Back Country Sled-Rescue 101

Published in the January 2011 Issue Sledheads Richard and Devin Hess
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"Photo 1. Looking back over three of the five ridges that we had to cross while towing our broken sled out of the backcountry.
"Photo 2. Using webbing ratchets and hooks not only allow for infinite length adjustments, but the webbing can be easily connected to the pulley with a metal hook.
"Photo 3. Allowing the towing sled to slightly augur in keeps both sleds from sliding backwards down the mountain.
"Photo 4. Connecting the winch rope to the broken sled in preparation for winching the sled up the mountain.
"Photo 5. With the winch secured to a tree, the rope is wrapped around the capstan pulley to start the pull. The super slick sled came in handy to keep the winch out of the snow when not used under the track of the broken sled.
"Photos 6 and 7. Winching the sled up the mountain. On this pull, Devin got a ride to the top.
"Photo 8. Looking down the last ridge, which was too steep to ride over double with our stock sleds. The winch made pulling the broken sled over such steep ridges rather simple and surprisingly fast.
"Photo 9. The broken sled is out and we are all back at the parking lot. Even though the snow persisted for several more weeks, this was the ending scene of our 2009-2010 snowmobile season.

Western Wyoming boasts some of the best backcountry sledding anywhere and is possibly our favorite place to ride. Even though more people are discovering these great riding spots, the crowds are still small, because you don't get into this backcountry on a causal ride with just any sled.

So if this country will push a mountain sled to its limits, then it goes without saying that a sled with a broken crank is a problem, especially if that crank broke five ridges deep into the backcountry (Photo 1).

Now, we've dragged countless broken and wrecked sleds back to the parking lot throughout our years of snowmobiling. However, as snowmobile technology has improved and we ventured further off trail and deeper into the backcountry, we've always had the nagging thought in the back of our mind about what we would do if a sled broke down in the backcountry. Over the years we've watched other unfortunate riders dealing with this situation, and in April 2010, we got our turn.


Assessing Our Options

A helicopter tow was an option, but at the time that seemed an overly expensive option. However, in hindsight, that might have been the best option. Other options included: we could repair the sled and ride it out or figure out how to tow it out.


Helicopter tow

If available, hiring a helicopter to fly in and lift your broken sled to the parking lot can be quick and easy. We are aware of one group of riders that, at the beginning of each season, all contribute $500 to a "helicopter tow" fund. With the helicopter tow fund, when somebody breaks down they simply ride to a ridge top where they get cell phone service, call the helicopter company and the broken sled gets to the parking lot faster than they do. Unfortunately, we didn't have the helicopter company on our cell phone speed dial, nor access to a tow fund.


Repair the sled and then ride it out

This was actually our preferred option. A few years ago a rider in our group broke his sled deep in the backcountry. We simply removed the broken parts, rode back in the next morning with new parts, repaired the sled and then had a second day of great riding. The problem was that we didn't have enough tools with us to pull the engine. Rather, it was late April and the snow along the drainage we rode through to access the high country was going fast. Therefore, coming back with tools to pull the engine, fixing it and then coming back again in a few weeks to reinstall the engine was a risky option. We might not get back to the sled until next winter.

This left us with the dilemma of how to quickly get the sled out. As such, we were back to figuring out how to tow the sled out.


Towing the sled out

The problem with towing a sled out of the backcountry is that you usually can't just hook onto the broken sled with a short piece of rope and drag it back to the parking lot. This is because the terrain and deep snow are sufficiently challenging to stop a perfectly functioning sled with only one rider, let alone towing a broken sled. Additionally, in the backcountry, that perfect powder snow is often so deep that towing a broken sled across flat meadows is impossible. If that is your situation, you're likely back to hiring a helicopter or waiting until the snow sets up before you can tow the sled. However, there is still the problem of the terrain.

