Snowmobiles, Machines from Hell or Sleds to Paradise?

Post by blogger | April 9, 2009      

(From Couloir Magazine Volume V, Number 4, April/May 1993, reworked 2009)

Family sledding and skiing, drawing by Louie Dawson 1998.

Family sledding and skiing, drawing by Louie Dawson 1998.

Crested Butte, Colorado. Lisa and I grab a gut-bomb at a cafe, then meet three friends at a trailhead. Our sport plan: Backcountry freshies in the epic midwinter snow of this high mountain town. We begin our trip with a snowmobile ride, as about 25 other skiers do. We’d still earn our turns as backcountry skiers. But we’d let our “sled” take the pain out of the approach slog, and help us escape the crowded lands close to the trailhead. Sound unusual? Not in Crested Butte, and not in other areas. Many backcountry skiers, rejecting restrictive ski area boundaries and costly helicopters, have discovered the snowmobile.

North American backcountry skiing and the snowmobile are joined at the hip. In Washington and California, skiers use the machines to aid travel to remote huts. In my neck of the woods, our groomed snowmobile routes, (known as “over-snow roads”) are popular with the nordic ski skating crowd.

Such grooming is paid for by snowmobile registration fees, while skiers pay little or nothing for their use. Snowmobilers work hard for trailhead parking, access and trail marking. Just as we skiers do, snowmobilers love the winter backcountry. Senior citizens, disabled people and many others do hut trips supported by snowmobiles. I’ve met one guy, a paraplegic, for whom snowmobiling is the equivalent of performance backcountry skiing. For skiers who can’t afford guides who store bedding and food at the huts, hauling baggage by machine to these huts is a fair option. Upkeep of many huts requires the use of snowmobiles. Virtually all rescue of backcountry skiers involves snowmobiles. Yet some backcountry skiers feel snowmobiles are nothing less than machines from hell.

Snowmobiles make noise — they make a heck of a lot more noise than a skier. Older sleds are terribly noisy. I used to own one, and it embarrassed me. Newer models are quieter than most skiers realize. Indeed, some could use a horn! But they still break the solitude. We have the technology to make the machines as quiet as a modern automobile, but noise standards set by the snowmobile industry are not that stringent. Yet snowmobiles are not the only noise offender. One Valentines day a few years ago, Lisa and I climbed a peak near a major snowmobile trailhead. All was peace. Then the dog teams showed up for a race that started at the trailhead. Their canine howls echoed through the valley and drowned out the faint buzzing of a few snowmobiles. They finally quit, then several airplanes flew over, then a jet roared. Other skiers howled as they cut the powder above us. Even if we’d skied in legal Wilderness, we could have heard the dogs and the aircraft. (While I’m sure the skiers would have been silent in their deep reverence for wilderness).

But even with a few noise episodes our day of skiing was a fine one. We came back with the rosy glow from a good climb. The view from the summit was still inspiring, the powder deep, and the jays still stole our picnic goods. True multiple use — we even shared our food!

But we can share thoughtfully. Neither skiers nor sledders can deny that it is grim to share a narrow trail with frequent traffic. This is rare, but it will happen more as both sports gain popularity. Such trails should be widened, have their use limited, or have parallel trails marked for skiers. Also, I’ve heard of huts being circled by snowmobilers like wild Indians attacking wagon train. That’s unacceptable and must stop. Ski areas don’t allow recreational snowmobiling on their ski slopes, and most huts on Federal land are nothing less than pygmy ski areas. Snowmobilers should be allowed to use the huts, but they must walk in a few hundred yards from the permit area boundary. Still another way to control use of huts is to build them where sleds can’t reach them (as many huts are). Not doing so, then trying to segregate use of public land, exhibits an arrogant attitude on the part of hut designers and backcountry skiers — an attitude that I can’t help but question when there are so many higher and more inaccessible places where huts could be built (though such locations increase the cost of truck supported summer maintenance — and snowmobile supported winter maintenance).

A few years ago I spent a winter disabled with an ankle problem. I could only walk a few hundred feet. As a way of enjoying the winter wild, I spent the season snowmobiling around Colorado. Riding mostly on established routes, and spending a lot of time picnicking and sight seeing, I truly enjoyed myself. I also had an interesting experience with bigotry. While we were unloading our sleds at a trailhead, a few backcountry skiers showed up. As one of them myself, I thought nothing of strolling over to their trucks and striking up a conversation. “Hi, how was the skiing?” I asked. Silence. “Hi,” I said again. A mumbled hi and averted eyes was their only reply. I could tell there was something weird going on. “At least we didn’t see any snowmobiles,” someone finally said as they threw their skis in the back of their truck and jumped behind the wheel. I stood and breathed their exhaust as they drove away. This was an eye opener. Just having a snowmobile on a trailer had converted me into a subhuman in these people’s eyes. They were skiing bigots! I vowed after that experience to never fall into the same mindset, no matter what side of the fence I’m on.

