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Two Strokes and You're Out

Two Strokes and You're Out

Travel
By Chris Solomon
posted: 10/28/2004

Jerry cans of fuel and a packet of chicken sausages? Check. Hundreds of miles of unpoached lines? Got 'em. Rules and regulations? Forget it. Morning throttles up early in the capital of Sledhead Nation. It's eight o'clock on a Friday in late March, and pickups dragging trailers of piggybacked snowmobiles are rumbling up Rutherford Creek, an hour's drive from the slopes of Whistler. The Coast Range's usual gym sock—gray skies are a Windex blue that residents see about four days each winter. It's too good to miss, so nobody does. By nine o'clock, 15 trucks clog the trailhead.

Guys unload snowmobiles, yank starter cords. The sleds make a peeved sound. It's such a classic snowmobile scene that my eyes take a few minutes to adjust and notice what's missing: There's not a single specimen of the stereotypical Sledneckis americanus, the ham-faced, beaconless rube stuffed into a visored helmet, keg belly testing the seams of an oil-stained snowmobile suit. Instead, dudes spill out of cabs, trailing rap music, their wool hats so low they look like Dumb Donald from Fat Albert. They strap snowboards and skis to their backpacks. Everybody here is headed for the ridges that jut from the Pemberton Ice Cap, 10 miles to the north.

The grumbling of that first snowmobile is joined by another, then another. The forest is now a hive of noise. The only cloud in the sky is a cumulus of two-stroke oil that hovers over the parking lot. Then the hive is moving, and we are moving with it, gunning into the future of Canadian backcountry skiing—a world of remote couloirs, unpoached powder, big lines, high decibels, sneaking peril, and earnest hand-wringing. Behind us, the nimbus over the trailhead looks like a squall brewing. And still, the pickups keep arriving.

[""]Seth morrison has one. Ditto for J.T. Holmes, filmmaker Steve Winter, and Mike Douglas, the headmaster of skiing's New School. That jibber with the Hollywood smile gassing up his sled at the Husky filling station in Whistler this morning? That was snowboard star J.P. Walker. "I can't believe it took me this long to get on the program, says Shane McConkey, another proud owner of a whining two-banger. "I'll have one for the rest of my life.

Some call it sled-skiing; others, hybrid skiing. Whatever the label, using snowmobiles to access powder is going off. To have a Yamaha, Arctic Cat, or Polaris dangling from your trailer hitch in Canada today is to be in possession of the ski accessory of the moment. The movement, however, is decidedly proletarian: North of Whistler—so off-the-map it's easier accessed in winter via a 35-mile snowmobile route than by asphalt—ski bums are buying ramshackle Victorians in the for-gotten mining town of Bralorne, cruising down the snowy main drag each morning, and heading into the bush to score untapped lines on lonesome peaks. In the yawning ranges of central British Columbia, where the mountains are scribbled with logging roads, roughneck Revelstoke has a strong core of sled-skiers. And for $200, a commercial sled-ski outfit in Valemount will haul you up to fresh tracks all day in the same mountain ranges where heli-ski outfits charge $800.

British Columbia was a natural to become the hub of hybrid skiing. Long before Detroit started driving Explorers through snowbanks in American TV ads, sleds were the original winter SUV in the Canadian province's remote communities. And there's a lot of ground to cover. B.C. is 35 percent larger than California and Nevada combined—yet, unlike the U.S., Canada never chopped itself up: A whopping 92 percent of the territory is still public land. Snowmobilers can ride on much of it—and they do, thanks to untold miles of mountain roads that are a legacy of B.C.'s robust (or rapacious, depending on your bent) logging and mining past. The province is still unpopulated enough that conflicts among users have not been, in general, so acute as in the States.

