Working at the SnoWest office means you kind of get thrown right into the middle of snowmobiling. It's like a front row ticket to some extreme, off-the-wall sports junkie show, whether you wanted it or not. But one of the most educational and rewarding aspects of being on the SnoWest test rider crew is riding the project sleds (or being ridden by the project sleds, which sometimes is the case).
There are some things that just can't be taught by any method aside from hands-on experience. Like respect for a turbo. Not the modern turbo system. I'm referring to the turbos of the mid `90s. Particularly the volatile kinetic chaos that enveloped Project Projectile. Project Projectile was a 1994 Ski-Doo turbo-charged Summit 583.
Now, the 1994 Summit was a challenge to begin with, let alone with the big air compressor tossed under the hood. Riding this sled was like lighting a string of firecrackers, except that the fuse was only about an eighth of an inch long. You couldn't get out of the way fast enough once you realized what kind of trouble you were going to be in with the neighbors. The turbo Summit-by my recollection-would struggle through the non-boost range of its rpm, carrying the weight it needed to have in the clutches once the air started flowing. If you were a young, arrogant kid, you might be given the initial impression that this sled wasn't all that hot. Then the turbo would spool up and the roles would quickly reverse as you humbly returned the sled to its rightful owner, struggling to carry the weight of newfound respect for impeller wheels.
Not long after the Summit experience, I learned that no matter how cool everyone thinks your snowmobile is, most mountains could care less. SnoWest had built a '94 Polaris XLT into a lightweight, triple-piped mountain climbing sled that was as much fun to listen to as it was to ride. Once, on an overly intriguing day, I tried to climb out of a bowl that had only been climbed once before to my knowledge. As I launched the skis over the crest of the cornice, it dawned on me suddenly that the other side may be just as steep as the side I just climbed. I took a quick glance to the side and saw nothing but sky.
Convinced that I was about to freefall a thousand feet, I grabbed a handful of brake. I discovered that mountain did have a top to it after all, but now I was faced with another problem: grabbing the brake had left the back end hanging in the trench with the skis pointed to the sky, all of this 50 feet above a vertical cornice with nothing but sled-smashing trees below. Why hadn't I learned this lesson on a stock sled? Because they couldn't climb that back then. The only other sled that had climbed this same route was the aforementioned turbo Summit.
A couple of years later, SnoWest built an Arctic Cat ZRT 600 triple that was a mountain climbing fool. If you could get it started in the morning, you earned the right to point it skyward on any mountain. Just don't get cocky. I learned that the hard way. After jumping off of and climbing back out of a well-known chute where we ride half a dozen times in a row, I shot back up the long, steep chute for another climb. When I approached the top, I hit a drift that forced me off to the left side. The only problem with going left at that point was that the first 600 feet dropped off kind of suddenly. As I careened towards the cliff, I was rescued by a group of sledders standing at the crest, who jumped down and caught the sled at the last moment and pulled it over the top to safety. One of them said, "Would've been a real shame to let you tumble off that cliff." I was halfway through a heartfelt "thank you" when I realized they were talking to the snowmobile, not me. Respect the parts that grant you the power.
There are 12 years worth of project sleds and hard lessons since then and there's no end in sight. This coming season will be a pairing with a Timbersled-built Nytro MTX and an MPI supercharger. I'm not sure what there is to learn in this situation, but I'm pretty certain I'm about to get schooled.