Should we reserve a few trails for skiers? Perhaps, but must ski trails follow the same snow covered roads and improved trails that sledders like? A ski trail can go anywhere you point your tips. Yet most skiers who whine about snowmobiles don’t hesitate to follow a nicely packed sled track. Why don’t they break a new trail? What’s more, why aren’t they skiing the thousands of miles of trails in our legal Wilderness? In the latter case, is the answer that Wilderness precludes huts, easy access, and well marked trails? If so, it’s elitist to ask snowmobilers to stay away while we improve non-wilderness lands for backcountry skiing. In view of any honest environmentalist, a snowmobile or ski hut are equal intrusions in the natural order — and the hut is a permanent degradation compared to the momentary visit of a snowmobile.

Machines from hell? Let us reexamine such vehement feelings. Is there an element of bigotry here; of tribalism? Should we be dividing multiple use lands so each use has it’s own area? If we restrict snowmobilers, in a draconian twist they could restrict skiers. I value my right to ski virtually all federal land — and I’m not alone in that feeling. Should snowshoers have their own trails? Dog teams? The handicapped? Kite flyers? The pie can only be cut so many times, and as the proverb says, “he who divides gets the worst share.”

Moreover, let’s not forget that snowmobiles are already restricted in millions of acres of legal wilderness across North America. Furthermore, snowmobiles simply can’t go everywhere a skier can, and thus are further limited. And finally, the snowmobile community has been more than accommodating by working to help arrange segregated use in crowded areas such as Alaska’s Turnagain Pass and Colorado’s Vail Pass. Would skiers do the same, and volunteer not to ski at a popular area so they wouldn’t bother snowmobilers? For example, would skiers volunteer to not ski routes on Mount Baker in Washington or Red Lady Peak in Crested Butte, both popular snowmobile areas? I think not, and I hope not!

But if skiers keep asking snowmobilers to limit their use of non-wilderness lands, why shouldn’t the sledders ask the same of the skiers? Thus far, the off highway vehicle (OHV) community has not taken this approach; but such segregation should loom as a possibility in any backcountry skier’s mind! By not practicing bigotry, but rather being inclusive, we can ward off any such occurrence.

We skiers and snowmobilers have more common ground than conflict. Let’s work together. As a team, we could fight threats to all backcountry users — threats such as development, trailhead vandalism, parking limits, and plowing of roads usually closed in winter and used as over-snow routes. Working together, we could insure kinder wilderness boundaries — instead of those forced by fanatics who view huts and snowmobiles with equal disdain. Working together, we could mark a few “skier only” trails off the snow covered roads that sledders like. Working together, we could can get manufacturers to make quiet machines. Working together, we could simplify winter hut maintenance by using appropriate snowmobile transport. Combine forces– we can make things happen!




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6 Responses to “Snowmobiles, Machines from Hell or Sleds to Paradise?”

  1. Gobagirl67 January 3rd, 2016 4:42 pm

    Hmmm, it seems a convenient justification to support your use of the sled. My husband and I owned one about 7 years ago (a 2-stroke) to access deeper ski terrain. Yet we found ourselves at odds with the machine on many levels. We have been skiing the backcountry together for the last 25 years and the 2 years we spent “cheating” were fun, but unfulfilled in the end. It was insanely smelly, overbearingly noisy, and it insulted my sense of a true backcountry experience. Heck, the time spent towing, loading and unloading was only marginally better than simply hoofin’ it.

    I find it a rather silly analogy that sledneckers could be bothered by bc skiers. Are we compacting the snow, scaring away animals in their natural environment and polluting the air and snow at the same levels sleds are? I think not. Not by a landslide. I spent 2 1/2 hours yesterday breaking trail only to hear a slew of sled (both 2 & 4 stroke) accessed skiers 2 miles across the valley from us. I knew them all since they posted their stoke on FB today. Do you think they heard us?

    While your bigoted experience with those elitist bc skiers in a parking lot was unfortunate, it’s a reality many on both sides face in the wake of a burgeoning population. I also absolutely believe anyone with a disability should be afforded the opportunity to experience a wintry adventure. No argument there. But let’s not sugar coat the real reason so many able bodied, otherwise tree huggin’, breakfast burrito eating, parsley juicin’, micro-brew & espresso drinkin’ backcountry skiers jump on a sled to access the powder. We’re selfish, greedy powder whores. Myself included. But, I am reserved to accessing terrain on foot. I’m learning to temper my greed. I only wish I didn’t have to “hear” all those others giving in to theirs. But, it’s the world we live in. I am grateful for the days, albeit it few, when I don’t.

    Get up early and get skinnin’!

    PS: I was really annoyed a week ago when a sledder demolished our skin track, thoughtfully placed on the side of the road. It goes both ways, baby!

