Remember lunchtime in seventh grade when enjoying some scrumptious government rations involved more than just finding an empty seat? Time to pick your clique: The budding, pint-sized, testosterone jocks sat together, the “pretty” girls sat together (within spitting distance of the jocks, mind you), the nerds sat together with their graphing calculators nestled amid their Cheesy Poofs, and so on and so forth.
You’d think after 20 years you’d grow out of that sort of social segregation. Yet it seems people often have a hard time seeing outside of their cause, opinion, or way of life.
People like me, for example. I ice climb. I backcountry ski. I am an avid Nordic skier. I am a dog walker and ice fisherwoman. And, many moons ago back in college (when twin tips were just coming into fashion), I built a kicker or two in the woods. But I was never much of a motorhead. I thought snowmobilers were just plain obnoxious. Plus I look horrendous in neon. I found myself cursing and swinging an ice tool in fury at their noise pollution as I picked my way up the Dribbles, thrusting my skate ski pole in their direction while crossing the snowmobile route on the Rendezvous trails, and frantically calling my puppy away from their rapidly circulating tracks while extending a certain finger in their general direction. I didn’t like snowmobiles. In fact, I hated them.
And then, I bought one.
A Ride on the Dark Side
The first winter we used our sled it had more duct tape holding it together than actual bolts. It was purely for ice climbing access (and the occasional backcountry ski foray when we were too lazy to skin in) to Hyalite. We flipped it over more than we actually rode it. But I’ll admit it: even for a crusty Subaru-driving hippie, it’s fun as hell. So when I was offered a trip with a backcountry snowmobile guide out of West Yellowstone, I went. Braaaaaap braaaaaap!
“How often do you practice with your beacon?” asked Jeff Watt, owner of Ace Powder Guides (and avalanche instructor) as we sat in the pit we dug to examine snow stability. "Maybe once or twice a year," I replied.
“Maybe I should have asked you that before we left!” he said with a smirk and friendly pat on the back. I couldn’t have been more offended if he said my rear looked like the broad side of a VW Vanagon.
Watt, originally from the high deserts of Utah, has been a backcountry snowmobile guide in West Yellowstone for over ten years and an avalanche instructor with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center for the past two. He’s also a member of the West Yellowstone Search & Rescue team. Initially I was shocked that a “motorhead” had taken such a vested interest in his community. Don’t these guys just smoke cigarettes and compare valve-compression rates? I was in for an eye-opener.
A Moment of Reckoning
Snowmobiles have changed dramatically in the past five years. Four-stroke, cleaner-burning, more fuel-efficient models are now the norm rather than the exception, and even the remaining two-stroke models are much less environmentally hostile than in years past. Avalanche safety and awareness are also at the top of the list for sledding enthusiasts, and several snowmobile manufacturers are even selling backcountry-specific “mountain” sleds fully equipped with avalanche beacons, probes, and videos on how to use them.
Turns out Watt and his guides all ski or snowboard. They aren’t just “throttle junkies.” “Lionshead is in my backyard. Of course I get in a few turns every year on my snowboard,” he stated with an enthusiastic grin. The head mechanic at Watt’s shop also moonlights as a backcountry ski guide for the Hellroaring Hut in the Centennial Mountains. Posters plaster the inside of their downtown West Yellowstone hub about “sharing our national forests,” “environmental ethics,” and “responsible use.” Watt is a fly-fishing guide in the summer months, and at the trailhead I caught him secretly picking up discarded cigarette butts and candy bar wrappers. Conservation and protection of our natural wonders is at the top of his list of priorities. Clearly, this crew wasn’t fitting into the lunchroom table I had assigned them.
I began losing the guilt lodged in the base of my skull. My friends had given me blank stares when I told them about my super-sneaky activities in West Yellowstone; they were astonished that I was shunning my various lung-powered user groups and was going over to "the dark side.” But heck, I was having a hoot of a time. In the span of five hours I learned how to jump small cliffs, fall completely off the sled and directly onto the top of my head, and float through a patch of powder while carving turns as I would on my fat skis. And I was witness to a true athlete. Watt was airborne for what seemed like decades while dropping off of ridges. He sped through technical terrain so effortlessly that I found myself looking for the cup of tea he surely must be holding. He had a smile on his face the entire day.
Although you won’t find my name on the roster of the Jackson hill climb or see me ripping it up on the snowcross course at the X-Games, I came away from my day as a sledhead with a perma-grin stitched across my goggle-tan face. By immersing myself in other people’s passions and mindsets, I gave myself a crash course in tolerance and understanding. Luckily for us as Montanans, the mountains outnumber the people. There are lots of wide-open spaces, sweeping valleys, and snow-heavy peaks. In a perfect world, we’ll all work together to enjoy the mystical mountains' majesty as we see fit. After all, we could all use a little more kindness and grace in our lives. Especially in the hills.
