Tow-In: Backcountry Skiing Via Snowmobile

There are certain things to which most folks will say “Yes” without hesitation. Rides in a helicopter are one of them, but I contend that when invited to haul ass through the mountains on someone else’s expensive, brand new, fast-as-heck snowmobile on the way to a backcountry powder stash, you also say “Yes.” I did immediately.

And so I wound up in the freshly snow-covered mountains near Granby, Colo., last Tuesday morning, hands locked onto the grips of a 2015 Ski-Doo Summit with the T3 package as it accelerated like a rocket under my slightly terrified, highly-thrilled body.

Truth is, I’m not a snowmobiler and have limited experience with the machines. Yet I do love a good adrenaline spike as much as the next guy and the call of untracked snow is strong.

Leading the way to the backcountry powder stash was Jeremy Mercier, a former guide and Ski-Doo expert who said he sees value in getting folks to good backcountry terrain without the tremendous expense associated with helicopters.

I love to earn my own turns. I’ve competed in ski mountaineering races and regularly enjoy pre-dawn hikes up ski resorts; but this was something different. As we charged up the face of Gravel Mountain powered by 2-stroke ROTAX 800R E-TEC steel, I couldn’t help but grin as big fat flakes spattered my goggles.

When used responsibly, snowmobiles like this Ski-Doo Summit have their proper job and place in the backcountry. I was impressed with the lack of smoke and stink from this 2-stroke engine. And while it does make some noise, the snowmobile was a lot quieter than what I remembered from older models, revving a little louder than your average car.

The area we toured near Granby is popular snowmobile country, with groomed trails and regularly ridden routes. We rocketed into the wilds on a groomed trail before departing onto deep powder where the 3” track lugs (the longest of any stock snowmobile) could really shine.

That’s where we did some quick laps, putting the snowmobiles to use as our personal chariots to the top of untracked powder lines.

Really, this is no secret. According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, there are 1.4 million registered snowmobiles in the U.S. and about 600,000 in Canada. It’s hard to say how many of them use the machines to access backcountry skiing and riding, but with trailheads of snowmobile-to-ski areas like Vail Pass regularly crowded with trailers it seems the number is growing.

We pressed the throttle and easily ascended to a high ridge in seconds. With feet of recent snowfall on top of hard-pack, we limited our riding to low angle, low risk terrain.

I hopped off the sled, quickly removed my skis from the Ski-Doo Linq System rack, and clipped into my skis. I dropped in and enjoyed deep powder turns for a couple minutes to the bottom of the ridge.

There, I grabbed a tow rope and was whisked quickly to the top of the ridge for another go at the powder before taking my turn as the shuttle.

In one afternoon I grasped the significance of snowmobiles in the backcountry. A skier can access great terrain rapidly — and the drive in is also a lot of fun. A team of riders can bang out a lot of vertical quickly. And if you are going to skin up steep terrain, the machine allows you to access remote locations that would take a skier an entire day.

The cost compared to helicopters is markedly reduced. Purchasing a snowmobile is not cheap — the top of the line model I rode costs about $13,000 — but it is more in-line with the average budget than heli-ski vacations, which can cost more than $1,000 per person per day.

As we cruised over groomed trails back to the parking lot, I delighted in the incredible power of the Ski-Doo. The machine had taken me to a place I would have doubtfully seen any other way, at least without some serious slogging and overnight camps. And while we did leave behind tracks in the snow, I doubt our passage would remain noted for long in any other way.

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Editor-in-Chief Sean McCoy is a life-long outdoorsman who grew up hunting and fishing central Wisconsin forests and lakes. He joined GearJunkie after a 10-year stint as a newspaperman in the Caribbean, where he learned sailing and wooden-boat repair. Based in GearJunkie's Denver office, McCoy is an avid trail runner, camper, hunter, angler, mountain biker, skier, and beer tester.
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