Growing up, I always enjoyed skiing and pretty much anything outdoors. It's hard to match the feeling that comes with floating off a 50-foot cliff and landing in bottomless fluff, carving in chest-deep powder or just flying down groomers.
Although I never had the time for dirt bikes, I certainly understood the appeal-whether it was exploring technical single track, riding in the dunes or jumping big.
When I was 14 years old my family bought a couple of old snowmobiles to access our cabin during the winter. At about the same time I saw the original Powder Bound snowmobile film and a light instantly went off in my head. Why hadn't anyone ever told me about this sport? Here was something that would allow you to explore the backcountry with unparalleled freedom.
To me snowmobiling combined the best aspects of skiing and dirt bikes in one sport and then some. While I soon discovered that my 1989 Polaris 550 fan-cooled would not allow me to ride powder quite as aggressively as the guys in Powder Bound, my passion for the sport only grew.
Within a few years I saved up enough hard-earned bucks for a used 1999 Polaris 700 RMK. The possibilities suddenly became endless. I could fly off cornices, jump huge natural gaps and boondock through canyons of untouched powder until I ran out of gas. At the age of 16 I set the distance record of 211 feet (on the 700 RMK) in Slednecks 4, but the backcountry has always been my true obsession. There is no limit to the ways you can get an adrenaline rush on a snowmobile in the backcountry. You can drop cliffs, jumps gaps, bust through wind lips and so much more. Over the years a handful of totaled sleds, a few stitches and plenty of close calls have taught me some important lessons about jumping sleds.
Cliff dropping has always been my favorite way to tempt fate. In the right snow conditions with a steep landing, drops as big as 100 feet can have incredibly soft landings. Every sled reacts differently when dropping so it's important to start small and get a feel for your sled.
1 Look for take-offs that are flat or slightly downhill. Never hit a cliff with a take-off that is steeper than the landing-it will hurt. On rock cliffs, make sure there are not any rocks right underneath the snow in the take-off. You don't want to catch a rock right before you go off the edge of a cliff.
2 Let off the gas a little as you roll off the edge. Unlike regular jumps, you are usually hitting cliffs at slower speeds. Without track momentum, tapping the brake won't bring the front end down. It's better to err in favor of pitching the sled on a slightly steeper angle than the landing because you can always use a little gas to bring the front end up.
3 Don't let the sled idle on top of a cliff. Crisp throttle response is extremely important when dropping cliffs; leaving a sled idling while you check out a cliff might load up the bottom end. You may need to make quick adjustments in the air and you will need to get on the gas before you land.
4 Steeper landings almost always mean softer impacts, but watch out for avalanche-prone terrain. The best cliff drop landings are usually in areas with higher avalanche danger.
5 The key to a soft landing (besides deep powder) is timing the throttle. When a sled drops 40 feet and lands in deep powder, it wants to come to a quick stop. Give the sled some gas right before you land to pull out of the bomb hole created on impact. Ideally you probably want the track going a little faster than the sled for the softest possible landing. It's important to get on the gas at just the right time. Getting on it too early could bring the nose of the sled too high and result in a hard landing.
Natural gap jumps come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few basic ideas that you should always keep in mind.
1 Judging the speed required to clear a gap requires experience. There are so many variables involved with every jump, including snow conditions, the size of the gap, the length of the landing, and the angle of the take-off and landing to name a few. Start with smaller gaps and tabletop jumps to get a feel for these factors and eventually a lot of it will become second nature.
2 For gaps that are flat, you can get a good idea of how much speed you will need by riding next to the jump and letting off the gas by the take-off. The speed that it takes to coast just past the landing is roughly the speed you will need to clear the gap. While I have found this to be a good starting point for some jumps, I would never rely on it exclusively. Obviously you will need more speed for step-up jumps and less speed on step-down gaps.
3 Don't bite off more than you can chew. Be prepared for the consequences of not making it and have a plan in the back of your head. If you are going to come up short really bad, it can be a good idea to get away from the sled.
4 Use the gas and brake to level out the sled. Giving it gas in the air will bring the nose up; braking will bring the nose down. Always give the sled a little gas right before a landing. The more track momentum you have, the more effective braking will be. Be careful when correcting with the brake on high speed jumps.
5 Deep powder is not always the best snow for jumping big gaps. The deeper the powder the better for drops, but not always for gaps. Don't get me wrong: I live for deep powder, but on higher speed jumps deep powder will have more of a tendency to stop you on impact/throw you over the bars. If you are hitting an untracked take-off, powder will rob a lot of your momentum on the ramp, so bring more speed into the transition. This doesn't mean hardpack is better, just don't trick yourself into thinking that you can do anything because the snow is deep.
These are just a few tips that I've found to be helpful when jumping in the backcountry. Of course sled setup is always important. A solid suspension and a well-tuned motor will make a big difference. Always wear protective gear; I can't tell you how many times a Tek Vest or knee pads have saved me.
Every backcountry jump or drop is different-that's what makes it so appealing. Snowmobiles aren't limited to ski resorts, trails (most places) or small geographic areas. In one day you can cover a ridiculous amount of terrain and confront all kinds of rock cliffs, wind lips, potential gaps and everything in between. Understanding the basics of jumping and gaining experience will make a world of difference and add a little more adrenaline to your rides.