I absolutely love riding snowmobiles. I can't get enough of it. Now, if I wake up at night, that's what I'm thinking about. When I wake up in the morning, again, that's what I'm thinking about. I feel like I caught an illness that compels me to want to ride. When I close my eyes, my mind begins taking me through simulated linked turns in deep, frosty powder. Or weaving between trees as I climb out of meadows and across side hills.
This compulsion has to stop, right? I'll get better and be ready to go back to work on Monday, right? I hope so. To be completely honest, this illness is new to me. I never quite got it like this before. Riding sleds has always seemed fun and I have always enjoyed it, but not like this. Who doesn't think a machine with two skis, a giant track and a bunch of power that will take you anywhere on a mountain is cool? Yeah, everyone does. It's un-American not to. That would be like choosing not to eat meat.
I've always enjoyed pounding the throttle and powering up a big hill or across a meadow with some bumps or a jump. I also love finding a bowl or ravine with a little cornice to jump. But getting that machine to take me where I want it to and behave like I want it to in steep backcountry conditions is a different story. At the end of the day after a ride, I walk away thinking it was a good time, but never feeling the joy of being one with the machine. It's like going out and trying to ride a big wild pig. It's fast and goes everywhere, but it's heavy and has a mind of its own. If I get on a slope, that pig wants to go down the hill, no matter what I do. If I'm in deep powder, that pig wants to go left when I want to go right. Leaning, tugging, pulling, holding on for dear life, it's always a struggle and a fight in the deep stuff. But that's the fun of it, right? Isn't that why they ride rodeo?
Apparently, there's more to backcountry riding than that, because this year I got an e-mail from my buddy and SledHeads Editor Ryan saying that I should go and take one of the Next Level Riding Clinics for a few days in Alpine, WY.
When referring to my riding abilities going into the clinic, he said, "You do suck, by the way. Just so if that comes up and there's that awkward moment where it comes up and there are people standing around and I have to make you feel better about your riding abilities, we're clear." So, I picked up a bunch of Klim gear and drove up to Alpine to begin my training.
Next Level Clinics is the brainchild of Dan Adams, one of the pioneers of and first riders to appear in the Slednecks films and one of the Polaris-sponsored factory riders. For the past 13 years, he's been on a sled in extreme terrain, doing amazing things in front of the camera. He's impressive to watch, on screen, in photos and especially in person. Adams decided to start Next Level because he realized that there wasn't a place for people to learn how to ride a sled. And with years of experience as a snowboarding instructor, Adams enjoyed teaching. Adams' idea was to take everything he'd learned over the past 14 years of backcountry riding and teach those skills to people who wanted more out of snowmobiling.
The Next Level concept is that riders with any experience and skill level can bring what they've learned and take it to the, uh ... Ok, right, you're not stupid. There's actually a questionnaire you can take on the Next Level website that helps you determine your current skill level, which in turn helps them place you in the right class with riders who have a similar skill level. When I filled it out before attending the clinic, my skill level was beginner.
I think the key to taking the questionnaire is putting thought into each question and answering them honestly. You wouldn't want to get into a class that's over your head, because the class you belong in will be quite challenging as it is. During the threeday clinic they focus on backcountry preparedness, avalanche safety and training, equipment and, of course, riding technique.
My Clinic Experience
:: Day 1
The clinic began in the shop at Next Level. There were five of us in the class, plus two instructors, Dan Adams and Scott Crabbs. On the first day we spent some time going over backcountry preparedness and safety, equipment and avalanche training. Avalanche training was really interesting because they were freaks about it. Adams and Crabbs are very passionate about this safety and made sure each of us had it down.
Ironically, snowmobilers are the most at risk to be caught in an avalanche, but it's surprising to see how many have such little knowledge about where and when avalanches occur, let alone what to do if they or someone they're with is buried. This training will probably mean the difference between life and death if I or someone I ride with is ever caught in a slide. We learned about recognizing slide conditions, slopes and snow, as well as understanding and following avalanche advisory reports.
And I learned a ton about organizing an efficient search after a slide, proper search methods, using beacons on single and multiple burials, locating a victim and digging a victim out. The scariest part about avalanches is how ignorant I was. Adams provided AVI Vests (a sweet vest with an avalanche airbag and storage for all your junk), beacons, shovels and probes for everyone in the class to use while we were riding. After our classroom instruction that morning, we suited up and headed up the mountain.
You can bring your own sled to the clinic or you can rent one of their brand new Pro RMK sleds. Riding in Alpine was beautiful and the terrain and snow was amazing. I can see why Adams would live here. We rode up to the deep stuff (around 8,000 feet elevation) and found a big meadow. We all pulled over and Adams whipped out his video camera. He asked Crabbs to demonstrate a slow speed banked powder turn for us and then asked us to do the same so they could get an idea of what our current skill level was. The first couple of riders went out into the field and didn't even come close to what Crabbs showed us.
