What happens when three seasoned snowmobilers take their wives riding the first time in the western mountains? This is a personal account of such an adventure.
Perhaps it’s necessary to know who the characters of this story are. The men are all professional snowmobile riders who test and design mountain sleds for one of the major manufacturers.
Marty Sampson is a free spirit who likes adventure and challenge. He’s an awesome mountain rider … but he apparently has some sort of condition where he doesn’t like to stay on the established trails. His wife, Leah, is very loving and must really trust Marty to follow him everywhere and keep him in line. Leah, a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, is an excellent snowmobile rider and also rides dirt bikes.
Lyle Dahlgren is also a very special and trusting person. He has been working with Marty for the last eight years. Lyle is on the quiet side but will voice his opinion if he thinks something is wrong. He is also a very loving husband. His wife, Karen, is a real trooper who tries to make the best of the situation. Karen works in a dental office. She loves her kids and grandkids very much and is very young at heart. This was Karen’s first time riding in the mountains.
Scott Ostroski is Marty and Lyle’s boss. His attributes are his patience and calmness under stressful circumstances. His wife Michelle is the author of this story. She is extremely conservative, sheltered, naïve, structured and a non-risk taker stay-at-home mom who loves to ask questions. This was her first time seeing mountains and riding in them.
Here is her story.
Arriving In Salt Lake City, Utah
Our flight landed that Friday about an hour and a half later than expected. The guys picked us up at the airport and they were extremely excited to see us. Lyle was driving and took us on a tour of Park City, which is a rich suburb of Salt Lake City. This city spends a lot of money on lights … there were lights on everything.
Then I got to go on my first “round about” (a type of intersection where roads converge), which I thought only existed in England. I am glad Lyle was driving and they don’t have too many round-abouts in Roseau, MN.
Marty wanted to eat at the Blind Dog … but it was packed (luckily, because the place stunk). I think it was a sushi place and I was so happy we were not eating there. Finally we ended up eating at some good Mexican restaurant in Heber City.
After supper we drove up the mountain to Daniels Summit Lodge. We settled in and then went to the restaurant/bar to play poker. When I saw Marty he had on a brown cowboy hat and paw looking gloves. I later found out that Marty is considered special by the staff at Daniels Summit Lodge and they let him borrow various items from the General Store during his stay at the lodge. At midnight, Karen and I turn into pumpkins so our husbands escorted us back to our separate rooms.
Adapting To Elevation
I quickly learned that snowmobiling in the mountains is quite different than snowmobiling on flat land. First, you are standing up on your sled most of the time because you have to be ready to quickly shift your weight to one side or the other. Second, it is very important your body is always closest to the top side of the hill, otherwise your 500-pound sled will roll on top of you. Third, you cannot be afraid to use the throttle when going up a steep hill. The throttle is your friend.
However, I found that going down a steep hill the brake is even a better friend. It is important that you pump the brakes instead of just holding the brakes tight because this causes your track to lock up and then the sled becomes a 500-pound sliding toboggan. On this ride I experienced going down my first steep hill. It was both scary and fun.
Fourth, as a rookie it is important you trust the person you are following and are good at the game, “monkey see monkey do.” I was copying my husband’s every move.
Fifth, when going down a hill with lots of trees you have to look between the trees, not at them. Fortunately, everyone on our team had this skill mastered … although some may have just closed their eyes.
Sixth, when the team stops their sleds to take a break, be sure to park your sled alongside the next one … preferably on the side where the men can conveniently reach over and start your sled if needed. Also, if you need to get to someone’s sled you walk from ski to ski. You want to try and stay off the snow as much as possible to avoid sinking.
Finally, I realized snowmobiling in the mountains is just a matter of climbing lots of hills stacked on top of one another. Just so everyone knows, I am afraid of heights.
Saturday’s Fun Adventure
Saturday morning was a great morning to ride. It was sunny and 25°F. I was very excited for my first time riding in the mountains. Marty took us up to a hill by a radio tower where we had a good view of the surrounding area and mountains. It was beautiful.
Everything was going great until we approached a hill. This hill had lots of Aspen trees in close proximity to each other, which meant we had to make a lot of tricky, tight turns. We all got down the hill—about 300 yards—without any problems when Marty realized we could not go any further as things were getting really tricky. So we all had to turn around our sleds and go back up.
