A day in the life of a Canadian snowmobile posse

“Lean hard, your side!” Jonaven shouts over the whine of the engine.

I'd anticipated the upcoming side slope and am already leaning, but nevertheless I pull even harder on the handlebars. It's like hauling on a windsurfer sail in a strong wind. The track digs deep into the edge of the slope, and the downhill ski of the snowmobile lifts right off the snow as we skirt the knoll. Jonaven Moore and I are riding the sled tandem. We've learned it's the best way for two people to maneuver and climb in the Alpine on a snowmobile.

Jonaven's standing on the right rail, I'm on the left, and the seat's between us. I control the brake, he's got the throttle, and our other hands cross to opposite sides of the mountain bar (a semi-circular handle in the middle of the handlebars).

The weight of my pack pushes me forward when we slow down to drop into a dip. I sneak a quick glance at our ultimate destination, the chutes on a steep face to our right. Coming out of the dip, Jonaven pins it and we charge up the final steep section toward the saddle. I feel the wind catch the top of my snowboard, which is strapped to the pack on my back, and both skis of the sled come off the snow until we manage to pull our weight forward again. Even then, the skis barely touch the surface as we power up the steep hill, somewhere in the backcountry near Golden, British Columbia.

Gravity eventually asserts itself, causing the sled to labor and slow, but we're still climbing. If it slows down excessively, we'll be forced to abort the attempt and turn around before too much momentum is lost. If the sled bogs down completely, we'll have to spend a lot of time and effort digging it out on a precarious slope. Even worse would be to stall turning around, get caught sideways, and have the sled roll down the hill.

There's a good base to the snow today, so we have no problem making it to the saddle, which wouldn't have even been accessible by snowmobile a few years ago. But a new breed of sled is now being manufactured that's specifically designed for climbing in the mountains–they're lighter, more powerful, and have longer tracks and deeper paddles.

Up on the saddle, we bring the sled around toward the ridgeline and once again accelerate. We both almost go over the handlebars plowing through a big snowdrift but manage to hold on and continue up the ridge. Before the ridge gets too narrow, we arch the sled back around, then Jonaven yells, “Okay!”

That's my signal and I jump off into waist-deep snow. Jonaven muscles the machine around and heads back down. He drops off a small cornice and disappears out of view, then reappears as a tiny speck way down in the valley a few moments later.

I hear the groan of another sled as Kyle Wolochatiuk and Justin Baun join me on the saddle, and I quickly struggle up through the snow to get out of their way. Kyle bails off the sled just below me, and Justin's on his way down. Shortly after that, Greg Todds and Scott Newsome make it up to the saddle, and Scott jumps off to join Kyle and me.

It's hard to believe that a mere two hours prior, we'd been 25 miles away, unloading the sleds at an old logging road beside the highway. I wonder how long the trip would've taken on snowshoes. The travel time had actually only been about an hour; we'd stopped on the way up to dig a pit and assess the snowpack. The general report for this area from the Canadian Avalanche Association bulletin indicated low avalanche danger, and our results had confirmed the report.

Of course, we each have a transceiver, shovel, and probe, as well as avalanche-safety and rescue training. Like any day in the backcountry, a day out on snowmobiles requires utmost diligence when it comes to avalanche and mountain safety.

After an additional fifteen-minute hike from where the sls dropped us off, we're on top of a series of steep, dished-out chutes dropping down from the ridge, each measuring about 1,500 vertical feet, with drifts to slash and rocks and cliffs to launch–a virtual freeride playground.

Greg, Justin, and Jonaven now sit on the parked sleds in a safe spot across from the ridge while Kyle, Scott, and I scope out the possibilities. We'd stopped to check out the lines before coming up and know that it's clean down the barrel of each chute, but it's hard to remember exactly what's along the sides of each line, which is definitely where all the fun stuff is. It's also where the nasty stuff is, which we're trying to avoid.

Kyle gets on his radio to Jonaven, “Do you see that cliff about a hundred yards below me on the skier's right side of the chute?”

“Wave your arms,” Jonaven's voice crackles back.

Kyle starts flapping his arms up and down so Jonaven can pick him out among the three of us spread out along the ridge.

“Got it,” Jonaven confirms.

“How's it look?” Kyle inquires as he peers over the edge.

“It looks like a 30-footer,” answers Jonaven. “There are some exposed rocks straight below it, but if you come around and air toward skier's left, back into the chute, the landing's clean.”

“Roger that,” Kyle says, putting away his radio.

