Sled City: Snowmobiles rule the scene in Cooke City, Montana, but snowboarders get the last laugh.

Photos by Scott Spiker

Awe-inspired, we stared up at Mineral Ridge as the sun wrappedaround to the west, casting drawn-out shadows on the steep, fluted face. Even more inspiring were the linesChris Ankeny and I had just ripped 2,000 vertical feet down the improbable wall from the summit of MineralPeak.

Still buzzing with adrenaline from the descent, our attention was suddenly torn away from our recentconquest by the echoing sound of heavily tweaked two-stroke motors rapidly approaching. A whole fleet ofsputtering snowmobiles surrounded us in no time, and one by one the machines were turned off. One of thepilots pulled off his Darth Vader-like headgear and pointed toward Mineral, asking “That you guys whocame down that?” His suspicions confirmed, he howled, “You guys are nuts!” Just exactly who was morenuts was debatable judging from the unlikely snowmobile tracks visible all around us, but in no mood toargue, we did the obvious and hitched a ride. Hurtling across the flats, we quickly reached the gully weintended to ascend and our rides pointed it uphill, attempting the two-man hill climb on the sleds. Mystomach muscles screaming, I held on with all my strength as gravity and my pack conspired to drag me offthe back of the bucking machine. Within a minute, that’s exactly what happened, but Chris and I happilyfound ourselves an hour’s hike closer to the rest of our gang. A virtuoso display of hill climbing ensued as ourshuttle drivers did laps all around us.

Then, following a round of high fives, they were off, leaving us onceagain in the pleasant silence of the mountains. Know this before planning a trip to Cooke City, Montana-it’sa snowmobiler’s mecca, and snowmobiling is not only the primary form of winter recreation andtransportation, but it also shapes the culture and character of the town. Those looking to escape frommodern civilization and all its mechanical trappings need not bother, since the distinctive whine of two-strokeengines is never far away in the backcountry surrounding Cooke City. But the overwhelming presence ofsnowmobiling in and around Cooke City has given snowboarders and skiers in the area a priceless gift-thecountless miles of snowmobile trails that surround town provide all-too-effortless access to some of the bestbackcountry terrain Montana has to offer. The sled is your friend in Cooke City, and by embracing it, you’rerewarded with some incredible riding. Also be warned that weather in the area can be brutal; Cooke Citysits in the Absaroka Beartooth Range, not far from Granite Peak-Montana’s highest-and gets battered on aregular basis.

Ankeny’s somewhat of a Cooke City regular, and when he showed photographer Scott Spikerand me around two years ago, we saw the potential right away. It was during a spell of classically heinouslocal weather-the powder was great, but avalanche danger was high and visibility frankly sucked. We triedagain this spring, however, and hit the magic window. Once again, the powder was superb, but this timesnow conditions were stable, visibility was perfect, and the sun was shining. After suffering through aNorthwest winter with very little sun, our whole group was ecstatic to play under bluebird skies. DanielKarabacz, Scott, and I drove down from northwest Montana to meet Chris, while Kira Wing and JuddKaiser traveled from northern Idaho, where they’d been shrouded in fog all winter. The surroundingmountains, which until now had existed only as lines on a map, became our backcountry playground. Dayafter day, we felt like kids in a candy store as we decided which glacially sculpted cirque to track out next.

The routine each morning was the same: up at dawn, scarf a huge breakfast, fire up our two snowmobiles,grab the tow ropes and hang on for dear life. At 50 miles an hour, we prayed our polycarbonate gogglelenses would survive the onslaught of airborne ice chunks. Kira swore one chunk gave her a fat lip, but in theend no serious harm was done. The freshly groomedledding trails were ideal for high-speed travel, turningtwo- and three-hour approaches into fifteen-minute tows. The expansive views in Sheep, Miller, and Fisherbasins provided our pow-hungry crew with fantastic opportunities to scope lines. We’d slowly cruise therocky amphitheaters looking for potential riding zones, occasionally stopping to discuss points of access.With a safe route located for laying down a boot pack to the ridgeline, the machines were parked and thehiking commenced.