It was early in the day for me to be trying to master the throttle going up a hill in and between trees. Scott instructed me to burp the throttle a lot while going up. I didn’t get too far up the hill when I came to my first tight corner, which I noticed Scott had dug up, which did not help at all. I made the mistake of slowing down too much and lost my momentum while trying to make the turn. Then, when I gave it some gas I just dug the back end of my sled into the snow.
Nevertheless, my knights (Scott and Lyle) in shining armor came to my rescue and dug me out. Scott thought it would be easier if I rode two-up with him to the top of the hill. I got on the back and held onto the straps of his backpack while we weaved in and out of trees. At one point it was so steep that I almost had to let go of Scott. Luckily we made it to the top of the hill. (We both agreed I should have been sitting in front of Scott holding onto the mountain bar.)
Lyle sort of picked an easier line for everyone else to drive their sleds up the hill and everything was great again.
We finally made it back to the groomed trails, which were a nice mental and physical break for us. As we stopped to watch Marty jump the trail a couple of times, other groups that were out enjoying the trails that day stopped. I approached a friendly-looking fellow and started visiting with him. Everyone on our team thinks I ask too many questions and that I have the ability to get to know someone more in five minutes than they do in six months. Scott dragged me away from this fellow and told me we were leaving. So much for western hospitality.
Scott told me to follow Lyle and Karen down the groomed trail … but they had already left. I tried to hurry my sled along and eventually caught the two sleds ahead of me. But as I followed these two sleds I realized it wasn’t Lyle and Karen. I immediately pulled my sled over to the side of the groomed trail so I could think about what to do. I did not have a map. I had no idea where I was or where the trail would lead me. I was really hoping someone from my group would come along soon. In the meantime, I stopped a group of 12 “bobbleheads” so I could finish my converstation.
Bobbleheads are people dressed in old rented snowmobile gear that come to Utah and ride snowmobiles once a year. Their helmets look as though they are from the ‘70s, making it easy to distinguish the rookies from the hard core snowmobile riders. (Even though I am a rookie, Scott dressed me up to fit in with the hard core snowmobile riders.) Luckily it wasn’t too long before Marty, Leah and Scott came along the groomed trail. Scott recognized me amongst the bobbleheads and stopped to ask me what I was doing. Just making new friends … but it was time to move on. We continued on up to the top of the mountain where we met up with Lyle and Karen. We stopped there for awhile to look at the incredible view of the valley. It was awesome.
I had a great time snowmobiling that day. I told Marty he did a good job guiding and that I liked the combination of riding on and off the trails. I was looking forward to tomorrow’s adventure. Perhaps I spoke too soon.
On Sunday morning we were all in the trailer getting our gear on when someone asked Marty where we were going. “We will be stuck less and scared more,” he replied. He was extremely wrong on the first account and extremely right on the other. That day we would be stuck way more … and as far as being scared … I thought I would be spending the night in the mountains.
Sunday was overcast with flurries and about 25 degrees, which are not ideal conditions for snowmobiling because we had no depth perception of the snow. We didn’t bother to fill up the sleds with gas that morning because we were just going out for a little jaunt, which was fine with me.
Everything was going great until we got to the top of “Judgment Mountain.”
Marty decided it would be fun to go down the other side … so he was the first to descend. Soon, Marty found himself descending right over the handlebars of his sled.
Before we realized what was happening, Leah then went down the mountain and abruptly hit a tree. So Lyle went down on his snowmobile to help Leah. Scott left his sled on top of Judgment Mountain and walked down to Leah’s sled. He then rode her sled down to the bottom. Karen and I were sitting on our sleds at the top of Judgment Mountain when all of a sudden we saw Leah’s head pop up at the edge of the mountain. She was huffing and puffing, trying to catch her breath from the climb.
Guys At The Bottom
Our current status was three sleds and three guys at the bottom and three sleds and three women at the top of Judgment Mountain. Foresight would have told us to cut our losses, leave the guys at the bottom and head back to Daniels Summit.
Just then Marty appeared and told us we had to go down Judgment Mountain because there was no way to get those three sleds back up. We had to find another way out. Luckily the guys were willing to walk back up Judgment Mountain and ride our sleds down. We could slide down the hill on our butts.