[""]South of the border, cultural differences and envonmental concerns have kept sled-skiing numbers modest, but it's still revving up noticeably: Near Mammoth Lakes, California, skiers and snowboarders are blasting up San Joaquin Ridge and Bloody Mountain for quick powder fixes. On deep days in Steamboat, Colorado, they're skiing the lifts till 11 a.m. before driving their pickups to Buffalo Pass, unloading snowmobiles, and skiing freshies long after the resort is played out. Vail Pass, Colorado, has become the epicenter of U.S. hybrid skiing. According to a survey a few years ago, more than 12 percent of the pass's 22,000 user-days were logged by sled-skiers on the hunt for fresh tracks. Says Don Dressler, lead backcountry ranger for the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, "there has been a noticeable increase in the last two years.

In Canada and beyond, technology has been the most potent fuel for the upturn. Snowmobiles now sport engines with more horsepower than small cars. Bigger skis and longer tracks help them float in deep powder. Higher handlebars mean you can steer them more like a mountain bike. All of which makes it faster and easier than ever to access the backcountry.

It didn't take long for a hypercaffeinated generation to discover the new rides. Now, in addition to the latest TGR or Matchstick flicks, younger skiers have been increasingly breast-fed on sled films with names like the Two Stroke Cold Smoke series and The Roops of Hazard. (Roopin' is 'biler slang for blasting up steep slopes, spinning donuts, and general mayhem.) They're bringing a go-big, frontcountry attitude to the backcountry—this time, with snowmobiles. Open any mountain-town newspaper to the classifieds and you can find a sled selling for as little as $1,500, which is not so much more, really, than a new ski-touring setup and a pair of climbing skins. But in this age where impatience is a virtue, a sled comes with something skiers are powerless to resist: the promise of a lot more powder, for a lot less effort.

[""]In NASCAR country it's known as "meeting Jesus on the wall—that inauspicious moment when speed, circumstance, and luck conspire to deliver a race driver to his maker. This phrase comes to mind as I watch Joe Lammers drop into his first run of the day on the Pemberton Ice Cap.

Photographer Fred Foto and I arrived here with Lammers and two other Whistler locals, Chris Eby and Paul Macdougall, after an hour's snowmobile ride up Rutherford Creek. The curtain of forest parts to reveal a sprawling neversummerland of Antarctic-style ice sheets. Seracs ripple against stubborn ridges, and thumbs of rock jab 1,500 feet through the ice cap. It's the kind of place you'd never see in winter without a whole lot of time and leg strength, a big wallet for heli time…or a snowmobile.

"Let's give 'er, says Lammers, eyeing the 50-plus-degree face above us. Lammers, 34, is red-haired, freckled, joking; he occasionally skis in movies, and he keeps a Polaris RMK 700 in his truck bed. He, Macdougall, and Eby ride sleds to the shoulder of the peak, then boot-pack to the summit.

Macdougall and Eby carve the face cleanly, down powder that still lingers a week after the last snowfall. Lammers takes the most exposed line of all, down a fluted face that's interrupted by cheese-grater rock bands. Falling will deliver nasty consequences. Immediately, a cascade of slough tries to carry him over the falls. He hunkers down. Snow pours over him, pulling at his skis and his equilibrium.

Then, the danger is past. Free of the crux, Lammers rips the rest of the line, fast and smooth.

At the bottom, Macdougall has unhinged the cowling of his Skidoo and opened a package of chicken sausages, which he's barbecuing on his muffler. "Beaks and assholes, probably, he says, handing them out.

"You've eaten worse, eh, Joe?

"Can't say I've eaten better.

[""]The near-catastrophic moment is apparently already forgotten. It's just another perfect, perilous day in paradise. We recline on sleds in the warm, end-of-winter sunshine.

"What gets us out here is it's so crowded on the hill, says Eby, himself a ski-movie regular and, like Lammers, a freeskiing instructor at Whistler's Extremely Canadian. He pulls out a pouch of tobacco, rolls a cigarette. "You can't go back to your hidden spots because they're not fresh anymore. Here, he says, "we're not really pressed for space.

The only thing crowding us are several red jerry cans—our gasoline cache. Macdougall, 30, who manages to sled- or lift-ski 60 days a winter while also running a carpentry business, leans against his black SkiDoo Summit 700 and tells me about the new house he's about to build for himself. "You can sled right out the front door, he says, smiling. The snowboarders from the parking lot have long ago disappeared on the vastness of the ice cap, building a huge kicker somewhere. All I see are the ski tracks the boys laid down yesterday—and the unlimited worry-your-mother chutes that haven't even been touched.