To overcome that problem a block and tackle is a good solution. A block and tackle kit usually consists of a long length of rope, a pulley and an assortment of fasteners (Table 1). Such a kit can be assembled with supplies purchased from a local army surplus and/or hardware store. Our kit weighed in at 64 lbs. and cost just more than $600 (Table 1). However, with a little better shopping and optimizing rope and webbing lengths, a person should be able to reduce the weight and cost. The kit is too heavy to carry while riding; rather, it is designed to be left in your pickup at the parking lot with the rest of your emergency gear (i.e., tools, spare parts, gas, etc.)

Typically with a block and tackle, the broken sled is towed to the base of a hill. The webbing is fastened to a tree at the top of the hill and to the other end of the webbing the pulley is positioned at the point to which the sled is being towed. Using a webbing ratchet allows the pulley to be easily positioned at any point along the 300 feet of webbing (Photo 2).

The ratchet is useful for getting the pulley in the best position for the tow and to make sure the tow rope running through the pulley doesn't rub against the ground or any other object that could fray the rope, causing it to wear out prematurely or even break. The 600 feet of rope is then stretched down the hill and connected to the broken sled, threaded onto the swing side pulley (using a swing side pulley saves having to thread long lengths of rope through the pulley) and connected to the towing sled.

The towing sled then proceeds down the hill and pulls the broken sled up the hill. As you can imagine, once the tow begins, things can go fast and on really steep terrain it can be difficult to stop the towing sled once is drops off the mountain. Also, pulling up drainages can be difficult because the two sleds need to pass each other midway and every pull works best as a straight shot, since pulling around corners is very rough on your expensive rope.

You also need to be careful of sudden starts, snags or other problems that will break the 600-foot tow rope. For these reasons, it has been my observation that the 600 feet of rope generally becomes several shorter lengths of rope after the first few uses. Also, you might think that the high tensile strength strap for securing the pulley is overkill. However, we use the high tensile strap to secure the pulley rather than another piece of polyester rope, because if the pulley rope breaks you now have a steel missile flying through the air at you. We had this happen once and the pulley was buried into a tree just in front of us. After that experience, we made sure that the pulley anchor was sufficiently strong so that every other part will fail before it does. This same precaution applies to hooks, ratchets or any other metal piece connected to your ropes.

One other requirement for towing a broken sled with a block and tackle is that you need a lot of friends who each have a good mountain sled. Three experienced riders with three good mountain sleds are a good minimum but it's better to have four or five. The day our sled broke down, the folks from Klim used this approach to pull a sled out they had broken the week before.

Likewise, our solution was to invite a lot of our friends who have good mountain sleds and then with shear strength and numbers drag it out. However, we soon found out that we didn't have as many friends as we thought we did and that left just the two of us and one stock mountain sled (a Ski-Doo XP). So what were we going to do?

Well, we were on our own, so after a week of planning, myself, Devin my son (who is 19 years of age, stronger than I and an experienced rider), and 16 year old daughter (who doesn't like riding off trails or when it is cold), borrowed a neighbor's sled and headed up to get our broken sled. I did pick up one additional tool. After considering many options to compensate for our lack of friends, I bought a portable capstan winch and paid to have it shipped overnight to me (Table 1). The winch did not replace or eliminate anything from the block and tackle kit, but it proved to effectively reduce the manpower requirement needed to tow the broken sled out of the back country.


The Rescue

Unfortunately, it snowed that week (I can't believe I just said that, wishing it hadn't snowed). With the new snow, we weren't sure we were going to make it back to our broken sled with all the gear and Devin and Lauren riding in double. However, after rolling a borrowed sled down the mountain and leaving Lauren to walk to the top of the last ridge, we made it to the bowl where our stranded sled was waiting. Now we had to go back over those same ridges, but this time towing our broken down sled.

Using a portable capstan winch still requires all of the block and tackle gear, but the winch does the towing up the hill rather than a sled going downhill. The winch adds an additional 40 lbs. of gear to carry into the backcountry (Table 1). We found that constructing a simple wooden platform to hold the winch up off of the snowmobile tunnel not only worked well, but was necessary. The hex head bolts on the bottom of the winch engine mount would damage the tunnel and heat exchanger if strapped directly to the sled. A wooden mount worked best as it protected both the sled and winch from being damaged. The mounting bolt heads on the winch also embedded into the wood, preventing the winch from sliding around. The bags of rope and other gear we easily distributed between two sleds.

