Running Out of Gas: The Climbers' Solution

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“Follow me back to Moab, OK? I’m really low on gas.”

Running Out of Gas: The Climbers' Solution

Craig Luebben was standing outside his pickup in Indian Creek Canyon. He looked worried, but not too worried. The needle on his dashboard quivered just above E. It was 56 miles to Moab. Craig had planned to drive over to the Needles Outpost, by the entrance to Canyonlands National Park, and fill up with gas, but he had never gotten around to it. Now he needed us to follow him to Moab in case he ran out.

Back in the early 1990s, when this happened, the large majority of climbers still were men, and it’s well known that men are stupid about refueling their cars. I suffer from this irrational affliction, often delaying a fill-up and then squirming with anxiety all the way to the next station. Once, my wife and I were driving to the desert and I chose not to fill up at the last place in Colorado, planning to hit a gas station before leaving I-70 and heading south to Moab. Except, when we got there, the station was locked tight, and these were some of the last pumps in the world where you couldn’t just pay with a credit card.

If you could have captured and compressed the dripping fury that filled our car during the 37-mile drive to town, you might have engineered a super-fuel that would have run my car for weeks.

I was worried, but not too worried. I knew my car and, sure enough, when I filled up in Moab, there was still almost a gallon in the tank. And, as I told my wife, if we had run out of gas before reaching town, I had a plan.

“Oh, really? What was that?”

“My plan was to coast to the side of the highway, open the door, and run straight into the desert.”

Craig drove a stately 45 mph up the highway toward Moab, trying to conserve the fumes of fuel left in his tank. But it was no use. As we climbed the big hill south of town, his truck sputtered to a stop. He pulled over, and we pulled in behind him and cleared some space in the back seat, expecting him to climb in. But Craig had another idea.

“Do you guys have any stove fuel? White gas?”

It was obvious what he had in mind, but I’d never heard of anyone putting Coleman stove fuel in a gas tank. Nonetheless it worked. We decanted about a cup of our camping fuel into Craig’s truck, and it started right up, crawled over the hilltop, and drifted down the long slope to Moab and a waiting gas station.

Camping white gas is fundamentally not that different from unleaded gasoline, but you wouldn’t want to fill your tank with it, partly because it costs $17 a gallon, but also because it lacks the additives that protect sensitive components in modern engines. (It’s these same additives that explain why you can’t burn automotive gas in most camping stoves. And, by the way, you’re shit out of luck if you need to refuel your gar but you cook with a propane or cartridge stove.) Burning a cup or two of white gas in your car, in an emergency, is probably no big deal. Craig had done it multiple times, and now, so have I.

As we were driving home from the Bighorn mountains last August, Mark Jenkins, a Wyoming native, warned me to stop for gas in Casper. But I was trying to avoid a second stop before I got home to Colorado, and so I pushed on to Medicine Bow, where Mark remembered a pump. Naturally, it was closed. Naturally, it didn’t take credit cards. Naturally, we ran out of gas a couple of miles before reaching Laramie. In a weird way, I’d been anticipating and savoring this possibility during the long miles of super-slow driving along the empty highway. I pulled on the parking brake, stepped out of the car, and began rummaging in the back.

“What are you doing?” Mark laughed from the front seat.

“Watch this!” I said.

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Dougald MacDonald is editor at large of Climbing.