Eugene Buchanan: A snowmo-er is born
January 1, 2015
Steamboat Springs — My helmet didn't color me with experience. It was bright yellow, with two giant, dorkily grinning smiley faces adorning each side.
Jason at Steamboat Powersports gave it to me so I could join my buddy Edge in an off-piste snowmobile lesson from pro rider Brett Rasmussen. The helmet didn't reek of skill or sponsorship.
A diehard backcountry skier, Edge, vice president of Backcountry Access, was hitting Rabbit Ears to learn riding tips from Rasmussen. If he's selling backcountry safety gear to that market, including avalanche beacons, airbags, protective apparel and more, he might as well walk the fossil fuel-burning walk. Did I want to tag along?
Hasta luego office, and hello indoctrination to off-piste riding — and digging.
To set the stage, I'm not much of a power sports guy. This was going to be pure baptism by fire.
I grew up in the tofu and Telemark town of Boulder, where you burn more patchouli oil than fossil fuel. We wear Birkenstocks instead of snowmobile boots and earn our turns instead of burn them.
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Sure, like any resident worth their polypro, I've snowmobiled Buff Pass. But it's been on packed roads where you sit and steer. Do that off-piste, and you'll have as much direction as a ski bum.
Smiley helmet in hand, I met them at the East Summit, where it was easy to pick them out thanks to a giant trailer with a "Ride Rasmussen Style" logo painted on the side. A thin 57-year-old, Rasmussen didn't look the part of a snowmobiling icon. Nor did his fellow instructor and cousin Bryan Bennett. But they're snowmo studos.
Rasmussen co-founded and competed on the Rocky Mountain Snowmobile Hillclimb Association series for 15 years, one of the sport's most prestigious events (one race used to be held in Meeker). A six-time world champion, he now teaches off-piste riding clinics from Siberia and Iceland to Sweden and Norway.
His Ski-doo-sponsored sled further attests to his snowmobile stripes: a 164-horsepower, direct-injection, two-stroke Summit XM, with 3-inch track lugs and a 174-inch track length, the tallest and longest ever made. It equals one souped-up package, as long as you have the skill. Which is what we were here to learn.
After introductions, we fired them up and crossed the highway, where a b-b-bumpy road took us to a perch above an untracked hill. Here, Rasmussen offered a quick introduction, outlining the four main riding positions, from neutral (standing, while straddling the seat) to hanging your weight off the edge like hiking out on a sailboat. The positions are used to tilt the machine on edge to turn it.
Combine this weight transfer with countersteering and a liberal dose of the throttle, and you're off and running.
If only it were that easy.
With this get-it, got-it, good crash course, he took off across the slope, arcing his sled on edge and cranking a beautiful turn back uphill. Now it was our turn. Like ducklings, we flailed and wallowed in his wake. None of us could keep his line and instead bailed downhill. Had there been a cliff there, we'd all be toast.
There are two problems: 1) it's counterintuitive, and 2) you're juggling a lot of balls in the air. It's like chewing gum, patting your head and rubbing your belly, all while wrestling a 500-pound machine.
You have to give it juice, hang off the side and put it on edge, and then steer it the opposite way every survival gene in your body is telling you to. While he likened it to riding a bike, the only training wheels are the trees whizzing by.
A little too late, he also stressed the importance of saving energy, both in handling the machine and planning ahead so you don't get stuck. But we were already in grovel-ville, rookie golfers leaving divots wherever we went.
While Rasmussen made it look effortless, I would have had more luck wrestling a rhino. After one particularly deep auger, I was too pooped to even pull my starter cord.
But then, in one magic moment, you feel it. You discover that countersteering actually does help balance the thing when it's up on edge. And you take off on a graceful, arcing turn, blending a perfect combination of power and balance. No matter that this takes you right into a tree well, causing you to shed your last semblance of dignity and call in the cavalry.
For a moment, you felt it.
Umpteen Rasmussen rescues later, we regrouped after Etch-a-Sketching a hill into a line painting. I had rolled mine, toppled mine, buried mine and even rode it switch back downhill after botching a hill climb. But he bailed me out every time, a guardian angel goosing the throttle.
We all illustrated a few common mistakes, he advised, including not committing to the edge or the countersteer. It came down to not trusting the technique.
Indeed, I had moments of brilliance, followed by spastic sessions when I couldn't turn it for the life of me. During such mental blocks, the advantage went to the machine.
But by the time we made it back to the trailer, this time fully appreciating the packed-out road home, I came away with a new appreciation for the sport and Steamboat's stature in it.
It's not so bad, I felt, having long-dead organisms provide the power in snow country. And contrary to what neophytes might think, it isn't for Bugles-eating couch potatoes, even if that's what Bryan pulled out at lunch.
It's another incredible reason to live in Ski Town USA, despite tweaking muscles you never knew you had.
And most importantly? My own grin afterward matched the smiley faces on my helmet.