If you line them all up at the base of the mountain, count to three, drop the flag and see which one goes the farthest the fastest, it's going to be hard to beat the brute horsepower of the Ski-Doo Summit 1000.
But that doesn't necessarily make it the best snowmobile in the mountains.
If you design a long, twisty course that dips into ravines, snakes around sidehills, makes off-camber turns, busts through powder and winds its way to the top of the mountain, it's going to be hard to beat the Arctic Cat M7.
But that doesn't necessarily make it the best snowmobile in the mountains.
If you're making a hard run up a north-facing slope with gobs of wind-blown powder from a standing start, forced to make last-second changes in direction, clinging to tight sidehills while still having enough oomph at the top; or if you're going to have to pound through a rough mountain mogul field or battle through a trenched out one- line approach through trees to reach the top of the mountain, then you're going to need to have the best snowmobile in the mountains.
And from our tests during the 10th annual SnoWest Deep Powder Dealer Challenge, this year we think that's the Ski-Doo Summit X 800.
In every situation we threw at the sleds, in all our testing, the Summit 8 never finished lower than third. And it finished first more than any of the other stock snowmobiles in the shootout.
This year we had several interesting challenges during our shootout. The first one was a change of venue. After fighting poor snow conditions in Island Park, ID, for the last several years, we decided to take our show on the road and test the deep Wyoming powder near Togwotee. (Interestingly, this proved to be Island Park's best powder year in several seasons . but who was to know that in December?)
Not only moving to a new location, but working with four dealers who were each experiencing their first taste of the Deep Powder Challenge, created the second interesting challenge.
A third (more frustrating than interesting) challenge was having our radar gun go south on us. After experiencing some difficulties last season, we sent the Stalker unit off to the manufacturer to have it refurbished. Well, it came back with more issues than when we sent it out-one of which was an erratic collection of unintelligible data. Sometimes it would work (sort of); most times it would not. This caused us to use shorter runs and put someone up on the hill flagging a finish line so we could at least do timed trials up the slope. The trouble with stopwatches is that the chance of being a couple of tenths of a second off is very real . plus we couldn't calculate what would happen higher on the mountain. We didn't dare put someone too high on the mountain because of the unstable snow conditions on the long steep slopes (we did have one hill slide near us as it was).
Regardless, we relied on the information we could gather, plus the opinions of our test riders, to draw the conclusions to this year's event.
And from this information, we concluded the Summit 8 was consistently showing that it could run with the best in every type of deep snow condition.
Meet Our Contestants
Just like snowmobiles are different, so are snowmobile dealers. Each year as we get to know the different dealers a little bit better, it's interesting to see just how diversified they are.
For example, representing Ski-Doo, Dustin and Jenni Rosencranse at Rogers Sports Center out of Cody, WY, are very quiet and reserved. We must have had four meals with them, along with all the time spent on the snow and still didn't get to the point where we could shake them from their shy, quiet demeanor.
And when it came to their snowmobiles, they were all business. They were ready . and their sleds were ready. And Dustin was a very capable rider who seemed more comfortable doing all his talking through his sleds' performance on the snow.
Then representing Polaris you have Robinson's Motors from Afton, WY. Five guys-Darrin Brown, Scott Brown, Jason Schneider, Tyson Thomas and Kevin Kilroy-who loved what they were doing. They loved to play hard. And there was never a quiet moment around them. If they weren't giving their all to turn in the fastest possible times during the tests, they were racing against each other, trying to make the highest mark, bust through the deepest drifts or boondock their way into secluded riding areas with fresh snow. They work hard; they play hard; they party hard.
Darrin Brown is the third generation at Robinson Motors. His son, Scott, represents the fourth. Their sleds were well-tuned and always fast out of the hole. They socialized well with everyone, not letting a little competition stand in the way of a good time.
For Arctic Cat you have R&R Motor Sports from Lander, WY. Steve Reed, a Georgia transplant who moved to Lander several years ago and bought a snowmobile dealership, came with Rick Bestul, a local rider who has a good feel for setup. Here you have a couple of guys that can be quiet . but can also blend in with the rowdy bunch as well.
Steve was always eager to challenge our test courses . yet smart enough to put our test riders on his sled to make sure he was getting the best showing possible. And since they both ride the Togwotee area often, they were our backup guides if ever we needed to figure out just exactly where we were.
Finally, representing Yamaha, we have the guys from Rexburg Motor Sports in Rexburg, ID-Bob Barney, Trev Burt and Brad Ball-a threesome of somewhat reserved guys until they got on the snow. Then they became an aerial act-jumping Yamahas with reckless abandon.
Wherever we went, they put on a show-climbing high, launching off cornices or wind drifts, representing the new freestyle way of riding. They were laid back, recognizing that each sled had its strengths and weaknesses. Their intention was to show you can ride these Yamahas in the mountains wherever any sled goes . and you can have a blast on them in all snow conditions.
