Man And Machine: Why snowmobiling is here to stay

Tahoe’s modern-day cowboys. They posse up, unload their steel horses, and vanish into the vast backyard of the Sierra Nevadas like the outlaws before them. Bon Jovi-style. Wanted dead or alive.

Not far from the quickly scoured ski areas around the lake, more and more riders are finding themselves in the outback, and using snowmobiles to get there. It’s nothing new-they’ve been there for years. Guys like Noah Salasnek, Andy Hetzel, Kevin Jones, Dylan Farr, Mike and Dave Hatchett, Jim Moran, Tom Gilles, Mack Dawg, Roan Rogers, Rocket Reaves, and Nate Cole use sleds daily, frequenting secret spots filmers make riders promise to conceal.

But let’s face it-a lot of these guys aren’t solely using these machines as transportation to snowboard-they’re having way too much fun on them. Hitting kickers, racing up steeps, laying down a rail in deep pow-hell, some days they even leave their boards in their trucks.

“Frequently in Lake Tahoe, there’s a lot of fresh powder. I find that, like snowboarding, sledding can be just as rewarding in these conditions,” admits Tahoe legend Noah Salasnek, “Carving a sled in three feet of powder and hitting kickers at high speed is very similar to motocross-which explains why it’s so hard to get any snowboarding done when you’re charging around with a bunch of your friends.”

It’s just the age-old relationship between man and machine. An American obsession. Speed, power, and loud, obnoxious toys. “It’s the new sport,” says Mike Hatchett, and snowboarders are revving engines worldwide.

And it’s going on everywhere-The Northwest, The Rockies, all over Canada-riders are discovering the freedom that only a sled can offer. Five-hundred cubic centimeters of raw two-stroke power at the turn of a throttle. Sledding’s contagious and spinning off into a whole new freestyle sport of its own.

This past winter in Tahoe, stories of Noah and Roan Rogers sled-exploits included clearing a 25-foot cat-track gap out in Cold Stream in Truckee from an eight-foot rock. Unbelievable. Noah confirms these stunts nonchalantly over the phone. He’s an addict. Skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross, and yes, he takes his sledding very seriously: “I’ve gone through five machines now, and I find myself upgrading annually to obtain the ultimate machine. However, more power and better traction has only gotten me into burlier situations. Sure, I can climb just about anything, but getting back down or having to turn around halfway up a steep pitch is when your heart starts beating at an unhealthy rate. Getting through these situations is what keeps me coming back for more.”

And those situations were plenty during an all-time winter in Tahoe. Random sled-shredding was reported from South Lake to Donner. Exploring areas otherwise not realistically accessible for snowboarders. New terrain. Less people. More fun. Season pass not required.

But let’s end one myth right here-the use of a sled doesn’t mean you’ll never have to hike again. Kevin Jones says even though his sled helps him access the goods, he actually ends up hiking more.

Still thinking about buying a sled? Keep in mind snowmobiles, like a lot of specialized toys, are a pain in the ass. Ask anyone who owns one. They demand constant upkeep, get stuck easily, and are as temperamental as a nap-deprived three-year-old. Expensive, too, but that’s never stopped anyone from the lure of acceleration. The stoke of a deafening engine. I said earlier that it’s an American obsession-maybe it should be an American birthright.

Here’s Noah’s advice for a beginner: “Go with somebody with more experience to at least break the trail, because it’s always easier to follow the leader than to lead. If everybody’s a rookie, then put the hungriest guy (the show off) in front. Try to stay out of the trees on powder days, and look ahead as far as possible. Snowmobiling is one of the most fun things out there, but it’s also very dangerous. Everybody can have fun sledding, but oonly if you respect the throttle!”

Special Note: Use your head when operating a snowmobile. Wear a helmet and bring your common sense. Always respect the backcountry and stay out of restricted wilderness areas.