After crossing several ridges we came up with an efficient and fast tow system. The towing sled would pull the broken sled up the hill as far as possible, not stopping until it had augured in (Photo 3). Auguring in the towing sled would hold both sleds on the hill until we could get set up for the tow. We also found that we could get farther up the hill if the towed sled was far enough behind the towing sled that the snow coming off the track-wash of the towing sled stopped moving before the towed sled was dragged through it. If the sleds were coupled too close together, snow coming off the towing sled track piles up in front of the towed sled increasing drag.

Our selected tow rope length allowed us to spread the sleds from 4 feet to 20 feet apart. The next time we do this, we'll have a tow rope long enough to get the sleds 20-30 feet apart. Spreading the sleds apart worked so well that we were getting the towed sled most of the distance up the ridges, and on some ridges, we made it over and did not have to winch the sled up to the top. Of course, when towing downhill or across the bumpy paths, we would shorten the distance and thread the tow rope through the 4-foot lengths of PVC (Table 1) to keep the sleds from colliding and jerking against each other.

When towing sleds in the backcountry, the drag force can be greater than down a smooth trail. These increased forces can damage bumpers and ski loops on the sleds. To prevent such damage, we reinforced the towing sled bumper with a 1x2-inch piece of wood the width of the bumper. Cutting a grove in the board allowed it to fit tightly against the bumper. The board was positioned between the tunnel and bumper and then fastened to the bumper with electrical tape. A notch in the center of the board kept the attached tow rope from sliding around. While not the most elegant solution, it worked very well and didn't leave an unsightly bumper brace and/or screw holes when removed. Also, when tying onto the towed sled, it is best to connect to both ski spindles. This is especially important during the winch pull, as the forces can break ski loops and front bumpers.

Once the towed sled is as far up the hill as it can be towed with another sled, we set the brake and secured it such that it would not slide back down the mountain. We then unhooked the sleds, dug out the towing sled and the two of us would ride the towing sled up to the ridge top (sometimes one of us would have to walk, because the ridge was too steep to get up riding double). One person would then take an end of the 600-foot rope down the mountain and tie it onto the broken sled (Photo 4). The other person would set up the winch by tying it off to a tree using the polyester sling (Photo 5). It was important to position the winch such that the 600 feet of rope didn't rub against the ground or anything else that would fray it.

As such, the polyester sling may not be long enough to correctly position the winch. In these instances the high tensile webbing could be used (Table 1). Like the block and tackle pulley, it is important to make sure the winch is securely fastened, since a failure in the winch fastener could result in the 40-pound winch being hurled down the mountain. Once the winch was set and the 600-foot rope connected to the broken sled, you simply start the winch engine and it pulled the sled up the mountain (Photos 6 and 7).

After getting the sled to the top of the ridge, we loaded all the gear back onto the sleds, road the three sleds off the ridge top, reconnected the XP to the broken sled and proceeded to the next ridge. Using the winch added weight and cost to our block and tackle kit, but it made the job relatively easy for two of us. It was nice to have my daughter along to ride one of the sleds off the ridge tops, as they were too steep to tow off. She saved a lot of work climbing back up those ridges to get the third sled, so pulling our broken Ski-Doo Rev out with the block and tackle gear plus winch went something like this.

After reaching the last ridge top, we dropped the capstan winch and other gear, then Devin and I went to get the broken sled. To keep the timeline correct, Lauren was actually still walking up to the top of this ridge when we dropped the gear and headed for the broken sled (Photo 8). Now if getting to the broken sled carrying all our gear and riding double hadn't been challenging enough, it was from this point on that things really started to get interesting.

 We dropped the gear, took the XP and went and tied onto the Rev.

 We pulled the Rev toward the ridge top until the XP augured in and stopped.

 I set the brake and untied the Rev while Devin dug out the XP.

