There is something to be said about accessing skiing with a snowmobile. Generally referred to as ‘sled skiing’, it is fun, expensive, and dangerous. In some cases, it is practical while in other times it is not. It can be the most exhilarating thing you can do in the mountains and it can also be soul-crushing, back-breaking, and arduous.
I have found that within some circles of skier types there is a misunderstanding of what ‘sledding’ is. To the elitist ski-mountaineer, sled heads are lazy, beer-drinking morons that have too much money and not enough brains to realize that it is more fun to climb up a mountain by your own horsepower than to blast up the same mountain at 60 mph on your M1000. True, it can be very tiring to climb up 3000ft to ski one lap. But it can also be very tiring to make 10 laps on the same mountain with a snowmobile. Same effort = 10 times more vertical powder skied? Sign me up!
In Turnagain Pass, there is a line of demarcation between the skiers on the East side of the highway and the sledders on the west side. Actually, the sledders are not allowed to go where the skiers go but the skiers can go where the sledders go. On the skier’s side, the parking lot is quiet except for Phish wafting in on the breeze laced with aromatic ‘cigarettes’. Telemark skiers munch granola and fluffy dogs frolic.
Go down the road a half click and the sledder parking lot is cranking Rob Zombie with huge jacked-up trucks spinning donuts as sleds gap the snow berms. I admit when I was a proud hippie I used to be slightly intimidated by the uproar and general mayhem that I perceived. “Look at those lazy people blasting around in circles… How can they experience true mountain beauty on one of those machines?”
And then they would zip away as if on greased lightning and climb the far horizon.
So I eventually got a sled. There is the debate, in BC at least, that you can get away with a smaller sled because you just need to access the 20k of logging roads before you get to the good alpine terrain where you can ditch the sled and get back to good old skinning, only because the sled can only take you so far. On the other hand, a big sled can actually climb the steep alpine terrain with two people on board and deposit you on the top of a run.
In Turnagain Pass, there are no logging roads or trees for that matter and a small sled will barely get you out of the parking lot, let alone up close to the good skiing. So I opted for the REV 800 with a 151” track. Pretty sweet ride, all I had to do was learn to ride the damn thing. After about ten days of burning fossil fuels, I finally figured out how to counter-steer in powder and how to basically not get stuck in the first place. It was time to really get after it!
Usually, you ride two people to a sled when you are skiing or boarding. Both people ride up, one skis down and the other shuttles the sled to the bottom where you reload and go up again. I find it interesting that people in BC will argue until blue in the face that the best way to ride two people is to use the ‘tandem’ method. This is where the riders stand side by side, each on a rail while one hits the throttle and the other is on brakes. The riders both steer and negotiate the terrain together. This method is useful when traveling on logging roads or established trails but to me, it seems unwieldy when it comes to more aggressive terrain.
The other method, which I prefer, is called ‘potato.’ Basically, one rider is in control of the whole sled and stands up while a passenger sits in front and hangs on to the steering column. This way the center of gravity is lower and is actually centered on the sled. The driver yells “LEFT!” and they both lean left as the driver counter steers right and you make a right-hand traverse…
Anyway, this is all child’s play. The true experts ride solo and rely on the ‘ghost ride’ method. As the name implies, one rider rides up gets off at the top, and pushes the sled into the fall line and if all goes well, she will be waiting at the bottom like a trusty steed. Sometimes you will fake ghost ride, which is just riding without braking or steering, so a track gets put in. This technique is not for the faint of heart and really only works in wide-open alpine terrain with obvious fall lines and no real obstacles.
There is one guy in Girdwood who only ghost rides. I would watch in amazement as he would release his brand new REV and not even look twice while he strapped on his bindings before he slayed powder for 2000 feet. I did see him nearly demolish his sled one day. He kept ghosting down Juniors and since the whole slope rolls over from the top, he did not see how his sled was punching in a depression at the bottom of the long steep pitch. Lap after lap I watched from a distance until finally it was too much and his beauty of a ride compressed and then launched and then nose-dived and then came cartwheeling out the bottom. He seemed unfazed, strapped it back together, and was off to the races.
I only ghost rode a few times and never really liked it. It is kind of like sending your kid off to college. You know they mean well, but you know they can also ‘get off track’, if you know what I mean.
Jared and I were poking around in one of the southern bowl that spills down into Seattle Creek. Later in the sled season, this bowl is a real highway of traffic but as it was now mid-February, no one had been down into Seattle Creek yet, at all. We were up on the ridge top speculating on our next run. From where we could see, there is a small bowl that rolls off the ridge top and it flattens out before falling another 1500 feet to the creek bottom. Even though there were two of us with a sled each Jared was pushing for me to ghost my ride into the first small bowl. I did not want to because I knew that my track was on the loose side and when she coasted, she coasted farther than other sleds.