For three days we pounded the snow. And for three days we had an enjoyable time. All eight stock sleds and the three mod sleds operated flawlessly. We didn't need to do any special tuning or repairing. And for a rather large group, we moved over the snow at a good pace, making the most of our time in the deep snow near Togwotee.
Meet The Test
We started the first day heading east from Togwotee down the trail a couple of miles before crossing Highway 26 and climbing up the west slope of Angel Mountain. We spent the first day on the slopes between Angel and the Breccia Cliffs.
Our first couple of runs came while we were still fiddling with our radar gun. They were on a 35-degree slope in untracked powder snow. Elevation was 9,700 feet above sea level (that would be 9,692 feet of mountain, eight feet of snow). We didn't get any times because we believed the computer would do its job. So all we got at the end of the day was our impressions as we watched and our test rider impressions.
We had a difficult time getting clean powder runs. Because of the twisting slope on the terrain, it seemed that some of the lines were just a little more challenging than other lines. We did try to keep the sleds running next to compatible sled sizes (the Vector with the M7 and RMK 700, the Apex with the Summit 8, the King Cat with the RMK 9 and the Summit 1000). And we did shuffle the order to try to keep things in an organized state of random.
Our first test area featured a pretty good pull in the powder snow, working most sleds pretty hard. It was a fairly short run so we didn't run anything larger than the 800. According to our test rider Mark Bourbeau: "The M7 did well in the deeper powder. The Apex felt slow-too much weight in that nonsense. The most impressive show came from the Summit 8. It seemed to handle all snow conditions well."
The second run came on the same general slope, but this time in tracked powder (providing a longer run for the larger sleds).
Bourbeau said the King Cat felt fast and was very smooth-no vibration like what the big sleds tend to give off. The Summit 8 felt as fast as the Summit 1000. The Apex did a lot better running on tracks rather than in powder. It was fast, smooth and handled very well. The M7 didn't feel overly fast, but you always knew you were going to pull the hill. That wasn't the case with the RMK 700 and Vector. The RMK 700, however, did manage to pull the hill . although there was a moment when you wondered. The Vector started strong but the slope and powder just sucked the speed out of the sled and the weight then became an issue.
We then moved up the mountain a little ways and found a large bowl with clean snow (on the surface it was untracked . but that wasn't to say there weren't some tracks put in the bowl only to be covered by blowing snow) for our second test area. The elevation was 9,800 feet; slope 35 degrees. (Steep enough to have a small section of the slope slide just away from our test area.)
Knowing that our laptop and computer were only causing us grief, we placed one of our guys about 600 feet up the slope and timed the sleds climbing up through the untracked snow. We let each dealer ride his sled (unless he wanted one of our guys to ride it).
During these runs, the Vector was the only sled that had to turn down before the finish line on the first powder run. The farther up the hill, the steeper the slope and the softer the snow; anything heavy that wasn't packing a lot of bottom-end speed slowed down quickly.
The second test at this area was with the sleds running in the tracks just made on the first series of runs. This allowed the sleds to have a little assistance with some tracked snow, yet forced them to contend with the trenches and uneven handling.
Run For It
Since most of the good slopes were tracked up and it was getting late in the day, we decided to create a nice long hillcross that started at the bottom of a drainage and twisted its way up to the top.
The run was more than 2,000 feet long and climbed about 500 feet in elevation. We started at the bottom of a ravine where the slopes came together and made a narrow corridor and after a couple of tight turns we shot up out of the bottom and on up the face of the slope for about 150 feet before turning back across the slope for a short sidehill. Then, after an off-camber turn back up the hill, we dropped through the top end of another ravine and continued with this similar pattern until reaching the ridge top.
There was enough technical riding to cause the dealers to pay attention to handling and control. Too much throttle and not enough control would cause them to slide off the course and into some untracked snow, costing them precious seconds. It was an easy course if you stayed under control.
Since it was a fairly long run, we were able to mark a midway spot to take split times to see if there were any noticeable differences on how they performed. The higher part of the mountain represented the longest and steepest pulls for the course. We gave the dealers a chance to run the course a couple of times in practice and then a couple of times under the clock. We kept the best timed run.
Just a few observations: Polaris guys blew the top corner on their first runs. For Ski-Doo, Rosencranse was pretty tired riding the sleds back-to-back. Also, Reed was getting arm pump from riding the Cats up the course.
It was close to dusk when we started back to the lodge. We just had time to ride up on the Angel Mountain ridge that separated our riding area from the Teton Wilderness. From there, the sun-setting view of the Tetons provided one of those Kodak moments.
Do `er Again
Wednesday, after some shop time weighing the sleds and doing a little tech, we headed back out for another day of testing. This time we went just a little further east, crossing both Togwotee and Sublett passes, before winding our ways back behind the Breccia Cliffs. It's pretty easy to avoid the wilderness boundaries here . you have about 500 feet of vertical rock between you and the "no-go zone."