 We rode the XP to the top of the ridge and met Lauren just as she finished climbing up the other side.

 Devin grabbed the rope and slid down the ridge while I set up the winch.

 Lauren complained about having to walk up the mountain while I winched up Devin and the Rev.

 We loaded the gear then looked at Lauren and said, "You're gonna have to ride one of these sleds off this ridge."

 We got Lauren on the XP because it was the most stable sled out of the bunch and before she could protest, Devin reached out and pinned the throttle.

 That XP launched and when it hit, Lauren came clean off the sled only holding on to the handlebars with one hand.

 She held on tight, pulled herself back up onto the sled while it was going down the mountain and rode it the rest of the way out and I yelled, "That's my girl."

 Then Devin and I dropped off the ridge and when we reached Lauren she said, "I'm never doing that again."

 Then we hooked back up and headed for the next ridge.

 As we approached the next ridge Devin didn't let up and I knew he was going to do something stupid.

 Sure enough, without hesitation Devin pinned the XP and headed up the ridge with me dragging behind on the Rev.

 I held on tight and watched in horror as the XP's track caught hold of hard snow.

 That XP launched straight up in the air and both it and Devin appeared to be right over the top of my head.

 The sled sling shot Devin and he was flying through the air looking like some type of oversized bird. The sled came down hard and when it hit that XP started rolling down the mountain.

 The Rev and I slid backward down the ridge just in front of the rolling XP.

 I watched the tow rope as it twisted tighter from the XP rolling, just waiting for everything to wrap up into a ball.

 The sleds and I finally stopped and Lauren came up and said, "I wish I would have had the camera out."

 I looked up at Devin and yelled, "What were you thinking?" He said, "I thought I could make it."

 I surveyed the carnage, gathered up the gear and then we hooked back up and tried it all again.

 As the day went on, the snow got firmer and we got our towing system figured out.

 We actually dragged that broken sled out in less time than it took to ride in to get it.

When we reached the parking lot and loaded up that was the end or our 2009-2010 snowmobile season (Photo 9);

And after all that, we can't wait until next year.

Block and Tackle Kit 

Items that can be purchased from the Portable Winch Company or one of their distributors (

 600-foot double braided polyester rope (27 lbs; we got the 3/8-inch which is less weight, but would suggest the one-half inch for this application)

 1 swing side 4-inch single pulley

Items that can be purchased from an Army Surplus Warehouse


 300 ft of GI Issue Cotton 2-inch webbing (23 lbs; 100 ft of webbing is enough for most situations. Alternate options would be steel aviation cable or nylon webbing. The important consideration is that the select material must be the strongest part of the kit to prevent flying pieces of metal.)

 2 webbing ratchets and 2 hooks

 50 ft of half-inch double braided polyester rope for towing (The key is to have enough length and adjustability to properly position the towed sled for the towing situation.)

 10 Black Rubber Bungees to secure gear to sleds

Item that can be purchased from local hardware/lumber store or Walmart:

 Three-quarter-inch schedule 40 PVC pipe lengths (cut into two 4-foot lengths) to put the tow rope through so sled can be towed downhill without brakes or rider

 Super slick sled to put under sled track for reduced towing resistance when needed


Total weight of Block and Tackle gear = 64 lbs

Total cost of Block and Tackle gear = $610

Block and Tackle Kit plus winch 

Items that can be purchased from the Portable Winch Company or one of their distributors


 Portable Capstan Winch (39.5 lbs filled with gas and oil; 35 lbs published dry weight)

 2-inch Polyester sling


Total weight of Block and Tackle plus Winch = 104 lbs

Total cost of Block and Tackle plus Winch = $1,980

Winch, rope and super slick sled strapped onto the back of a Ski-Doo Rev XP. Smaller lengths of rope, pulley, hooks and other miscellaneous gear (including the probe, shovel, saw) were carried in the backpack sitting next to the sled. A second sled carried the role of webbing. Putting both the rope and webbing on the second sled would more equitably distribute the weight. However, our second sled was being ridden double, so the XP was used to carry most of the gear.

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