Rise of the Snowmachine

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 17, 2006      
Backcountry skiing roadtrip.

Are backcountry skiers really rednecks in drag? Our gals might not have hairdos that can be ruined by ceiling fans and us boys know a Volvo is not an anatomical reference (right?), but recent changes in ski culture have me wondering.

Twenty years ago I began hinting at the possibility that snowmobiles might be a good tool for backcountry skiing access. A certain group prayed I’d choke on granola for uttering such blasphemy, and I’m still not welcome in certain circles.

All I can say to those haters now is you’d better keep your granola to yourselves and work harder at shutting snowmobiles out of the backcountry, because they’re pretty danged popular with skiers. Like automobiles, snowmobiles give one an amazing amount of freedom and mobility. For those reasons, in my view their popularity among skiers was inevitable. Used for skiing in areas with suitable terrain (low angled approaches to steeper peaks), sleds eliminate long flat hikes so we can enjoy human powered climbs and descents. Sure, it’s a fast-food motivated approach that requires less suffering than the old ways, but does that make it bad?

Watch the latest hip ski movies such as TGR’s Anomaly and snowmobile footage is prevalent. Check out occasional debates on web forums about snowmobiles, and you’ll notice an obvious lessening of anti snowmobile hate speech. Perhaps most poignant, look at what ski culture publishers are willing to spend money on for paper and ink.

Specifically, I’m talking about a book called Powder Road. Published about a year ago, Powder Road uses sparse words and copious photos to document a road trip from Colorado to Alaska, with snowmobile assisted skiing along the way. It’s a fun read, especially the chapter describing what has to be the worst day of skiing ever experienced anywhere (with broken snowmobiles and a truck camper fouled by an animal, what else can go wrong?).

But what struck me most about Powder Road is how, yes, redneck it is. A goodly part of the book is about wrenching; trucks, snowmobiles, propane heaters, endless hardware store trips, driving trucks, getting snowmobiles stuck. And that’s the redneck way. Go backcountry, but involve machinery in the process. More, just like a bunch of rednecks the Powder Road boys party hard and wonder about their love lives (the only thing missing from the story is a dog and ex wife, and one suspects at least one of those ingredients might have been in the background). Apparently the wrenching and associated traveling gets in way of the wenching, but powder skiing is better than you-know-what — or at least it lasts longer, right?

At any rate, we’ve got hunting threads on backcountry skiing web forums. Snowmobiles are gaining popularity. Carhartts and look-alike clothing are in style. Wild Turkey is known to be the favored libation of at least one extreme skier. I’d suspect that soon enough a backcountry skiing magazine will have snowmobile reviews. Skiboys, at least you know a Volvo is a car, right? And girls, keep those dreads below the ceiling fan.



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15 Responses to “Rise of the Snowmachine”

  1. Dhelihiker October 17th, 2006 11:14 am

    Wow this is a good one. I could contradict myself in one sentence, so let me try not to. I do my BC in the Tahoe region. A lot of areas have mixed use. There are definitely a handful of snowmobilers that have absolutely no manners, or respect the common ideals shared by most skiers. Conversely I have seen people touring down the middle of groomed snowmobile trails also posing a huge danger for everyone. I think the bottom line is, it’s a free country. If you really hate snowmobiles, do your homework and go where they are not. I personally find it harder to get away from other skiers, than I do snowmobiles. In fact I have been considering using snowmobiles to access remote mountains that you could never get to without multi day tours. Put that on top of your granola, all you self righteous hippies! Respect the mountains, Mother Earth, and even our Redneck brothers; life is too short to be angry. ~Church

  2. mike October 17th, 2006 2:15 pm

    The Powder Road crew are currently planning another trip for 2007. They will be using veggie fueled vehicles (trucks) and have looked into the possibilities of environmentally friendly sleds (veggie fueled and other). The environment has and always will be a concern for those of us involved with the project. We are members of 1% for the planet and are trying to do our best to mix sled skiing with environmental sensitivity.

  3. Terry October 17th, 2006 1:38 pm

    The main issue I have w/snowmobiles is their environmental impact:

    from Powder, Oct., 2004, p.78:

    “While people like to argue otherwise, snowmobiles are obnoxiously loud and wreak havoc on the environment. The facts are hard to stomach: Two-stroke snowmobiles dump up to 30 percent of their fuel unburned into the snow and, according to the California Air Resources Board, seven hours of two-stroke engine use produces more smog-forming pollution than a modern car creates in over 100,000 miles on the road..

