January 26, 2011

Schooled



How Did We Come To Ride The Backcountry The Way We do?

It’s all about the challenge.

I guess I am not much of a sightseer. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy being in the great outdoors and observing the pristine winter backcountry. There is nothing that compares to the beauty of winter in the backcountry. However, I tend to become very competitive whenever I have the power of a motorized vehicle at my finger tips.

When I started riding sleds in the late ‘60s, it was a challenge to get from one side of the field to the other without getting stuck or tipping over. Heck, it was even a challenge to keep the thing running for long enough to get across the field and back.

During my earliest rides I remember spending a whole day breaking trail to get to a summit which was only about a third of the way up the mountain. In those days we couldn’t wait until spring when the snow would set up so we could actually get into the high country. By today’s standards we don’t even consider it a challenge to get to the first summit. In fact, it’s not a challenge getting into the high country at all. I have to search for challenges and that generally leads me into the trees where I rarely find any tracks, where the snow is deep and avalanche risk is at a minimum.

As the sleds progressed we found ourselves climbing hills and some days we would sit at the same hill all day just beating a trail to the top. This was a challenge and we built and modified sleds for this purpose. Finally the OEMs started building sleds that would perform in the deep and steep terrain without modifications. This is when, for a time, I was somewhat bored with riding because it seemed like we went to the same place and played on the same worn-out terrain every time out. Then, with the release of the 2005 M Series from Arctic Cat, I suddenly found myself easily doing maneuvers that previously I had to work at.

The more I rode, the more I found how easy it was to ride. And I had a renewed challenge to explore new terrain because the rules had changed. To quote Chris Burandt, “It’s as if I am in a video game and the perimeters of reality are gone.” Incredible maneuvers are achieved when aboard any of the new sleds available today.

Now when I go to the backcountry there is always a new challenge. There is no reason to ride the trail to get to one’s favorite play area. Why not take the direct route, point to point, cross the ravine, traverse the sidehill, climb the mountain and descend the vertical slope? Who cares if we even make the destination point? We accepted the challenge and had a great time even if conquering the complete course was blown off. The risk of getting stranded in the backcountry has become smaller as we have improved our ride technique.

Many times I have come across tracks that lead me down a ravine to a point where the evidence showed that the group had decided to turn around and get out before they got in trouble. When I get to this point I will just sidehill out and re-evaluate the situation. It seems like way too much work to turn the thing around by hand. I think it’s a matter of trust between a rider and his sled to be able ride the backcountry any way and every way. If you think it, you should be able to do it.

The best rides are the ones when I never get more than five miles from the truck and return on fumes.

A ride I remember well was model year 2006 and six of us were on stock M7s. There was about four feet of new snow and the challenge was to get to the ridge top that could be seen from the trailhead, maybe five or six miles away as the crow flies. Of course we rode the trail for about three miles, then navigated through the brush and creek crossings in the low country and finally we headed up. We faced all kinds of challenges, from downed trees in the ravines to deep, drifted and bottomless powder that completely engulfed the sled if you turned up. Every maneuver was done at wide open throttle. I think I could have duct-taped the throttle lever open and done just fine. Talk about stuck. I dug myself out and everyone else many times and that just added to the challenge. If I could turn out before I dug the sled in it was like a mulligan, ‘cause then I could just keep going and going. When I did get stuck I couldn’t get dug out soon enough to continue the challenge.

My trip meter showed 40 miles when my sled ran out of gas and the group was only a third of the way up the hill. This was a good day.

For some, running out of gas before running out of energy is an abstract concept … but learning how to conserve your energy while still riding aggressively is a trick that needs to be mastered to take your riding skills to the next level.

Think about it: if you can do a new maneuver over repetitively, you will be able to master the move sooner. The problem we all face is that by the time you think you are starting to get it you’re exhausted, then by the next time you get out, a week or two later, it’s like starting over again. My point is, learn to handle the basic maneuvers effortlessly and without exhausting yourself. You should be able to roll your sled up by counter steering and using a blip of the throttle to overcome gravity. Then catch the balance with the steering. Practice this on the flats, first in a field then on a trail, and soon you’ll be doing it at will whenever needed.

The way we currently ride brings a new challenge every time out. When all the corridors leading to destination areas are packed down like pavement it’s only a matter of getting to the edge of the trail. Enter the trees and welcome the powder, always untracked and always a test for man and machine. 







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