West Yellowstone Snowmobiling in the White Room — Beginner’s Style

Snowmobiling is a popular winter pastime across the snowy parts of the U.S. and beyond. And as intimidating as it might be, it’s a killer way to see the high country in the depth of winter.

I stood in a packed spot of snow, surrounded by 4 feet of powder in the high country of Idaho. World-class athletes ripped all around me.

I happened to be leaning against Ski-Doo’s latest and greatest machine yet. The Summit 850 E-TEC Turbo had just been introduced to the world the day before. Sledders worldwide freaked out, and the sleds immediately began to sell before they even hit the lot.

The new technology brought a masterpiece of a two-stroke engine to life, blending a popular high-mountain machine with turbo capabilities. Before the Summit, a high-elevation sledder would have to add an aftermarket turbo package to their snowy ride to power them through higher elevations. But the hefty, expensive addition cost folks their warranty, leaving them literally out in the cold should something go wrong.

This new sled offered 165 horsepower up to 8,000 feet of elevation, with the turbo component slickly designed into the engine in a whole new proprietary fashion. With an MSRP starting at $18,099, I was riding a sled that was almost as expensive as my personal vehicle.

And I was riding a snowmobile alone for the second time in my life. I was on assignment for 2 days in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. And snowmobiles were at the center of the journey.

Beginner’s Luck

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Initially, I thought I was going for a leisurely ride or two through the wintry corridors of Yellowstone National Park. It was a bucket-list adventure for me. And it seemed like a good way to ease into snowmobiling. I’d enjoyed the one time I’d done it a lot, and I was curious about the endeavor itself.

But, upon arrival, the introduction of Ski-Doo’s Summit 850 E-TEC Turbo was the real juicy bit of the trip. And I’d be spending the first day riding 12 miles of trail, then heading straight into high-country powder.

A fog of curse words, confusion, and beginner’s anxiety clouded my brain. “I have no business being here,” I thought. As intros were made, I began to catch on to the gist of what was happening. Ski-Doo’s team of pro shredders surrounded me. Folks like Ashley Chaffin, Tony Jenkins, AJ Lester of SnowTrax TV, Dave Norona, and others made up a seriously ripping crew of athletes.

And then there was me. I confessed both my feelings and legit lack of expertise to everyone I could. And this community of badasses couldn’t have been more accommodating. They said I could do it. I almost believed them.

12 Miles on a Snowmobile

That morning, I suited up in serious garb. I love a uniform, and the snowmobiling kit I zipped on made me feel more legit than I was. If confidence can be boosted by one thing and one thing only, looking the part certainly helped. I might have been a noob, but no one had to know that didn’t already.

nicole
The author geared up and on the trail

A few folks set me up with my fancy, brand-spankin’-new ride, showing me the basics of how to turn my machine on and accelerate. Nerves set in, but my new friend and Ski-Doo’s PR and Media Relations Manager Steve Cowing offered to hang back with me as I learned how to ride, navigate trails, and shift my weight accordingly through turns. He gave me lessons throughout our first big trip up the mountain.

Slowly, surely, confidence set in. I learned mountain etiquette as we passed other folks on sleds, how to lean into turns effectively, trusting my body and my instincts in the snow. And as I gained confidence, my focus turned to the royal qualities of the lodgepole forests we navigated through.

Diamond dust from champagne powder drifted through beams of light, through tree limbs that grew increasingly heavy with snow. The buzz of the powerful machine beneath me added an element of white noise to the affair. Clouds, sun, and even a minor icy rain came at us through the stillness of a wintry world. I’m always in awe of high places, but seeing the change at a higher speed than I’d ever gone in the backcountry was profound.

We were moving on up — up, up, up into the places the sled beneath me was built for.

White Ghosts, White Room

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A better sledder than me at the helm; photo credit: Ski-Doo

Suddenly, we arced up into a world where the trees became heavy and sculptural white ghosts, reaching their heavy arms toward the earth below. At one point, Steve was dwarfed by the most fantastical tunnel of these ghosts, leaning over toward him, inquisitive almost.

The snow changed beneath my sled as I powered through the same tunnel. On the other side, we shut off our sleds, and we heard the other Ski-Doo bees buzzing on the mountain.

Using walkie-talkies, Ski-Doo ambassador Tony Jenkins came and grabbed us. We sledded our way up and over a deeply foggy mountaintop, where seeing 50 feet ahead was a struggle let alone keeping on the packed trail beneath me. At one point, I got stuck three times in a row. But Tony ponied up and took one for the team, letting me ride two-up on the front of his ride.

From there, the white room appeared, and we went straight into it. The powder was 4-5 feet deep in places, and we snaked in and out of trees, into wide-open, high mountain valleys. We dropped from fallen trees into huge pockets of powder and zipped through untouched plains of snow. It. Was. Un. Real. And I was all stoke. Jenkins toured me around the mountain in truly epic fashion.

Getting the Feel

Where we were was simply not beginner snowmobiler territory. No, it would be the equivalent of a new skier being dropped into 4 feet of powder on their second day out. This was for the elite. And I was in the hot seat with a serious rider on a serious sled.

But familiarities began to abound. As a snowboarder of almost 20 years, the white room is a definitive holy place. I’m not particularly good at snowboarding either, but I’m proficient and I know the feel of big powder.

I could feel the sled’s edges dip into the powder and out of it. Ah, familiarity. If I closed my eyes, it felt like we were gliding on weightless water, like how I’d imagined riding the clouds might feel like as a child.

After a few hours, I was dropped back off at my sled, where Steve and Tony encouraged me to give it a whirl. I pinned it — as the sledders say — and through the powder I went, on my own. The feel of riding with Tony guided me on my new adventure. My edges caught the soft, clean plain of the snow, and it turned my powerful sled in wide arcs. I smiled in my helmet and laughed when I got stuck a minute or two into the ride.

A few times down the hill, Steve pushed me to get out of my comfort zone and back into the powder. And each time, I ventured a bit and found my way back to the trail. The home stretch to our hotel felt like a big win, the rhythm of the sled beneath me and my ownership over it finally caught up to one another.

An Experience I Didn’t Know I Needed

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My friend Steve among the white ghosts

The fun of time spent with world-class riders on a world-class sled makes me grin even now. The experience speaks to something that seems to be easier when we’re younger. Leaning into the unknown, the challenging, and the scary is often a thrilling endeavor. And that if failing is simply getting your sled stuck in the powder, there’s either a way out or the spring melt.

Jokes aside, snowmobiling often gets a bad rap in the world of haughty outdoor recreation. But it’s a physical, demanding, and electrifying way to move through the country. And miles of snowmobile trails snake through public land and into high, wild places dominated by snow, ice, and silence in the winter months.

Like mountain bikes, ATVs, and off-road vehicles, snowmobiles have a definitive place in our outdoor recreating community. And they’re fun. AF.

And on the other side of that balls-to-the-wall kind of energy lived the ecstatic feel of the ride, and both silent moments and speeding moments that propelled the magic of the deeply snowed-in high country gifted to me on a totally unexpected day. I’ll get up there again, and I’ll be just a few iotas more confident when I go.

Nicole Qualtieri
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Based in Montana, Nicole Qualtieri is GearJunkie's Hunt + Fish Editor. When she's not writing or editing, she's likely hunting, fishing, or on the back of her little brown horse with a border collie named Butch Cassidy on heel in the mountains. Find her on Instagram at @nkqualtieri.

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