    But there’s hope. New four-stroke snowmobiles average 40 percent less fuel consumption, however the four-stroke isn’t an option yet. “Right now the reason no one is converting is because of the 70-pound weight increase – it’s a huge difference,” says Dan. “It adds the weight in the wrong place – in the front end – so it’s a heavy ride that’s hard to maneuver.” The good news, Treadway points out, is the new semi-direct injection (SDI) two-stroke, which delievrs the same horsepower as a traditional carbureted engine while reducing fuel consumption by up to 25 percent and emissions by up to 50 percent. Unfortunately it also features a $600 price increase.”

    I thought it couldn’t be this bad, but when I search online it seems to be so.


    or http://tinyurl.com/6vq2b (same as above)

    Condensed from a 1999 Bluewater Network document.

    According to snowmobile emissions data, in one hour, a single snowmobile produces more smog-forming pollution than a modern car creates in one year; one hundred snowmobiles can create the equivalent carbon monoxide of more than 100,000 cars.

    Two-stroke engines deliver a lot of power but also a lot of exhaust; they spit 100 times more carbon monoxide and 300 times more hydrocarbons than automobiles, according to a report compiled from studies performed by several state and federal agencies and the University of Denver.

    The EPA has determined that two-stroke engines release between 25% and 30% of their unburned gas and oil mixture directly into the environment……..

    Noxious Air Emissions
    Dangerous levels of carbon monoxide (CO) and particulate matter (PM) are a primary concern. CO is extremely dangerous to humans (discussed below), and particulate matter is a recently confirmed human carcinogen by the EPA. Snowmobiles emit dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. A study conducted for the National Park Service in 1997 concluded that a single snowmobile produces 500-1000 times more carbon monoxide than a 1988 passenger car (Fussell-Snook 1997). Notably, comparisons to a current model-year passenger vehicle would increase this figure significantly.

  4. Lou October 17th, 2006 2:06 pm

    Terry, the guys in Powder Road used 4-stroke sleds and I’d imagine most snowmobiles will be 4-stroke in a few years.

    One wonders how much pollution a helicopter spews…

  5. Paul October 17th, 2006 2:21 pm

    4- stroke sleds are heavier, cleaner, power to weight is not as good, but all of the major manufacturers sell them Arctic Cat, Polaris, are the two US manufacturers who do.

    I don’t own one, and don’t work for them.

  6. Terry October 17th, 2006 2:34 pm

    Encouraging that they used 4 stroke, Lou! Glad to know that these new machines are out there.

    Was just looking at a report to see how the 4 strokes compare: http://www2.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/yell/20042005Yellowstone0405_DU_FINALexecSummary.pdf

    There are significant improvements in hydrocarbon emissions – down from 92 grams/mile for 2 stroke, compared with 3.1 to 4.7 grams/mile for 4 stroke.

    CO emissions are still high for 4 stroke though, measuring between 25-60 grams/mile. In comparison an average light truck/SUV emits 27.7 grams/mile of CO. Interesting that “average CO emissions varied by a factor of 3 between manufacturers”.

    Personally I’ll be trying kite skiing this winter to see how well the winds will power me around the back country 🙂

  7. Shane October 17th, 2006 3:39 pm

    My gripe with snowmobiles is that, if piloted by someone with an obnoxious disregard for others, their impact can be quite severe in terms of noise and safety. I know a guy that was with a group of skiers when a ‘biler highmarked above them and caused a slide. No one was hurt but that kind of behavior and disregard for others is somewhat noticeable in the “if don’t make noise it aint a sport” crowd.

    As Lou mentions “One wonders how much pollution a helicopter spews…”

    Similarly, I wonder how much pollution a freight ship loaded with ski gear and clothing burns on its’ way to the US from China. I know my Black Diamond gloves were made in China and I’m sure a bunch of other gear is too. As far as the pollution issue goes, I think we all contribute in some way even though some of those ways might not be as readily apparent compared to the obvious example of snow mobile exhuast.

  8. Lou October 18th, 2006 6:40 am

    Veggie fuel still makes greenhouse gas, and the farming required for veggie fuel uses immense amounts of petroleum. Almost everything we use or do is petrol derived. Buzz killer, yeah, but we need to be realistic. Things like driving a veggie fueled truck are not making any difference whatsoever in global warming. They’re just feel-good acts at best, P.R. stunts at worst.

    That’s not to say I don’t like bio fuels, they’re cool, I might try cooking some up in my garage some time. But I’m not fooling myself into thinking doing so will make any difference in terms of climate change.