Later, somebody points out the slopes of Whistler in the distance. From the ice cap, North America's largest resort looks bite-size, almost quaint, like something seen from an airplane.

It's time to scope another line, and we collect our cache, strap down skis, yank starter cords. The sleds roar. The morning's chainsawed quiet falls in shards. The sun is warming everything fast, so we race around the ice cap, looking for remaining icebox pow that's tucked into the shadows. Each time we cut the engines the silence reassembles itself.

Then the buzzing starts. The noise seems to hatch at first from that ringing in the ears that is noiselessness. It's mosquito-like, and growing louder. Perhaps two miles away, two dots crest a rise. Other snowmobiles. I'm a little deflated. I wish, hypocritically, that they weren't here.

"Do the sleds ever bother you? I ask Macdougall.

"They only bother you when you can't afford one yourself, he replies.

There are, however, plenty of people worried by snowmobiles, and for reasons beyond just their 80-decibel flatulence. They're worse polluters than cars. They stress wildlife. Their compacted trails may give predators an advantage over prey. For these reasons, Paul Morrison, the award-winning Whistler ski photographer (and friend of Lammers and Eby), won't touch a snowmobile—unless there's no other option, like in a rescue—though they have become a tool of the trade for ski photographers desperate to shoot untouched lines. "As a photographer, there has been great pressure to join my friends as they go out for shooting opportunities, Morrison says. "My argument against sleds is simple: They are among the most air-polluting machines an individual can own.

[""]For the recreation community, the rise of sled-skiing has added a wrinkle to the tired motorized-versus-nonmotorized debate. Hybrid skiing "seems to be actually the biggest thorn in our side, says Kim Hedberg, director of the Colorado-based Backcountry Snowsports Alliance, which protects the interests of the human-powered. "Because the hybrids don't consider themselves snowmobilers, Hedberg says, "a lot of them think that they should go wherever they want. Officials and activists both predict that the backcountry could soon be carved up for separate uses—on both sides of the border. At Buffalo and Rabbit Ears passes outside Steamboat, intractable disputes have forced the Forest Service to start segregating muscle-powered skiers from mechanized users and posting enforcement officers to keep the peace. In B.C., a winter-recreation task force has proposed dividing the 2.7-million-acre Squamish Forest District surrounding Whistler into some 25 different use areas. "It's part of the evolution, Rob McCurdy, director of the Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau, which takes visitors backcountry skiing, told me later with a shrug in his voice. "There needs to be a balance. Everybody can't go everywhere.

For now, though—at least in Canada—everyone ssleds in the warm, end-of-winter sunshine.

"What gets us out here is it's so crowded on the hill, says Eby, himself a ski-movie regular and, like Lammers, a freeskiing instructor at Whistler's Extremely Canadian. He pulls out a pouch of tobacco, rolls a cigarette. "You can't go back to your hidden spots because they're not fresh anymore. Here, he says, "we're not really pressed for space.

The only thing crowding us are several red jerry cans—our gasoline cache. Macdougall, 30, who manages to sled- or lift-ski 60 days a winter while also running a carpentry business, leans against his black SkiDoo Summit 700 and tells me about the new house he's about to build for himself. "You can sled right out the front door, he says, smiling. The snowboarders from the parking lot have long ago disappeared on the vastness of the ice cap, building a huge kicker somewhere. All I see are the ski tracks the boys laid down yesterday—and the unlimited worry-your-mother chutes that haven't even been touched.

Later, somebody points out the slopes of Whistler in the distance. From the ice cap, North America's largest resort looks bite-size, almost quaint, like something seen from an airplane.

It's time to scope another line, and we collect our cache, strap down skis, yank starter cords. The sleds roar. The morning's chainsawed quiet falls in shards. The sun is warming everything fast, so we race around the ice cap, looking for remaining icebox pow that's tucked into the shadows. Each time we cut the engines the silence reassembles itself.