Our test slope was the sluff area below the cliffs, offering a steep climb up to the rock face. Scattered in the sluff area were large boulders (about the size of a Volkswagen Bug), limiting the size of the slope at our disposal. Again, due to safety issues, we would position our finish line about 600 feet up the 45-degree slope, which actually represented about the midway point of the hill. This time we gave each rider a GPS so we could record the fastest speed climbing the hill.
Each run would be in fresh snow. Once we would mark up one area, we would move across the slope to another area and start all over. Again, we would rotate the running order, each time taking the next line in fresh snow. (We also conducted some head-to-head drags during this time . which is included in the "It's A Drag" sub-section.)
The elevation went from 9,783 at the base to 9,925 where we stopped timing . but most of the sleds continued up to about 10,000 elevation, just for kicks and giggles. The only snowmobile that failed to make the timing point of the slope was the Vector . although it was actually packing pretty decent speed for the first part of the run.
Later in the day, we found another nice run up a 40-degree slope. However, it was fairly tight so we decided to make it a "loose-tracked" snow test. Again, it brought handling into play since there were ruts to negotiate.
The starting was at 9,990 elevation at bottom with the finish line at 10,120 elevation, covering, again, about 600 feet. After we made passes with each stock sled, we reversed the course and turned the first run's return lane down into our climbing course for the second run. It was actually a little steeper, close to 45 degrees.
It's A Drag
Throughout the day, whenever the slope would allow, we also conducted some head-to-head drags with various sleds just to see who would win the sprint up the mountain. Sometimes there were just two sleds involved. Other times there were three or four.
For the most part, we tried to run these drags in untracked snow . but we never knew for sure what was just under the powdery surface that could have been polished smooth by wind and fresh snow ... so sometimes one sled hooked up better than the other that was just a few feet away. Most of these drags were in elevations ranging from 9,900 to 10,025, on 35 degree slopes and covering about 600 feet in total length.
Weight A Minute
And no responsible "deep powder" tests would be conducted without a good old fashioned "weigh in" to see who the heavyweights are and who are the lightweights.
So we took the time to put each snowmobile to the scales. To keep things consistent, we made certain that each snowmobile was full of gas and oil . and clean from any snow or ice buildup. Since we don't want to penalize a snowmobile that might have a greater fuel capacity, we weighed every snowmobile wet . and then deducted the approximate weight of the gas and oil capacity, according to company specs.
The numbers you see are actual weight, the portion of fuel weight to be subtracted and our estimated dry weight. Here, the big winner is actually the little guy-the one packing the least amount of baggage.
The two sleds that stand out as being the most fit for the mountains are the M7 and Summit 8-both under 500 lbs. dry . and both more than 25 lbs. lighter than the next lightest heavyweight.
And just for the record: Anything over 600 pounds wet is just too heavy.
During the three days of testing, we did get opportunities to fly down some of the trails around Togwotee. And let's face it, even mountain sleds spend a fair amount of time on trails or hardpack . so handling in these conditions is something to be considered.
Anything we might say negative about the weight of certain sleds in powder would likely turn into positive comments about the handling of those sleds on bumpy and twisty trails. This certainly holds true with the Yamaha and Polaris snowmobiles.
Flying down a trail on a four-stroke is truly a delight. Both the Apex and Vector handle with ease. Both are responsive; they carve through the corners and soak up the chatter bumps. There were no vibrations coming through the bars or running boards. You feel like you're in control-even at high speeds.
Polaris doesn't quite have the same silky smooth feel as the Yamahas on the groomed trial, but seem to have the edge on the mountain trail where moguls are a little deeper and the terrain is a tad more unpredictable-particularly the RMK 700.
The Summit 8 also excelled in these types of conditions.
The snowmobiles least popular with our test staff on rough trails were the King Cat and the Summit 1000. The King Cat lacked rider comfort (old style chassis) and the 1000 was just too big.
Without exact data from the laptop and radar gun, it's hard to put our finger on any one test that supported our conclusion that the Summit 8 was the best on the snow. Certainly, even the Ski-Doo dealer would probably question if the 8 was better than the 1000 . and the ability Rosencranse had to handle the 1000, made us wonder as well (something about a tall, strong guy on a big sled tends to make it handle a lot better than a short fat journalist on the same sled).
But when the day is over, the Summit 8 is still the more enjoyable sled to ride (and whoever is stuck on the 1000 at the end of the day is certainly looking for someone to trade sleds with him).
For anyone thinking the four-strokes can't be ridden in the powder, think again. They may not win any races up the slope . but they float and handle flawlessly in fresh snow. And when it comes to sidehilling, it's hard to beat the balance of the Apex.
Even the Summit 1000 works better in the powder. There's just something about untracked snow that makes a heavy sled handle like a lightweight. e