  9. Jay Jurkowitsch October 18th, 2006 8:07 am

    Lou ; I have nothing but respect for someone with your; background, accomplishments and hard working attitude,BUT I do have problems with some of your view points. I understand that you and a “FEW” others in this world (of now 6.5 + Billion people – 300 Million in the USA – not even just N. America) kinda/sorta need to use sleds for approaches, due to injury limiting factors (artrithis and such – after surgeries and so forth),BUT the majority of sleders and sled pulled skiers seem to be just; selfish and lazy. All I hear from them is; it is MY Public Land and I want to get MORE runs in – so there! Pretty childish attitude!
    An old friend of us both once said; “Rules are for Fools” and it took me awhile see what he ment. If people act like fools and cause problems – there will be rules/laws to regulate them. Responsible people think of others and other things, before JUST thinking about themselves and take responsiblitity for their actions and don’t blame someone or something else when things go wrong – like; it is the Gov’ts fault that I had too violate the Wilderness Area – they don’t give me enougfh space to do what “I” want to.
    Well, too bad. There are lots of things that “I” don’t like, but instead of breaking the laws and bitching about the tickets; change the laws and accept the fact that sometimes the majority (that is ALL the people of the US) won’t agree with you!
    I will say, it is nice to see that some of the sleders are looking at fuel alternatives for transports and sleds, at least they are trying.
    Well, so much for “MY” high horse/soapbox for today!!

  10. Greydon Clark October 18th, 2006 11:01 am

    From Shane, “Similarly, I wonder how much pollution a freight ship loaded with ski gear and clothing burns on its’ way to the US from China.� Marine fuel is literally the bottom of the oil barrel and it doesn’t burn clean. Exempt from most clean air regulations, ships contribute a staggering amount of pollutants to port cities such as Seattle, Oakland, and LA. Forcing Chinese (or Liberian) ships to be cleaner isn’t going to be cleaner isn’t going to be easy, but given our appetite for foreign goods, we, as a nation, could make it happen.

    Lou, sounds like you’re painting all bio-fuels with the ethanol brush. While bio-diesel isn’t getting the press and congressional largess of E-85, it is making strides on the grass roots level. One advantage of bio-diesel is it can be made from reclaimed oil, obviously the nation doesn’t eat enough Freedom Fries to replace petroleum diesel, but reusing is always good. Also, bio-diesel is way cleaner than petroleum diesel (which is dirty). And while soy bean require fertilizer, they don’t require wars, which coast a lot and use a lot of fuel. Also, in California’s Central Valley, farmers are starting to use bio-diesel in their pumps and tractors. For years, farms received exemptions from Clean Air regulations, and now the air in the valley is utterly foul, the worst in the nation, and people are getting sick. Hopefully bio-diesel can help.

    But back to skiing, I’ve seen slednecks high mark slopes people were skiing (rude and dangerous) and I’ve been given rides and beer from random strangers on snowmachines. So maybe skier/snowmobile cross-over will spur an improvement in BC etiquette, on all sides. Also, I’m under the impression that snowmobiles are expensive and riding one has a learning curve, so, as a weekend warrior, they aren’t a viable option for me.

  11. Mike J October 18th, 2006 8:56 pm

    Hey Lou, I am new to the snowmobiling adventure. Two years ago I would have never thought that I would be riding a sled in the backcounty. Being an avid snowboarder from the midwest, we hiked out of bounds and from trail-heads in various mountain States . I had a great experience taking an avalanche course and hiking into the backcountry. But with time, I wanted to access more remote areas.

    I equated it to our backcountry mountain bike trips, where we use our pick-up truck to access remote areas. Once there, we are able to use our energy to ride further than we would have been capable in our time allowed, after all I’m still a working fool and time is time.

    Last year I bought 2 mountain sleds, I was lucky enough to travel out west 5 times last winter. Each time I learned more. I learned that you can travel great distances, which in turn can lead to spending the night in a warming hut during a winter storm that dumped 3 feet of snow overnite. My wife and I were able to snowshoe and snowboard in remote areas that we could of never reached during our trips without our sleds as an access tool.

    When I think about snowcat or heli sking, it does’t work, I like my freedom with my sled. I guess I’ve become a dang sledneck!

    I agree with you Lou , too many “feel good acts”.

  12. Valdez Telehead October 18th, 2006 9:32 pm

    What I see here is definitely an increase in snowmachine skiers. With that said, skiers should compromise and really push 4 strokes. I call them Stealthmachines.