Half way down Judgment Mountain sat our three sleds. Leah got on a sled and glided it down with the track locked up. Then Karen was ordered by Lyle to get on the next sled. Lyle didn’t even start the sled but gave it a push and Karen skillfully glided it down the path to the bottom. Lyle and I were left with one sled. I never asked Lyle who was going to drive … I just hopped on the back. I asked Lyle how I should hold onto him and his reply was, “Hold onto me like you love me,” so I did.
As we were going down the path, Marty leaped onto the tunnel part of our sled and we rode three up the rest of the way down Judgment Mountain. At this point I was hoping there was another way out. We continued riding about a mile into the valley when we hit some wicked, nasty, extremely challenging powder-like snow. This is where I mentally hit the wall. I got stuck four times within 100 yards and I got thrown off my snowmobile twice.
Luckily I wasn’t going very fast when my snowmobile came to an abrupt stop while I kept on going over the handlebars. Again, my knights (Scott and Lyle) in shining armor came to my rescue every time to dig my sled out. They would skillfully drive their sled right next to my buried sled. Then I would crawl to their sled and try to drive down the hill, only to get stuck again. And we would repeat the process.
When I tried to stepped on the snow I would sink down to my waist. Therefore I was either crawling or slithering like a snake on my stomach to get from my buried sled to Lyle or Scott’s snowmobile. Once I reached the snowmobile I literally had to pull and wiggle myself onto the snowmobile. Karen said it was like we were in water trying to get ourselves into a boat. The guys were working extremely hard to get me unstuck. Yet I was getting very frustrated and exhausted at this point. My confidence in my ability to ride a snowmobile took a nose dive. I ordered Scott to get me out of this s---.
While I was keeping Lyle and Scott busy digging me out, Marty went to find a way out of this hole we were in. Unfortunately, Marty was having difficulties of his own, once rolling his sled on top of him. He said he had to lay there for a couple of minutes to collect himself. (Later he told us he thought he had broken something.) But it was good that Marty did not tell anyone he was in pain and hurt his knee. He was our leader and we did not need to know our leader was not 100 percent at this particularly stressful time.
Finally after we all regrouped, Marty decided the only way out was to backtrack and go up Judgment Mountain. We got going a little ways down the trail and once again Leah, Karen and I were stuck in that soft powder-like snow. The guys decided it would be easier to take us up to the logging road riding two up on the snowmobile.
Scott and I started up the trail with me sitting in front of him this time. The arms of my jacket were frozen stiff from slithering around on the snow so every time I moved my arms my jacket would hit the accelerator of the snowmobile without me knowing. Scott did not appreciate the unintentional help.
Scott and I reached the logging road where Leah was sitting on her sled. After the guys left I told Leah I was scared. She reached over and put her glove on my glove and told me it was going to be okay. However, I knew we had some factors working against us.
The No. 1 factor was daylight. It was getting late in the afternoon and I knew it would be impossible to get up Judgment Mountain without light. Our immediate goal was to get six people and six sleds on top of Judgment Mountain before dark. Luckily I wasn’t wearing my watch or I would have been looking at it and making myself that much more anxious and nervous.
The second factor was fuel. Remember we didn’t fill up our snowmobiles when we left in the morning. Also, the guys burned up precious fuel shuttling us women up the trail and then back down the trail to get our sleds. Also, according to the GPS we were 7.5 miles as the crow flies from Daniels Summit Lodge, which means about 15 miles by trail. We were getting close to fumes.
The third factor was that no one knew where we were. Nobody would miss us. There would be no search and rescue team out looking for us.
The fourth factor was the weather. Karen, Leah and I were getting cold sitting on the snowmobiles. We had already gotten wet from sweating and crawling in the snow. Now we didn’t want to move around because we would sink into the snow and get even wetter. Also, we wanted to conserve our energy for the big climb up Judgment Mountain. Furthermore, I knew the weather wouldn’t be any better on top of Judgment Mountain. An hour or two earlier it had been very windy and snowing on top.
Finally, if anyone were to hurt themselves trying to get up Judgment Mountain (especially one of the guys), we all would be SOL.
What Was Good?