As Kyle shoulders his pack and puts on his board, Scott and I take turns confirming our lines with the guys down below.

Kyle confidently rolls off a cornice into the deep powder, working his way down the steep rib on the right side of the chute, every turn creating a new slough. Just above the cliff he points it, quickly accelerates, and launches. He seems to be in the air a long time as he sails about 50 feet into the middle of the chute. He disappears behind his roostertail, then comes Maching out on the more mellow, rolling terrain at the bottom of the face.

Scott drops into the next chute over, slashes a windlip near the top, then vanishes from my view down his line, the cloud of snow from his slash still suspended in the air. I can hear the guys below hooting, so I know Scott is having fun.

Once he's safely down at the sleds, Scott's voice breaks through the silence of the mountains as my radio comes to life, “Yeah, Dan, the snow's awesome! Charge it, buddy!”

I adjust the strap on my goggles. Not that it needed adjusting–just a nervous habit, I suppose. I feel the energy of excitement well up inside me as the nose of my board protrudes out over the edge of the cornice. There's nothing quite like airing into a steep, untouched chute first thing in the morning.

Down at the sleds, we take a moment to admire the lines we'd scribed–three thin tracks among the endless possibilities. Justin, Greg, and Jonaven are anxious to get up there, and half an hour later we're watching them descend, one at a time. One of the great joys of snowboarding for me is watching my friends riding good lines. These guys move so cleanly and confidently that it belies how steep and gnarly the terrain actually is.

After three runs and some lunch, we mount up and head over the saddle into the next bowl, where there's a big, open slope perfect for high marking.

“High mark” is a macho game among sledheads. Quite simply, the person who gets their machine to the highest point on the slope before having to turn around wins. Needless to say, a superior sled and superior skills both serve you well.

For our purposes, high marking's a way of getting as high up the slope with our snowboards as possible. In this case, because it's a wide-open bowl, we can '”ghost ride” the sleds down. Here's how it works: we charge up the slope tandem, and when the sled's almost reached its limit, the brakeman jumps off. The throttleman then brings the sled around to face downhill, hits the kill switch, and also jumps off. The sled heads down to the bottom without a rider, or as the name suggests, a ghost rider. Sleds have been known to take some pretty crazy lines off cornices, around rocks, and down gullies, but I've never seen one tip over yet; they're pretty stable as long as you get them facing straight down the fall line. The great thing about ghost riding is that it allows everyone to be at the top together.

From the high mark, we set a boot pack to the top of the ridge and work the bowl all afternoon–sleds buzzing up, down, and all around, friends climbing along the ridge and dropping sick lines everywhere. Caught up in the epic afternoon, we hardly notice the sun sinking toward the western horizon. Our tired muscles are already testament to a long day, but we decide to head up for a last run in the orange bask of the alpenglow: a nice, long, mellow powder run to end the day.

We're able to snowboard most of the way back to the highway, sled drivers illuminating the darkness with their headlights as snowboarders jib the sides of the trail in front of them.

Tired, cold, and hungry, loading the sleds onto trailers and into trucks feels like an endless chore, but it really doesn't take all that long. Before we know it, we're stuffing our faces at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Golden, recounting an awesome day, and making plans for tomorrow's backcountry access.

ached its limit, the brakeman jumps off. The throttleman then brings the sled around to face downhill, hits the kill switch, and also jumps off. The sled heads down to the bottom without a rider, or as the name suggests, a ghost rider. Sleds have been known to take some pretty crazy lines off cornices, around rocks, and down gullies, but I've never seen one tip over yet; they're pretty stable as long as you get them facing straight down the fall line. The great thing about ghost riding is that it allows everyone to be at the top together.

From the high mark, we set a boot pack to the top of the ridge and work the bowl all afternoon–sleds buzzing up, down, and all around, friends climbing along the ridge and dropping sick lines everywhere. Caught up in the epic afternoon, we hardly notice the sun sinking toward the western horizon. Our tired muscles are already testament to a long day, but we decide to head up for a last run in the orange bask of the alpenglow: a nice, long, mellow powder run to end the day.

We're able to snowboard most of the way back to the highway, sled drivers illuminating the darkness with their headlights as snowboarders jib the sides of the trail in front of them.

Tired, cold, and hungry, loading the sleds onto trailers and into trucks feels like an endless chore, but it really doesn't take all that long. Before we know it, we're stuffing our faces at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in Golden, recounting an awesome day, and making plans for tomorrow's backcountry access.