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My complicated relationship with snowmobiling

Snowmobiling, or "sledding" as it's known colloquially, is arguably the most adrenaline-rich wintersport we have here in Western Canada.
sledding Not as easy as it looks. Photo by Vince Shuley

Snowmobiling, or "sledding" as it's known colloquially, is arguably the most adrenaline-rich wintersport we have here in Western Canada. Sleds are fast, some can accelerate at the rate of a Porsche 911 Turbo and—if you know to pilot them—can go places that would otherwise require an aircraft to access. They're also loud, expensive, burn through oil as well as gasoline and require an equally oil-and-gasoline-chugging truck to transport them anywhere.

Riding a sled on a groomed trail isn't hard. Going in a straight line is as easy as flexing your thumb over the throttle, and cornering simply requires you to shift body weight towards the inside of the turn.

Once you leave the groomed trail, however, things get a bit more interesting. The weight-to-the-inside motion only works on the flattest of terrain and even then, unconsolidated fresh powder complicates matters. At this point you have to carve the sled, which is incredibly difficult to learn, but I'm told like most skill-based activities, becomes a lot easier "once you get the hang of it." I know this because I've tried it with various degrees of success. I actually worked as a snowmobile tour guide many moons ago and I'm not proud of the fact that I never learned how to actually snowmobile properly—but I have excuses for that. Tour sleds back then were built for riding on logging roads in Ontario and Quebec, and were very heavy and cumbersome with underpowered (quietier and more efficient) four-stroke engines. Back then I was also very much into my skiing and was happier ski touring in the backcountry than digging my sorry butt out of another hole that the sled dug for itself.

But back to the snowmobile carve. I liken this activity to surfing, which is also one of those sports with a very steep learning curve that can be equally painful and frustrating at the beginning (for the record, despite hailing from Australia, I'm not a very good surfer, either). Whenever I do paddle out into the swell, I make sure I catch at least one wave standing up on my board. If I can do that once that day and feel good about it, I'll promise myself to return to the ocean and try it again.

The physics of a snowmobile carve seems a bit counter-intuitive at first, but stick with me. First you have to move your body weight to the inside of the turn in order to reach a balance point on a single ski. You can initiate this by counter-steering the sled, meaning if you want to turn the machine left, you swing the handlebar to the right. You then regulate the throttle and keep the balance on that one ski as you push down against the inside end of the handlebar and pull on the outside end. The sled should then carve a nice arc. Remember this is all in powder snow, so you don't immediately topple over, unless you lose your cool and say, let go of the throttle.

A couple of weeks ago my old employer from Canadian Wilderness Adventures invited me up for a spring sled session on Sproatt Mountain. I figured what the hell, let's see if I can figure this out and actually have some fun. The machines were a lot more modern than the last time I attempted snowmobiling. They were still four-stroke, but much lighter, more nimble and with considerably more torque than their predecessors. After a 20-to 30-minute ride up the groomed access road, I was let loose in an alpine meadow.

Within 12 metres of my first carve attempt, I managed to launch myself over the bars. That's what happens when you panic and let go of the throttle. Cursing my own inhibitions, I stubbornly got back on and started searching for that ever-elusive balance point that would let me steer the machine the way I wanted it to go.

Just like that single wave I hope to catch in the surf, I had a breakthrough moment when I actually felt in control with a snowmobile half on its side in shin-deep spring powder. My chuckle grew into a cackle as I felt the centrifugal force finally work in my favour. Then, it was over. Might have been a fluke, but it's enough to get me back on a snow pony next winter to try to improve.

I'm far from a committed relationship with snowmobiling, but I'm ever envious of the places my sled-ready friends can reach in a single day. I want that access and that convenience, but I'm not ready to jump in with both feet.

It's complicated.

Vince Shuley is slowly starting to like the idea of motorsports. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email or Instagram @whis_vince.