven on.
Two and a half hours later, the 4Runner was out of its original hole. After a few hours of winching, as the sun was rising over the desert, George and his rescue crew were driving their vehicles, 4Runner included, on the hard ice surface back to civilization.
For what it’s worth, Sukhanov admits his stupidity. “I do realize that the situation I’m in is purely a result of horrible decision making on my side, so I don’t get offended by a bit of calling me out on my stupidity.”
Part of the problem is that the Black Rock Desert is so damn big. It’s the Bureau of Land Management’s largest property. It’s where the Thrust SSC set the land speed record; it is flat for miles and miles. Sukhanov was kind of in the worst spot, way out in the middle of nowhere.
Lots of commenters were being dicks about it (shocking, I know), suggesting that he shouldn’t get help because he wouldn’t learn his lesson. Most people were supportive, however, offering help, suggestions, or just hoping for a positive outcome.
If you off-road enough, you’re going to get stuck. If you don’t, you’re not going to challenging enough places. Maybe you’re not as curious as George. I’ve been stuck many times, including once on a slightly wet patch of the Black Rock Desert almost exactly where Sukhanov’s Toyota was. Thankfully I had a friend with a Jeep and many feet of tow strap.
I can understand and sympathize with Sukhanov’s predicament; If your rig has gotten out of a number of other slippery situations and you’ve never experienced wet playa, your confidence and ignorance can add up to a significant, but a forgivable mistake. Fortunately for Sukhanov, his plight drew the sympathy of thousands and brought in enough good people with enough tow straps to drag his 4Runner out of the lake.
The recovery and extraction was a team effort with members of the Nor-Cal 4x4 group, the NC4XR group, and 775 Offroad & Recovery. Shout out to Joseph Pickett, Jeffrey Hannah, Anthony Vargas, Layne Pauly, Chris Gorby, and all the other people who coordinated efforts and drove for miles to dig in the freezing mud and help a complete stranger. This was a captivating reminder that off-roading has some of the best car people.