Then the buzzing starts. The noise seems to hatch at first from that ringing in the ears that is noiselessness. It's mosquito-like, and growing louder. Perhaps two miles away, two dots crest a rise. Other snowmobiles. I'm a little deflated. I wish, hypocritically, that they weren't here.

"Do the sleds ever bother you? I ask Macdougall.

"They only bother you when you can't afford one yourself, he replies.

There are, however, plenty of people worried by snowmobiles, and for reasons beyond just their 80-decibel flatulence. They're worse polluters than cars. They stress wildlife. Their compacted trails may give predators an advantage over prey. For these reasons, Paul Morrison, the award-winning Whistler ski photographer (and friend of Lammers and Eby), won't touch a snowmobile—unless there's no other option, like in a rescue—though they have become a tool of the trade for ski photographers desperate to shoot untouched lines. "As a photographer, there has been great pressure to join my friends as they go out for shooting opportunities, Morrison says. "My argument against sleds is simple: They are among the most air-polluting machines an individual can own.

[""]For the recreation community, the rise of sled-skiing has added a wrinkle to the tired motorized-versus-nonmotorized debate. Hybrid skiing "seems to be actually the biggest thorn in our side, says Kim Hedberg, director of the Colorado-based Backcountry Snowsports Alliance, which protects the interests of the human-powered. "Because the hybrids don't consider themselves snowmobilers, Hedberg says, "a lot of them think that they should go wherever they want. Officials and activists both predict that the backcountry could soon be carved up for separate uses—on both sides of the border. At Buffalo and Rabbit Ears passes outside Steamboat, intractable disputes have forced the Forest Service to start segregating muscle-powered skiers from mechanized users and posting enforcement officers to keep the peace. In B.C., a winter-recreation task force has proposed dividing the 2.7-million-acre Squamish Forest District surrounding Whistler into some 25 different use areas. "It's part of the evolution, Rob McCurdy, director of the Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau, which takes visitors backcountry skiing, told me later with a shrug in his voice. "There needs to be a balance. Everybody can't go everywhere.

For now, though—at least in Canada—everyone still can. On our perfect day, with the snow stable and the sun glowing, bad experiences seem as remote as the clouds tucked beyond the horizon. The Coast Range, however, is quick to rise up and slap you. "A buddy of mine broke his femur out here last week, on Rainbow Mountain, says Lammers, casually recalling a sled-skiing slide. "In the last four years, I've seen two other avalanche incidents up here—someone who actually was killed, and another where someone became paralyzed, he adds. All were using sleds to ski or board. (The Whistler locals I'm with are all seasoned backcountry travelers, and Lammers teaches snow-safety classes.)

Then there's the sledding itself, which has its own learning curve—and its own dangers. The boys by now are old hands. When Lammers and Utah skier Gordy Peifer head up for another run, they don't even bother to tow each other. Each stands on one running board, grips a handlebar, and leans out like a trolley-man, counterbalancing and steering in unison.

[""]"It takes about a year of sucking before you actually become proficient, Lammers tells me, after watching me pussyfoot my way down a hill, worrying my sled's brakes the entire time. "It takes a while to know how to ride in deep snow. And that's assuming you're already a good-enough skier and have the amount of awareness to be out there in the first place.

Another day on the ice cap, the hazards become still more personal. My rental sled is a Yamaha 700cc SX Viper Deep Powder Special, whose swept-back cowling and angular headlamp impart it with a wicked grin. As I cruise up a steep hill toward our next destination, the sled begins to drift left. I try to correct the drift, but my reactions are clumsy and slow. The Yamaha lists further. One front ski leaves the ground. I jump off. This is not wise. Now the sled is above me on the steep hill, on its side. There, my snowmobile hesitates, as if trying to decide whether it has found its angle of repose. It has not. The sled begins to roll. I try to leap out of the way, but the snow isn't firm and I can't scuttle from its path. The Viper is picking up speed. Some acrobatic instinct takes over, and I begin to tumble, too, flinging myself in great loops down the hill, trying to stay ahead of a 500-pound rolling pin. After six or seven somersaults, I'm thrown to safety. The sled rolls past, rights itself, and zooms down the hill alone—a "ghost rider, as 'bilers call it.