    With that said I see folks buying real high tech machines. They are very expensive to maintain. They break. Mountain riding is tough on them. They are lousy in deep powder once the slope angle hits 10-15 degrees. I have left many a sledneck at the bottom of a slope covered in powder — snowmachine with even minimal snow can’t get up a 35 degree slope ( I have measured highmark angles and skinned up and past them) except on a course And they can put you so far back in the wilds in a matter of hours. If you do have an engine glitch, you are screwed. It is a very expensive sport. I know of three sleds hauled out of the Chugach last year with a heli.

    And I have had snowmachine skiers who are friends agree to meet me somewhere, but by the time they get every thing all ready. I have already skinned up 1/2 the route.

    Since I know many of these “locals” (snowmachine cannot go on a plane as excess luggage, which is a major negative IMHO) we have reached some agreements, Mainly that they ride up and back down on the same trail that we skin. Good thing is snowmachineskiers like to manage the terrain for skiing. What I don’t like is the snowmachine skier pair that drops off a skier, then the rider goes all over the place screwing up the untracked terrain.

    BTW I own a Polaris Wide-Trak that I have had for 10 years. It has 6000 miles. But I personally would never use a snowmachine to ski. No need here. In some areas they seem ok due to long approaches. Believe it or not, last year for the first time I got a ride up on the Pass. I have never done this, but made an exception for our Visitor Bureau who were putting together promo for the area.

    [Editor’s note, Telehead is the author of an excellent backcountry sking guidebook for the Chugach.]

  13. mike October 19th, 2006 11:43 am

    Driving a veggie fueled truck for a project like The Powder Road may not make that big of a difference in overall global warming (today), but it does raise awareness of alternative fuel sources and keep progressive thinking on the subject alive.

  14. Karl October 19th, 2006 8:44 pm

    Its always ben good to hear your open minded opinions. Although my political opionions often run on what people would consider liberal, most people would consider me a redneck. For the most part most of the snowmobilers here know who I am even if they don’t know me and although with the newer machines they keep encroaching on tree shot lines and gullies they high mark or pack with a downhill run when I ski they tend to be courteous. I’ve seen others self righteously bitch and moan and give them dirty looks and get the same response. Luckily I have places I can go were neither of these groups will bother me and if I want I few quick runs I can utilize the packed trails the mountain sleds make, many of which are on my old skin tracks ( they seem to have purposfully left some of the lower ones for me and I’ve noticed that the lowest of these is in the new management plan which they put more input into than any skiers or boarders I know). On the other hand during an avalanche class on this same mountain I watched while a kid ran through our class multiple times. Included in our class was uniformed Forest Service personel. The Forest service personel handled the situaton really well but I was glad the one guy who works either for the local Seirra Club Greenpeace or something office wasn’t there. Some of the local girls in the class knew who he was and would tell you that he was a bad egg. This one bad egg could have ruined all the hard work the resposible riders group had done setting up regulations and working with the Forest Service and that is the lecture the kid got.
    As far as emissions go its a mute point. Yes its visible but unless your willing to give up alot of the amenities such as ski areas (wonder what all that black stuff is that gets all into your bases in the spring), cars ( theres a lot of granolas out their with old out of tune Suburus belching blue smoke), new gear all the time (do we really need the latest binder, boats, skiis etc.), O.K. I have my modern gear, but I don’t know how many barely used leather boots (and one pair of terminators) skinny skiis etc from the local thrift store I also use especially to boogey up those snowmobile tracks on kicker skins to ski tree shots the snowboarders have missed. We all consume vast quanities of resources far beyond our needs.
    No I don’t currently own a snowmachine. But when I lived in a village up north I sure used one. It took me to places were I never would have been able to reach without a major expedition. Before I get off my soapbox let me just say the locals up there are getting greif for excepting Venezualan oil instead of the outrageously espensive oil from the lands they lost and/or one of their major food sources comes from. And they need the gas since there snowmachine is a tool just like your car to bring home the bacon or go out and play. Sorry to go on, I’m bored. I actually took my rusted (but tuned) truck to the shop, my guns are all cleaned mand my bike light needs charging.

  15. Matt Kinney October 21st, 2006 9:10 am

    BTW…that cover shot for “On the Road” looks very familiar. Taken from Mile 44 or so of the Mt. Billy Mitchell area, the last ski route in the guide book.
    Thanks for the Kudo Lou!!

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