He really thought it would be all right and I finally caved. I took my skis off and pushed and guided the sled about 50 feet before releasing her to the world. Jared sat perched on his ride right next to me. As my sled disappeared over the roll I had a moment to tell Jared to get his sled ready, he would have to hurry and save mine if it looked like trouble. Just then she popped out on the lower flats and I knew right away that she was moving fast. She slowed… and slowed. I told Jared to get on it fast and he paused and I finally pushed him to get going. I could see my sled slowing, slowing. This was going to be close. I could see Jared down on the flats now racing. I could see that my sled was now not slowing as she actually crested the point of no return.
Jared raced over the gentle roll and managed to get right up alongside of mine but there was nothing he could do. My sled was accelerating now and was about to roll over the real steep part. Jared was right up alongside like he was trying to corral a wild bronco. He could save mine but he would lose his! He had to pull a shit-hook turn at the very last moment as my ride disappeared into the no-mans land.
It was a walk of shame for me as I turned uphill to gather my skis and my wits in preparation for what was to come next. As I skied down by myself it was quite enjoyable. On skis, it felt fairly low angle, in the 30-degree range. About halfway down I made the mistake of looking back uphill, over my shoulder, and felt my spirits sink. As a sledder trying to go uphill it looked steep and completely covered in powder. I made dollar signs with my sled track and could see where it caught air and where it dipped and rolled with the terrain. For a while, I could not see the actual sled until about three-quarters down the run when I saw a small speck at the very far away bottom of Seattle Creek.
‘Ho-Lee Shit’ I thought as I skied up onto the scene. There she was looking all innocent with powder piled up around the cowling. I took my skis off and it was a solid waist-deep. I knew that this would be a test of my minimal sledding abilities. I got the skis strapped on and took a deep breath.
I got her started and made a tentative tap at the throttle. If I dug a trench with my track here, I would be hooped. I stayed light on the throttle and then eased into a full-throttle display of machismo that only the ptarmigans would witness. The sled pitched in the air and wallowed and wailed and I managed to pull an all-out survival turn towards uphill and then I really gunned it! I made a high mark up, oh, about 20 feet before I had to pull her downhill again with all my might. I got back to where I started and carefully tried to stay on my track as I gunned it again and made it another 3 feet. ‘Three feet?! Holy fuck, this is bullshit’ I thought as I circled again and made it another 3 feet. At the top of each of my mini high marks, the sled was damn near vertical in the snowpack as I struggled to maintain control and composure. A lesser man surely would have cracked right then but I knew I had to dig deep.
My first real goal was to surmount a small wind drift thingy about 50 feet uphill. I can remember how that first little goal seemed so big and daunting. I felt that I would be happy if I only made it that far because I knew I had tried my hardest. Soon enough I made it over that first roll and realized that my up track was quickly becoming more like a highway. After the first steep mini-pitch it was a long, long medium pitch that I had to dissect one high mark at a time. I would be racing up my sweet track and then get bobbing back and forth and all of the sudden lose all my momentum in the deep snow on the sides.
After about an hour of going balls out, I was becoming fatigued. I had to position my knee on the seat just so that I took the weight off my arms as I battled the G’s uphill. On each down lap, I would hang my arms loose and try to shake them out in preparation for the next rep. It was funny because if I was skinning, I would have taken only about 45 minutes to get out of this same drainage, and here I was only halfway out and damn near beat.
There was one more main crux that I could see. At the top of the long, more gentle pitch, it turned fairly steep before rolling onto a flat knoll. I can remember the first time I cleared the knoll my sled was actually vertical and digging deep in the snow. I was hovering 8 feet in the air and could look to the top and see three of four people sitting on the ridge watching over me. I spun a 180 on the tail of my track and descended to the bottom again. The problem now was the trench I had just dug at the top of the knoll. It was a good 4 feet deep and 16” wide and it kept throwing me off for the next 5 attempts.
Finally, after an hour and a half of sheer battle, I gained the little knoll and ran out of gas. Luckily I had a reserve jerry can strapped on back and it took all of my effort to refuel. By now the cavalry decided that I had had enough and they descended to help punch a track up the remaining 750 feet.
That night I could not sleep because I kept dreaming that I was still trapped in Seattle Creek. It started snowing the next day and 15 feet of snow and a week later it cleared. If I did not get out of there when I did my precious REV would have been buried for the season.