Learning to Ride a Snowmobile

Okay, normally, I’m the guy who is always pushing for human-powered activities. You know, biking, hiking, running, etc. Not exactly a proponent of getting in a 4-wheeler, driving far, and calling that an adventure. Well, that may have all changed this winter when we took our snowmobile, a.k.a. sled, out in the neighborhood. With one squeeze of the thumb, you are sent nearly flying off the back of the sled, holding on for dear life, as you rip around the snowy trails in the mountains. Needless to say, ripping around on a snowmobile is pure fun, but also ends up being a ton of work when too much fun leads to getting too damn stuck. But that was all a part of the learning curve this winter for learning how to ride our snowmobile.

When we bought our Cabin up in Tollgate Canyon, the previous owner left two snowmobiles for us. One being a 2001 Polaris Rocky Mountain King 800 and a 2005 Polaris Rocky Mountain King 900 151 Track. By the time the first snowfall came, we only got the 2005 running, but that was all that we needed to have a great time. This 2-stroke sled is an early version of a backcountry sled, with the longer track and wider stance. All of which, didn’t really mean much to me at first, since we almost exclusively were riding around on our snow-packed roads the entire time. But once winter really got into full swing, I started to take them out into open fields and untouched road sections in the neighborhood, which meant I had to learn how to ride in deep powder. And that was quite a steep learning curve.

As it turns out, riding a snowmobile on a trail is nothing like riding in deep powder. A fact I quickly learned the hard way. Riding in powder, like in skiing, is all about keeping speed to float on top of the snow. Otherwise, if you try to navigate at slow speeds or stop, the snowmobile will sink and the more throttle you give it while stopped, the deeper it digs into the snow, getting more and more stuck. I’ve lost count how many times I got the snowmobile stuck in our yard. Once you get the snowmobile stuck, you really only have two options: Dig it out all around the sled with a shovel and try to ride it out forwards or backwards. Or the faster option, pick up the rear of the sled and move it left or right to get more grip on fresh snow, and readjust the front skids to make the exit easier, and while standing off to the side of the sled, give it a lot of throttle and allow the sled to ride itself out of being stuck. Depending on how badly you get stuck, some times both recovery options are required.

The simple act of navigating in powder was such a rewarding challenge to finally figure out. As I mentioned before, it’s nothing like riding on a trail, so no matter how much you turn the handlebar, the sled isn’t guaranteed to move in that direction. To make the sled turn, you really have to use your body weight. What I mean by that is if you want to navigate across a slope, sometimes you have to stand with both feet on one side of the sled to really hold that edge. Other times, just to make a turn, you really need to throw your entire body weight to the one side as your initiate your turn just so that the skids in the front will dig into the snow. All of which are nearly impossible to explain well in a post, because it is all about feel. Best way I can describe it is just like skiing: the difference between scraping your edge to turn versus leaning into the front of your boots and having the ski flex and initiate into a carving turn. 

Of course, it isn’t all just banging your head against a wall trying to force the nearly 500lb sled to go where you want it to. A lot of the time, its just pure fun! Being able to climb hills with ease and hit flat stretches at speeds of over 40mph, it is an unbelievable feeling. My neighbor and I would strap our skis to the sleds and use the sleds to access ski terrain rather than touring the many mile to get there. And other times, my wife and I hook a rope up to the sled and do a little Canadian waterskiing where we pull each-other through the fields of snow and ride our snowboards behind the snowmobile (just like waterskiing). And after a winter of exploring our neighborhood, we cant wait to get a trailer and take the sleds out to the Uintas to really do some exploring next winter!

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