Next, I headed out, not only with Adams' camera rolling, but the magazine cameras focused on me. Determined to nail this turn, I grabbed the sled, pulled it over onto its right side and continued on with that motion, until both the sled and I were laying in the snow on our sides like we'd fallen out of our wheelchair. I got up and thought to myself, "It's going to be a long three days."
After the entire class had finished demonstrating their ineptitude, Adams continued to teach us turns and coach us as we practiced until we showed the improvement needed to move on. Next we moved to an area with a short but wide hill to learn sidehilling. We were supposed to slowly ride from one side of the hill, straight across to the other. Here we had a similar scenario. Crabbs demonstrated with perfect form and we tried the same. Our sleds didn't seem to want to listen and do what we told them. But as we continued and received coaching, we saw improvement. One of the most difficult aspects of the drills was that as the hill or field became tracked up, we had to continue the drill through the deep tracks. This forced us learn how to navigate through the drill, despite the bumps and rough stuff. It had everything to do with relying on proper techniques and body positioning.
After we finished on the hill, it was time for more avalanche training. We hiked up a large hill with shovels in hand. Once we got to the top, Adams took a beacon out and threw it down the hill into the powder as we were looking the other way. We worked together with our beacons to track down the hill and locate our "victim." Once we located the beacon, we placed a probe and took turns digging it out. It was interesting to learn about flux line radio signals that beacons use and how they can affect a search in different ways.
We finished the day with some more turn practice and then made our way back to the shop. At the end of the day, I was physically exhausted. I couldn't wait to sit in the hot tub, eat a huge steak, take 800 mg of Ibuprofen and fall into bed by 8:30 p.m.
The accommodations at the clinic were great. They put us up at the Flying Saddle Resort, which was nice because they had everything you wanted at the end of the day: room, pool, hot tub, restaurant and bar.
:: Day 2
My worst and favorite day. We hit the mountain first thing and began applying what we learned the day before. Adams was adamant that we learn to travel through different terrain types from different approaches and angles, like how to turn and sidehill from an uphill approach, turn and sidehill from downhill approach, navigate through trees in deep powder, etc. He taught this without the inherent danger of actual trees by using gates. He set up gate courses on hills where we would have to go around certain gates, then cut back and turn through other gates. This taught us to use the turns and sidehilling we learned on Day 1, but also to plan and think ahead as we ride so we don't get into trouble. This was the most challenging drill we did-not to mention we had 24 inches of new snow the night before so it was deep.
When we started the clinic, they told us that if we got stuck, we should just wait there until they came and got us out. They wanted us to save our energy for riding. We got stuck a lot that day. I bet Crabbs pulled at least 45 sleds out that day. We spent the morning on different hills attempting to run the gates. I was having a tough time, pushing it hard, really wanting to get the gates down. At one point, I even turfed it to the point that my sled rolled over, landed on its track and began to ghost ride down the hill toward the trees. It was amazing to see Crabbs and Adams zoom in for the interception on their sleds. Crabbs rode in at a perpendicular angle and grabbed the rogue sled's brake.
It was later this day that I suddenly caught the sickness of snowmobiling. We were doing a drill where we had to drop down a hill from the top and then bank right into the hill then sidehill across the slope and then turn back up the hill and ride out. It was like a switch had flipped and the Internet between my brain, finger and body fired up and they all started communicating. I'm pretty sure I heard some angels sing, too. Everything they taught just started happening for me on my sled. I knew how to blip the throttle, when and how much to countersteer, how to balance the sled, where to stand on the boards, where to keep my shoulders and arms and how much input to give the sled without dumping it on its side. Admittedly, I'm far from 100 percent proficient like Adams or Crabbs, but now I know how to ride a sled.
:: Day 3
Fun and games (mostly). I really enjoyed Day 3. I had acquired newfound skills and had a great time putting them to work and practicing in the deep snow. We did more drills, but on a larger scale. We practiced on bigger hills, did more advanced maneuvers and played in real trees. It was a party. After we ate lunch on the mountain, we were all ready to ride and have fun. They took us to the top of a big bowl and told us that were doing an avalanche drill and that our victim was buried somewhere in this bowl. Adams pulled out a stopwatch and we began the search. By the time we found the buried backpack with the beacon in it, nine minutes had passed. That person may have survived. It was surprising how the element of surprise changed our effectiveness in our search. I would hate to be in a real life situation without the avi training in place. When I got home, I went back to the website and took the questionnaire again. My skill level was intermediate. On paper, that's probably accurate, but the difference to me is now when I ride in the backcountry, I'm an entirely different rider. I'm confident that I can take a sled wherever I want: trees, uphills, downhills, sidehills and any of those things mixed in any order. I also get stuck about 70 percent less than I used to, which makes riding a lot more fun, because I'm using my energy to ride, not dig. In short, the thing that I took home with me is that with the right technique, you can make that sled your bitch.
For more information, go to www.nextlevelclinics.com