Did I mention where Karen, Leah and I were waiting for the guys to make it up the mountain? We had cleverly positioned ourselves in a heavily wooded protected area 20 feet from an avalanche chute. You could tell an avalanche had gone through that area in previous years as the branches at the top of the pine trees were missing. The thought of being in an avalanche chute was just one more thing to cause uncertainty to the situation.
As we tried to make the most of our situation, someone reminded me of a saying a fellow snowmobiler would often repeat about any snowmobiling experience: “It is all good.”
So what was good about this situation?
We had some food and water but we were too cold to take off our gloves to eat anything. Our leader, Marty, was very upbeat about the situation. I was watching him and the other guys like a hawk, observing their take on our current situation. We had the best of the best with us—Marty, Lyle, and Scott. If anyone could get us up Judgment Mountain and out of this predicament, it would be these three guys.
Meanwhile, back down the trail things weren’t going so well for Lyle and Karen. Their combined weight was too much for them to ride through the powder to get to where we were. As a result they kept getting stuck. Then Lyle, perhaps speaking first without thinking, told Karen the reason why they weren’t making it up the trail was the fact she was heavier than Leah and me. BIG mistake, Lyle.
Needless to say Karen had some choice words for Lyle. Scott said he stopped his sled and kept his distance from Lyle and Karen when he saw her arms flailing all over the place and she wasn’t singing any love songs at this point in our adventure. Marty, who happens to weigh 25 pounds less than Lyle, gave Karen a ride up the trail to the logging road where Leah and I were waiting patiently.
So actually it wasn’t that Karen weighed more than Leah and me … but that Lyle weighed more than Marty and Scott. (Hopefully Lyle tucked this hard-earned lesson in the back of his head for future reference.)
As I was sitting on my snowmobile waiting for the guys to figure out how they were going to get all of us and our sleds up Judgment Mountain, I was doing a little paranoid planning myself.
My first plan was for just one person and a snowmobile to make it up Judgment Mountain so they could go find help. I would give them money to rent a helicopter to pick us up. I ran that idea by Leah and she said it has to be a medical emergency for the helicopter to go out. I reminded her that people do things if they are paid enough money. Leah told me it wasn’t going to happen.
We later found out there was no way a helicopter would even have gone out because of the white-out conditions that day. I am glad no one burst my bubble at the time and told me that because I probably would have started crying. I knew they rescued people off the mountains with helicopters all the time.
My second idea was to make it to Highway 40 and I was going to hitchhike my way back to the lodge. Everyone thought that was a dumb idea. They said my chances of staying alive were better if I spent the night in the mountains than to get in a truck with some guy. But this was Utah.
Now I was definitely become much more scared. I started shaking because I was so cold and scared. My legs were very wobbly. At this point I was spending a lot of time praying to God. I wanted to see family and my dog again. We were all trying hard to make conversation and keep an upbeat attitude. I cannot pretend to be something I am not. Therefore, it was hard for me to pretend I wasn’t scared.
To calm myself down I had to start bobbing back and forth and taking deep breaths. I knew I just had to keep it together because I still had to climb Judgment Mountain and ride my snowmobile another 15 miles to get to Daniels Summit. I did not want to let the team down. It is ironic because last Sunday at church the pastor was talking about going to the mountaintop and coming down from the mountains transformed. This was definitely a transforming experience for me.
Leah and Karen were great for moral support. They kept reminding me to move my fingers and toes. I always felt better when one of the guys would come over and talk to us and let us know what was going on. The hardest thing for me was to sit on my sled doing nothing to help us get out of this predicament and then to hold it together mentally.
The tool that proved invaluable was a saw. Both Lyle and Scott had saws in their backpacks which they used to cut down trees so they could take an easier, straighter line up Judgment Mountain.
Every time I heard the squawk of an engine going up Judgment Mountain I would just pray to God they would make it. Finally we heard Marty screaming as he had made it up with the 800 RMK 163. I was starting to feel a little better. Then Scott made it up with the 700 RMK 163. Marty walked back down the mountain and made it up back up with the 700 RMK 155. Things were starting to look up. We had three sleds sitting on top of Judgment Mountain, which meant there were enough sleds so we could ride two up if needed.
