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Challenging The Elements

Poor snow and visibility dampen tests

Published online: Mar 05, 2003 Feature Steve Janes
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Objectivity. Subjectivity. Creativity. Those three words, with totally different meanings, were blended together during the seventh annual SnoWest Dealer Deep Powder Challenge held in Island Park, ID, Jan. 22-24.
Objectivity-We wanted to find out which 2003 stock snowmobile was the best on the snow. We invited four dealers, one from each major manufacturer, to bring the best setup to the steep slopes of Mt. Jefferson on the Idaho/Montana border. This year the rules were changed to allow each dealer to bring two stock sleds of their choosing in a winner-take-all free-for-all.
This open format was done for one main reason-we didn't know how to slot the Arctic Cat Mountain Cat 900 and the Yamaha RX-1 Mountain. Rather than having a 900 class and a 4-stroke class, we just threw everything in the mix to let you decide how much value to place on the actual classifications of sleds.
Our field included: From TJ's Sports, Alpine, WY-Yamaha 700 Mountain Viper and Yamaha RX-1 Mountain; from Mtn. Air Sports, Fairfield, ID-Ski-Doo Summit 800 Highmark  and Ski-Doo Summit 800; from Action Motor Sports, Heber, UT-Arctic Cat Mountain Cat 900 and Arctic Cat Mountain Cat 800 EFI; and from Butterfield Express, Chubbuck, ID-Polaris 800 RMK Vertical Escape and Polaris 700 RMK.
Subjectivity-During the three days of riding, we had to sort out in our own minds what matters to a mountain sled and what doesn't. We had to decide if things like boondockability and handling factored as importantly as track speed and weight.
The actual tests were subjective to running order and starting location. Although we tried to be as fair as possible, sometimes the unknown factors had greater influence than we were aware. Even the mere interpretation of the results could be based on subjectivity.
Creativity-When you are dependent on the weather, well . you better be flexible, patient and ready to change your plans often.
We had perhaps the worst possible conditions to do a "deep powder" challenge. First, like about everywhere in the West, deep powder was a rare commodity-particularly when we were looking for hillsides that were wide enough to accommodate multiple runs in fresh powder, yet consistent in slope to keep our results honest. Even the concept of "powder" was stretching it, since the snow had such a good base that a 440 short track could likely go anywhere we were testing on the mountain.
But when you add to that the poor visibility over the three days of testing, it made for some short climbs and a lot of imagination to come up with a variety of tests to provide some sort of diversity to our results.
And The
Winner Is .
Since we never had a mountain that challenged any of the sleds, we had to resort to a scoring system for all of our tests. With this scoring system, out of a possible 340 points, the Polaris Escape and Cat 900 scored 309 and 308 points, respectively, giving them both a grade of A (91 percent being the top of the curve).
The Summit Highmark and RMK 700 finished on the next tier with B+, followed by the Summit (144 track) and Cat 800 with B-. The Yamahas were at the bottom of the class . but that may have had a lot to do with their weight and track lengths.
Both the Escape and Cat 900 had 159-inch tracks. The Summit Highmark, RMK 700, Cat 800 and RX-1 had 151-inch tracks. The regular Summit and Viper had 144-inch tracks.
Here's how the sleds fared in the individual tests.

Climbing
The first afternoon out, we headed for the south slopes of Mt. Jefferson to test the sleds' ability to climb. With heavy cloud cover creating poor visibility, and with snow conditions marginal, it was somewhat difficult to create a test area that could challenge the sleds to their fullest. Basically, most of our runs were limited to 450-600 feet long. (When we could only see for about 100 feet, we were actually pushing the margin of safety trying to run them up on a steep slope.) To try to counter the shortness of the courses, we kept the starting line on about a 20-degree slope in somewhat loose snow. For the sleds with the longer tracks and tapered tunnels, it was an advantage. For the Yamahas, it was definitely a challenge to build any momentum without spinning the track down.
It was also somewhat challenging to judge the consistency of the slope in relationship to the starting area. But with the time and snow constraints we were facing, we decided to run as many tests, and hope that the variety of the tests would somewhat off-set the luck of the draw in running order. However, each test was performed in fresh snow. We just couldn't tell if under the fresh snow were some frozen tracks that could possibly influence the outcome of each run.
Regardless, Day 1 showed the Cat 900 flexing its power, capturing the fastest times up both runs with relative ease. The two Polaris sleds and the Summit Highmark were always close by in the mix, but raw power in a point-and-shout run prevailed.
Day 2 was more of the same. Poor visibility kept us on shorter hills. However, we allowed for a little better approach to the hill, starting at a 10-degree slope with about a 50-foot run before the slope steepened up to about 30 degrees.
The bottom line in our climbing tests is that we never did get the snow conditions, visibility and long, steep slope to actually test the limits of any of the snowmobiles. Basically, a stock 600 could run up any of the slopes we were testing on with relative ease (that's what our photo boy was riding to get pictures of the climb). And since we won't be presumptuous to predict what we think might have happened on a real mountain, we will take our runs at face value.
The Cat 900 dominated the short speed runs up the mountain, followed closely by the Escape and Highmark.

