SEATTLE (AP) — I can recall vividly all of my friends who have ridden on a snowmobile, because all — and I mean every single one of them — had a bad spill, some requiring a trip to the emergency room. So, me on a snowmobile? “No, thank you” was always my reply.
But I must have been infected by one of those confront-your-fears aphorisms from some late-night infomercial because one morning, I reached out to a snowmobile club. I wanted to learn. I wanted to tool around some.
After many cancellations due to lack of snow, one veteran rider called last March to say, “I think we got a day.”
My guide, Kurt Zeutschel, from Issaquah, of the Cascade Drift Skippers snowmobile club, knew I was skittish. On the morning of our ride, he didn’t want me to see his broken finger, which got mangled the previous night when his hand rammed into a tree branch on a ride.
As I stared at his index finger, which was bigger than his thumb, he smiled. “I didn’t want to tell you last night. I didn’t want you to freak out.”
Naw, I didn’t freak out. That would come 15 minutes later when barely 300 yards in, a few guys in our group sped ahead, doing tricks and such on steep terrain. One rider hit a stump, and the 500-plus-pound sled rolled over him, trapping him underneath. He lay motionless for a few seconds until the others hopped off to get the snowmobile off him.
The rider picked himself up, dusted off the snow and laughed it off. His friends teased him. “Old man.”
Then they hopped back on. One guy turned to me and said, “You ready?”
My jaw just dropped. Is it too late to back out?
Every winter, the gang from the Cascade Drift Skippers will gather in Cle Elum or Blewett Pass, or tow their sleds up north to alpine-ride in Whistler, B.C.
For my outing, I met four members at the Crystal Springs Sno-Park, east of Snoqualmie Pass.
The 51 miles of groomed trails and open fields, maintained by Washington State Parks, is a good place to learn. I took a few minutes to get acquainted with the handlebar of the loaner snowmobile they provided — left-hand brake, right throttle — before we took off.
By the look of the corduroy-patterned track, and the hum echoing throughout the forest, there were plenty of riders already deep into the valley on this morning.
We would be there soon enough. Like a bunch of excited kids on Christmas morning, my companions pointed to the blanket of snow in the meadow ahead. “It’s like a blank canvas waiting to be painted,” one rider said.
Another rider, Bob Seelye, rode up to my side and advised that the snow is soft and that you need to keep your momentum or you will get stuck.
He was very polite. What he really meant: Stop being timid. Stop braking. Let it rip.
Once I got the hang of it — riding in a squatting position over bumpy terrain so my bum didn’t feel like a shock absorber, riding on one knee on the seat, the other feet planted to the side board so I could see the terrain better and could easily shift my weight forward on the climb — I could then relax and ride in the moment instead of looking down at the handlebar.
What a view. Riding on a track, flanked by giant firs and in the open field. To my east, the glistening blue Kachess Lake, which looked a few shades brighter than the sky.
We rode further south to a weather station and up to Stampede Pass, another coveted white “canvas before us.”
After a head-bobbing, moguled field, riding the untracked snow was a buoyant experience, like carving my snowboard on that first run at sunrise in the backcountry.
We paused atop Stampede Pass to gaze at the sweeping valley wrapping all around us. Below was the historic town of Lester.
We got a late start. But just as Zeutschel had assured me, we would find our quiet oasis easily enough because the snowmobiles can cover a lot of ground in a short time. It’s why Zeutschel, a former skier, became a snowmobile convert.
“As a skier, you want to ski the untracked snow. But at a ski area, it gets all tracked out really fast because a lot of people are competing for the same space . Instead of being confined to 500 acres with 1,000 people, you go up on 5,000 acres with 100 people, and you have a lot of terrain of untracked snow. There are days when the views are spectacular. You see way more than you would in a ski area.”
Retired from Boeing, Zeutschel rides with other club members from the Seattle area and Cle Elum. On our ride, Seelye, Carl Corn and Mick Steinman joined us, all experienced riders who donned helmets and were strapped with two-way radios and avalanche beacons and avalanche backpacks with air bags. They’re members of the Washington State Snowmobile Association, the state’s largest organization related to the sport. Many work or volunteer as paramedics and in search-and-rescue.
I felt safe. And if I were in trouble, I knew I was in good hands.
After a couple of hours, I rode standing up to get a better view of Mount Rainier to the south and Mount Stuart to the north.
As I was getting comfortable, the guys led me to steeper terrain, riding up in a caravan with me in the middle of the pack.
One turned to say, “You’ll be fine.”
Clear skies. Blue lakes. Wait, what? Why wouldn’t I be fine?
It was colder higher up. The wind blew snow off the pine needles and dusted us. Branches swayed in the breeze.
As the tortuous path got narrower on the way up, I could see this would be a steep fall if I didn’t navigate the turns on point.
In a calm, namaste-like voice, one rider said the track was now sloping to one side. I would have to ride standing on one side of the snowmobile to balance the tilting sled to ensure I wouldn’t flip over.
What? Run that by me again?
I grew timid, braking constantly to not overshoot the curve when I needed to speed up so my snowmobile wouldn’t get stuck in the snow.
One rider saw I had lost confidence and offered to take over my snowmobile.
Another said, “You got this.”
Another advised me to stop looking over the edge.
That helped. I stopped thinking about how steep a fall it might be and focused back on getting the snowmobile through this uneven section.