The guys told us we could start climbing up the mountain. Now I was feeling a hundred times better because I was doing something and was getting a step closer to home. Lyle ordered us to take our time because he didn’t want us to get out of breath and have a heart attack. After all, we all had about 18 pounds of riding gear on our tired bodies.
Therefore, we slowly crawled up Judgment Mountain on our hands and knees, carrying our helmets so we could breathe better. Leah was a good friend and carried Karen’s helmet for her.
There were still three more sleds that had to go up on the trail so when we heard a snowmobile start up at the bottom we would move off the trail into the deep snow so we wouldn’t get run over. We all cheered when we finally made it up to the top of Judgment Mountain. However, the celebration was short-lived as we quickly put on our helmets and got on our sleds so we could make it out before dark.
Scott was extremely nice to me and switched gloves with me since mine were frozen solid. Unfortunately, as we started riding I realized my new anti-fog helmet was fogging up. This wasn’t good. I had gotten snow in my helmet earlier when I was climbing up Judgment Mountain.
Scott wanted to switch helmets with me but his was too loose and my head wouldn’t be safe if I got thrown off my sled again. I told him to keep his helmet and I would ride with the shield up. Next time I ride in the mountains I am bringing goggles in case that happens again.
We still had another pretty steep hill to climb before reaching Daniels Summit.
At this point I was going to do anything and everything to get back home. Scott instructed me to keep the same distance between our snowmobiles going up the hill so when I noticed him giving his sled gas I could do the same with mine. We started up the hill in the following order: Marty, Leah, Lyle, Karen, Scott and myself.
Unfortunately Karen got stuck halfway up so Scott and I had to start sidehilling to avoid running into Karen. I followed Scott and left the trail and went into the fresh powder which is not an easy maneuver for a rookie. To initiate a sidehill maneuver I naturally stuck my left leg out to get more weight to the side I needed my sled to go to. I gave it all I had and almost made it to the top when my left ski broke through the snow and I didn’t shift my weight/body to the other side quick enough and got stuck. Scott was impressed.
After we made it up that last steep stretch, things started to look dim for us again. We drove into complete white-out conditions on top of the next mountain.
It was snowing and we were in the clouds. I was hoping these conditions would not last too long or it would be a long ride home … if we could get home. Fortunately the visibility improved once we got off the mountain and down into a valley with trees. Everything went pretty smoothly from this point on and we made it back to Daniels Summit Lodge at 6:30 p.m. in the dark.
This day was just a little more than I expected for my second day of riding in the mountains. Okay, I won’t lie. It was a lot more than I expected … but we made it and we were all safe.
On that particular day we really had to have faith in each other and work together as a team. All the guys were helping not just their wives but all of us girls. We all appreciated when one of the guys would give us a break and start our sleds for us.
Karen compared this adventure to childbirth: you soon forget all the bad memories and just remember the good memories and continue having more children. It is true. I would go back to ride in the mountains in a heartbeat.
Would I ride again with Marty? Yes. I am extremely confident in his ability and knowledge as a mountain snowmobiler. However, I might question his “judgment” regarding going down a mountain with lots of trees in close proximity to each other when he has a rookie like me with him.
I had the adventure of a lifetime and great people to share it with: Scott, Karen and Lyle, Leah and Marty. We had dinner that night at the lodge. I was extremely grateful and thankful to everyone for getting us out safely from the mountains, so I decided to give everyone a great big thank-you hug … including Marty.
Just so everyone knows, I am not the “huggy, feely, touchy” type person but I was happy to be alive.
At breakfast the next morning I asked everyone how they slept last night. None of us slept well. I think it was too much excitement for all of us whether some of us are willing to admit it or not. I think we were extremely lucky that afternoon on Judgment Mountain. Things could have easily gone the other way. Later on during breakfast, we were still talking and laughing about our adventure on Judgment Mountain. I am glad we can laugh about it now.
From this experience I think we all learned to have faith in each other and it is important to work together as a team. Also, we learned we had the mental and physical strength to keep it together and made it safely out of the mountains that snowy day.
Finally, if you are snowmobiling in the mountains always carry a survival kit with you including a saw. And wear the appropriate gear. For Marty and Lyle this was just another day in the mountains. But for me it was the scariest situation I have been in and I came out a stronger person who is willing to go back next year.