Hillcross
With a thick cloud setting on top of Two Top, we decided to put away the radar gun and take out the stopwatch and walky-talkies on Day 3. We designed an uphill course that started just out of the trees from Garner Canyon on Idaho's southwest side of Two Top and carved its way with sharp left and right turns up over the wind drifts to the top of the mountain. It was about one mile long and required the riders to keep control of the snowmobiles in order to stay on the hardpack course where faster times could be made.
The RMK 700 turned in the fastest average of the two runs up the mountain. However, the two Cats and two Ski-Doos had very impressive runs as well. The individual fastest time was shared by the RMK 700, 1M 900 and 1M 800 with SnoWest staff rider Ryan Harris aboard. The Cats seemed easier to handle in the bumps, holding their lines well in the wind drifts.
Note, though, that on this course, there were a lot of factors that could influence the speed of the run. For example: visibility. Sometimes you could see with relative clarity (no bright sunshine, but slight shadows). Other times you couldn't see 20 yards. When visibility was poor, you really couldn't go heavy on the throttle through the wind drifts. (We lost an RX-1 for about 10 minutes in the clouds . and a big snowdrift . because speed exceeded visibility.)
But with all taken into consideration, the nimble RMK 700 is our pick for overall speed and handling up a tight course.
Speed Runs
Although we will be the first to admit that top speeds on a packed, flat track is not the best indicator as to which snowmobile will perform best on the slopes, it is always of interest to see who's making track speed. and how much track speed a snowmobile is capable of making.
So we lined the sleds up for a 1,200-foot blast (about a quarter-mile) across an open meadow so we could measure acceleration and top speed. Although the two Ski-Doo Summits consistently pulled harder out of the hole, the Escape and Cat 900 showed their muscle on the top-end. In the two runs registered, the Escape was .04 mph faster than the 900 in the first, and the 900 was 1.54 mph faster in the second. However, when it comes to breaking down the runs-holeshots, five seconds out, mid course, etc., it seems that all the snowmobiles blended well into the mix. But the Cat 900 flexed its horsepower and was consistently in the top two spots in all sections of the run.

Weights
Ride a bull-that's what it's like when you get 600 pounds of iron bouncing around between your legs on a 45-degree slope. Spend a day wrestling with your sled and you soon learn that everything is too heavy . but some things are just way too heavy.
And when it comes to weights, there's enough variation to the numbers to baffle even the brightest mathematician. You have dry weight (no fluids whatsoever), wet weights (no gas or oil), race weights (little gas and oil) and riding weights (full of gas and oil). We're not sure what you call the weights with an extra drive belt, plugs or tools. And then there's the other gear like shovels, saws, survival stuff, etc., which add to the bulk of a sled.
So what we decided to do was to make the weight thing very simple. Listed below are the snowmobiles we used (note the track length). We filled them with gas and oil (riding weight) and then gave them credit for the estimated weight of gas and oil according to their tank capacities to determine their wet weight. We used a SnoBunje Load Cell Scale ($490 retail and accurate to within one-half pound) and suspended the snowmobile in the air.
Once all sleds were weighed, the Polaris Escape proved to be the lightweight of the class-which is a very good thing. Its actual riding weight was 16 pounds lighter than the Arctic Cat 800 EFI and the Polaris RMK 700. That's not a lot . but every little bit helps. Give the Escape some bonus points.

Turning
If you're going to do some serious boondocking, you want a snowmobile that will carve its way through tight places. Naturally, the more you lean, the sharper you turn. So how can you tell exactly how tight of turn you can do? We don't know. But we do know that on a flat meadow, at a low speed and with the same amount of effort, some snowmobiles will close a circle much tighter than others. And that's what we did-measure how tight a circle we could close.
And without being too dizzy from going in circles, we found out two interesting things: First, the length of the track didn't mean a thing when it came to closing a circle. Second, nobody closes a circle tighter than the Polaris Escape.
Seat-of-the-Pants
When it comes to science and technology, nothing quite matches the measuring device nature has placed in the rear end of a snowmobiler. There's just an indescribable connection between the thumb, the arms and the butt that feels power and control.
Even though a lot of this comes down to riding style and preference, we still believe that it should be measured into the complete package of the snowmobile. So we allowed our two test riders to rate the sleds according to their own standards of measure. The results were varied, but interesting.
Ryan Harris showed the Escape just edging out the Cat 900. He felt that although the Cat had the most power on the mountain, the Escape was just an easier snowmobile to ride and would be better suited for a variety of mountain riding conditions. He had the Summit Highmark finishing third in the group.
Mark Bourbeau took a different approach. He had the Polaris 700 coming out as the sleeper of the group. "For the most bang for the buck, the 700 delivers. I'm one of those poor boys and if I'm spending my money, I'd go with the Polaris 7," he explained. Bourbeau had the Escape second and the Summit Highmark finishing third, just ahead of the Cat 900.
Averaging them out, we see it as the Escape and RMK 700 coming in just ahead of the Cat 900 and Summit Highmark. Let's face it, you couldn't lose with any of these four sleds.
Theories
This year there were a couple of theories that didn't hold water. It was a consensus that a shorter track would turn better and create faster track speed. But as we look at the numbers, the longer tracks held their own (or did better) than the shorter tracks in our speed runs, hillcross and turning tests.
The weight factor played a big role-with the lighter sleds doing well. This is where the RX-1 showed its shortcomings. Lighter is better.
Finally, things always come down to power-to-weight ratio. And the two snowmobiles that had the best power-to-weight-the Cat 900 and Escape-were the two sleds that scored the best.