For more information about Ace Powder Guides, call 646-7541 or visit hicountrysnowmobile.com.
Snow Trackin’: The Snowmobiling Guide to the Rocky Mountain West
Snowmobilers shouldn't leave home without the 2007 edition of Snow Trackin’: The Snowmobiling Guide to the Rocky Mountain West (Farcountry Press; $10). It comes complete with 55 detailed maps: 21 in Montana, 16 in Idaho, and 11 in Wyoming. The guide also provides useful information on each area, including season dates, trail mileage, elevations, average temperatures and snowfall, available services, and directions. The book's contact information for avalanche reports, condition updates, and important area offices keep you from bothering with a phonebook and gets beginners off on the right foot with a section about trail safety, a trail checklist, and wind-chill chart. Keep Snow Trackin’ in mind next time you plan a snowmobiling trip. You're sure to discover some backcountry you never knew existed.
EXPOsing the Slednecks: The 2008 Snowmobile Expo
Because it’s been such a hit the last 16 years, the West Yellowstone World Snowmobile EXPO will be expanded for the 17th annual event. From March 13-18, the big hitters—Arctic Cat, Skidoo, Polaris, and, Yamaha—will reveal their new 2008 snowmobile lines and aftermarket exhibits will fill the Holiday Inn Conference Hotel.
On March 10 and 11, Mountain West Racing Regional (MWR) SnoCross hosts its final race (it added new specialty races this year). The 17th Annual SnoWest SnoCross and the fifth annual Snow Drags races happen the next weekend. All races are open to everyone, and there are prizes.
New this year is the SCS Sledstyle Invitational. This freestyle snowmobiling event pits rider against rider doing aerial tricks for big bucks. It's sure to be a new hit at the EXPO. Also, don’t forget to check out the vintage snowmobile display and the other fun events at the expanded EXPO. For more information, call 646-7701 or visit snowmobileexpo.com.
Recent snowmobile avalanche fatalities have prodded the Gallatin National Avalanche Center to offer snowmobile-specific avalanche awareness classes in a variety of locations around the Gallatin National Forest region, but specifically West Yellowstone. The twice-monthly hour-long classes are free (although a $30 donation to the Friends of the Avalanche Center is requested). More intensive two-day “field” sessions are offered several times throughout the winter. The next session is January 5-6. For more information contact the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center at mtavalanche.com.
The Guiding Light: Our list of West's best snowmobile guides and outfitters
You can’t swing a cat by the tail in West Yellowstone without hitting a snowmobile guide. Here are Outside Bozeman’s favorite “licensed concessionaires.” Each offers environmentally friendlier, quieter machines and provides the required guides for any trip into the Park.
All Yellowstone Motor Sport Rental & Snovan Tours
646-7656 or 800-548-9551
Offers package deals and can take groups of ten sleds into the Park.
Want to be a better photographer? Take the week-long photography/snowmobiling tour or join them for a Lamar Valley wildlife tour.
Holiday Inn/SunSpree Resort
646-7365 or 800-646-7365
Convenient and all-inclusive: lodging, rentals, equipment, and food. Book as a package or a la carte.
646-9564 or 800-426-7669
If they can’t hook you up, no one can. Forty years of local knowledge behind them.
Hi Country Snowmobile Rentals
646-7541 or 800-624-5291
From town to Two Top Mountain, these guys have all the machine you could need.
Two Top Snowmobile Rental, Inc.
646-7802 or 800-522-7802
Tours hit all the main attractions, from Old Faithful to Canyon.
Track Attack: The Rendezvous Ski Race
Snowmobiling isn’t the only thing to do in West Yellowstone this winter. The Park offers some of the best steamy winter beauty around, and what better way to see it then on your own two skis? And really, with gas prices as high as they are, sweat power is looking more and more economical.
The folks in West Yellowstone just can’t get enough of seeing people in spandex, so for the 29th year in a row they’ve organized the Rendezvous Ski Race. If you’re itching to compete in an event that’ll prove your mettle, this might be the race for you. It’s part of the American Ski Marathon Series, the country’s largest racing and touring event for the public.
The Rendezvous race saw 800 racers last year and promises to provide a challenge for every caliber of skier. Kids are welcome to compete in a children’s race, so it truly is fun for the whole family. Depending on your age and athletic ability (or how hard you’re willing to push) you can choose from six lengths: 2k, 5k, 10k, 25k, and 50k. Both classic and skate ski categories exist.
Slated for February 23, 2008, this event assembles the entire spectrum of skiers, from serious racers to family frolickers. So, you better go find those skinny skis and start training now!
The registration deadline is February 21. Register online, or mail in the printable form with race fee. Go to rendezvousrace.com for information.