Fred Foto, a veteran sled-skier, zooms up to check on me. I think I've given myself a minor concussion.

"You got off easy, he tells me.

At the Squamish repair shop, my snafu will cost me $500.

But later, back on the ice cap, the immediate physical cautions and the larger social concerns about divvying up the backcountry both seem distant. Here, there's nowhere we can't seem to go. Lammers and Eby zoom to a ridgecrest, jump from their sleds, click into their skis, and catch air off a spine that's too sketchy-steep for mere mortals. I sit and watch. Then they strap skis to sleds, and we light out again. Across the valley, a sledneck high-marks up a steep slope and upends. His snowmobile rolls down the mountain, shedding parts. We watch until he shows signs of life. Then we're pegging the throttle, maching across open country at 60, 70, 90 miles an hour, catching stellar dendrites in the teeth like a motorcyclist catches bugs. Our next powder run is miles away, but we're closing in. Fast.
ne still can. On our perfect day, with the snow stable and the sun glowing, bad experiences seem as remote as the clouds tucked beyond the horizon. The Coast Range, however, is quick to rise up and slap you. "A buddy of mine broke his femur out here last week, on Rainbow Mountain, says Lammers, casually recalling a sled-skiing slide. "In the last four years, I've seen two other avalanche incidents up here—someone who actually was killed, and another where someone became paralyzed, he adds. All were using sleds to ski or board. (The Whistller locals I'm with are all seasoned backcountry travelers, and Lammers teaches snow-safety classes.)

Then there's the sledding itself, which has its own learning curve—and its own dangers. The boys by now are old hands. When Lammers and Utah skier Gordy Peifer head up for another run, they don't even bother to tow each other. Each stands on one running board, grips a handlebar, and leans out like a trolley-man, counterbalancing and steering in unison.

[""]"It takes about a year of sucking before you actually become proficient, Lammers tells me, after watching me pussyfoot my way down a hill, worrying my sled's brakes the entire time. "It takes a while to know how to ride in deep snow. And that's assuming you're already a good-enough skier and have the amount of awareness to be out there in the first place.

Another day on the ice cap, the hazards become still more personal. My rental sled is a Yamaha 700cc SX Viper Deep Powder Special, whose swept-back cowling and angular headlamp impart it with a wicked grin. As I cruise up a steep hill toward our next destination, the sled begins to drift left. I try to correct the drift, but my reactions are clumsy and slow. The Yamaha lists further. One front ski leaves the ground. I jump off. This is not wise. Now the sled is above me on the steep hill, on its side. There, my snowmobile hesitates, as if trying to decide whether it has found its angle of repose. It has not. The sled begins to roll. I try to leap out of the way, but the snow isn't firm and I can't scuttle from its path. The Viper is picking up speed. Some acrobatic instinct takes over, and I begin to tumble, too, flinging myself in great loops down the hill, trying to stay ahead of a 500-pound rolling pin. After six or seven somersaults, I'm thrown to safety. The sled rolls past, rights itself, and zooms down the hill alone—a "ghost rider, as 'bilers call it.

Fred Foto, a veteran sled-skier, zooms up to check on me. I think I've given myself a minor concussion.

"You got off easy, he tells me.

At the Squamish repair shop, my snafu will cost me $500.

But later, back on the ice cap, the immediate physical cautions and the larger social concerns about divvying up the backcountry both seem distant. Here, there's nowhere we can't seem to go. Lammers and Eby zoom to a ridgecrest, jump from their sleds, click into their skis, and catch air off a spine that's too sketchy-steep for mere mortals. I sit and watch. Then they strap skis to sleds, and we light out again. Across the valley, a sledneck high-marks up a steep slope and upends. His snowmobile rolls down the mountain, shedding parts. We watch until he shows signs of life. Then we're pegging the throttle, maching across open country at 60, 70, 90 miles an hour, catching stellar dendrites in the teeth like a motorcyclist catches bugs. Our next powder run is miles away, but we're closing in. Fast.

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