  2. Lou Dawson 2 January 3rd, 2016 4:56 pm

    Thanks Goba, I was wondering if anyone would ever find this, buried in the archives! I totally agree that sleds can be a problem for us ski tourers. On the other hand, the way myself and many of my friends use them is essentially to replace our cars when the access roads get snow covered. Little more than that. Since we are not going to places where recreational sledding is popular or even legal, we don’t have many problems in those areas. Nonetheless I’m indeed aware that conflicts happen. As for whether a snowmobile is worth the effort and expense, that’s of course going to be different for everyone. A really good example of sled access is Washington Pass up in the PNW, what is it, something like 20 miles of snow covered highway to get to the alpine terrain where the good skiing is? Seems perfectly fine and logical to me to use a snowmobile for that… Lou

  3. Jim Milstein January 3rd, 2016 6:07 pm

    Your example, Lou, seems completely reasonable. The question, as always, is where do you draw the line?

  4. Gobagirl67 January 3rd, 2016 6:51 pm

    The problem here is that where it’s legal is up for debate. There doesn’t seem to be any clear or definitive guidelines or regulations stating where sleds aren’t allowed without actually going to our local USFS station and obtaining said docs. Certainly, we have “designated” snowmobile parking areas and trails, but there is plenty of boondocking going on in areas clearly not open to motorized traffic during the summer months. Lack of enforcement in an under-budgeted USFS only reinforces poor behavior. It didn’t help seeing, via vimeo, the very fellow to whom we sold our sled, perched atop a local mountain with several others and then skiing 5500′ only to be “picked up” down below. Breaks my heart. Drawing the line isn’t always so easy in a social media world as it seems to be redrawn on a daily basis. I guess I should be grateful my backcountry days are likely numbered anyway by this aging body. 😉

  5. Lou Dawson 2 January 3rd, 2016 7:15 pm

    Goba, I think part of the deal is to not get too affected… there are much bigger problems in the world, IMHO. Full disclosure, in my 20s I was rabid anti snowmobile. they were junk then (1960s) but loud and bad exhaust. I’m not an “anti” any more but fully want them being used under the rule of law that supports our civilization. I totally agree with you guys that enforcement is ridiculously lax. Funny thing is, whether you advocate for more snowmobile access or less, enforcing the law “helps.” In the case of more access, enforcement unites and radicalizes the sledders to fight for land to use. Since there are a lot more snowmobilers than backcountry skiers, get who might win? Interesting issue if you really think it all through. Lou

  6. Chris January 6th, 2016 11:57 am

    Goba, You make some very valid points. After over 50yrs. of recreating on our public lands, and managing private land next to them, my take away is that our human impact is only only on the increase. If for no other reason than population growth alone. Both mechanized and non-mechanized skiers can now go further and stay longer in the back country than ever before. A very large part of the sledder/skier conflict rests at the feet of the USFS. I agree that this is directly attributed to lack of funding but then that is a result of who we elect to represent us in Congress (let’s not go there, my typing skills aren’t fast enough). We all know that without enforcement, all the regulations in the world are meaningless and it only escalates the potential for conflict. To “draw the line” it has to be established and enforced.

    Lou, the sled access at Washington Pass is one of the reasons I don’t go there to ski tour. After considering the purchase of recreational property there, I decided I couldn’t tolerate the noise and pollution from the sleds.

    Yes, sledders are organized and they can have places like Cooke City and Yellowstone if anyone thinks that’s enjoyable. But, non mechanized winter recreationist can also have their perspective heard. Consider the Winter Wildlands Alliance and their influence on Yellowstone sled use as well as the federal court decision not allowing the USFS to exempt over-the-snow vehicle use when developing travel management plans. Two big wins IMO. Even though the over-the-snow vehicle ruling was strongly worded, it does not require the USFS to gather further public input on the issue and allows local Forest Supervisors quite a bit of flexibility in their decision making. From my perspective, the real change is that the Forest Service listened to the public input by adopting a prohibited-unless-allowed approach to snowmobile use that is, rightfully so, consistent with motorized management in other seasons. The rub for me is that often sledders start out traveling over snow covered roads and with time start traveling further and further off road to get closer to the goods. In our area they’re often used well away from roads along consolidated ridges, pick up zones at the bottom, or just high siding bowls for the fun of it. As this behavior becomes more established, it makes it increasing difficult to stop or change. I just don’t see how their impact, even traveling on established roads, is anything close to skiers, snowshoers and the like. The exhaust stench and noise that travels for miles is impacting and I know of no example where human powered activities impact the sled community, except possibly taking up one third or their parking space where a sled and trailer requires the space of three cars. Parking alone is a real issue in some places.

    The Forest Service also needs to let go of their “multiple use” doctrine. I certainly support this concept, just not in the same location where you have mechanized and non-mechanized users- they’re just setting things up for conflict. I often hear sledders whine about “historic” use and how their activities might now be limited. One the other hand I think back 30-40 yrs. ago touring in places like Yosemite and the Cascades when there where no sleds in site because the technology simply didn’t allow it. “Historic” use in my mind means several generations and not just when it conveniently aligns with “my” use.

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