Miller Ridge in particular was so chock-full of good terrain that we accessed somethinglike 25 lines from a single boot pack. Although the weather resembled spring more than winter, elevations ofover 10,000 feet provided us with winter-like snow conditions as long as we stayed away from Southerlyexposures. Best of all, the mild temps had stabilized the snowpack, allowing us to ride virtually anything wedared. If your visit to the Cooke City area occurs during a period of high avalanche danger-or if your oldlegs simply don’t feel like propelling your body uphill anymore, there’s still fun to be had. “Town Hill,” a steeppitch of over a 1,000 vertical feet, drops directly into Cooke City from the main snowmobile trail. This wideslope, the size of a small ski resort itself, is frightening evidence of the gigantic 1988 Yellowstone fire.

Consisting of perfectly spaced burnt trees devoid of any annoying branches, Town Hill is an excellentalternative to the dramatic high Alpine territory that’s Cooke City’s trademark. Utilizing two-stroke chairlifts,riders can easily work Town Hill to the point of exhaustion, nearly always finding fresh tracks. Nosnowmobile? No problem. Three shops in Cooke City rent the buzzing beasts for as little as 75 dollars aday. Split four ways-two people riding and two towing-it’s not a bad deal. Another option is to contact BillBlackford at the Cooke City Bike Shack about his towing and guiding service. Bill is both snowboardfriendly and flexible; he’ll drop off gung-ho solo types 30 miles from town, or take big groups on full-dayguided trips of the surrounding backcountry. You could also forego mechanized transport altogether and justhike-Republic Mountain rises from the valley floor south of town and sports nearly 3,000 vertical feet ofimposing terrain-but in Cooke City it seems almost sacrilege. Sled City Stats Cooke City’s remote, roughlya three-hour drive from both Billings and Bozeman. Follow Highway 212 through Yellowstone NationalPark. It’s a spectacular drive, but watch out for wildlife-Daniel’s Chevy Celebrity came inches from beingrammed by a territorial buffalo.

We thoroughly enjoyed our accommodations at the Big Bear Inn (406)838-2267, a collection of sled-accessed cabins a few miles east of town. The Big Bear was a relaxingalternative to the rowdy atmosphere in town, which resembled a snowmobiler’s version of a biker rally-lotsof drinking and comparing of hot-rod sleds. Cooke City’s unique brand of nightlife is well worth checkingout, but we were usually so burnt after hiking and riding that we’d barely make it through dinner. Owned byScott and Lisa Sanders, the Big Bear serves hearty home-cooked meals in the main lodge while guests stayin stout log cabins buried in the massive snowpack. Other options include the Soda Butte Lodge (406)838-2251, the biggest hotel in downtown Cooke City, which features a public hot tub-or The YellowstoneHostel, a comfy yurt on the edge of town. Several other motels exist. The Big Bear Inn serves greathomestyle meals, and the Soda Butte has a nice steakhouse. All the bars in town-they’re not hard to find-doburgers and fries, and Lone Pine Cafe serves the best breakfast in town. Bring groceries or special itemswith you from the outside world; the general store closes for winter. The Cooke City Bike Shack (406)838-2412 is decently stocked with backcountry supplies, but doesn’t carry anything snowboard-specific.

The mountains around Cooke City are wild and woolly, having claimed the lives of several snowmobilers inrecent years. Come prepared with all necessary backcountry-safety equipment, always call the avalanchereport (406) 838-2341, talk to locals when you first arrive, and dig a snowpit or two-your mom will thankyou.claimed the lives of several snowmobilers inrecent years. Come prepared with all necessary backcountry-safety equipment, always call the avalanchereport (406) 838-2341, talk to locals when you first arrive, and dig a snowpit or two-your mom will thankyou.