I expected the snowmobile to make some bratty exhaust noise and steer more like a barge than a motorbike. The full body workout required to drive it, however, came as a surprise.
I'd made my way to Seeley Lake with Drew Dolan and Katy Garton to ride some 12 miles up snow-packed forest roads to the base of 8,300-foot Pyramid Peak, where we planned to park, step into our skis and skin up some 3,000 vertical feet to the summit, with Headwall photo editor Chad Harder capturing the day on camera. The payoff would be idyllic powder turns slashed across the glorious west face. Over cheeseburgers and beer at the end of our day, I would whip out the Headwall credit card and feel myself bursting with heroic achievement, adding a solid entry to my backcountry resumé: Sledneck Backcountry Skier. At least, that's how I imagined it.
I am nothing if not a man of grand vision.
But just two minutes into the day, as I struggled to gas my rented snowmobile over a slippery, foot-high berm on the back streets of town, I was already guessing that a different narrative might emerge. The real story would tell whether I would hold it together long enough to get to the mountain and back in one piece.
Dolan, an avid sledder who once-upon-a-time competed in the U.S. Extreme Freeskiing Championships, carted two snowmobiles from Missoula for himself and Garton to ride. I shelled out for a pair of Polaris RMK 600s at Seeley Sport Rentals for the Headwall crew. I'd never even touched a snowmobile before. I had only a vague idea how they worked. Did they have gears? Brakes? Cup-holders?
They looked simple enough: a long seat set above a paddled track; handlebars; an ergonomic lever on the right grip for the throttle. After a five-minute orientation that included instructions to make a call if we broke down, we lit off straight from the shop.
In truth, the icy berm impeding my way out of town held me up for less than a minute. With encouragement from the others, I screwed up the nerve to get aggressive on the throttle and muscle across to reach the sled trail leading out of town. Once on the well-established route, I quickly got busy getting a feel for the machine, testing the acceleration, the steering, and the brakes (on the left grip). There was really nothing to it.
Except for the work.
Snowmobiles haul ass. They can also careen. They slip and wallow. And above all, they bounce—especially on heavily washboarded thoroughfares like the road to Pyramid Peak.
The strain settled mostly into my hips and lower back. With feet and ankles locked into heavy plastic ski boots, the seat too low and the ride too harsh to comfortably sit while moving, I fidgeted constantly in search of an optimized posture and found none. I tried riding on one knee. I tried the other knee. I tried both knees. I tried to sit. I tried to stand. My body spent most of the trip bent in a semi-athletic crouch, hands wide and shoulders wrestling for command of the squirrelly runners. My legs took the brunt of the punishment, absorbing the terrain so my spine could be spared. A fleeting 60 mph snort down a long, flat straightaway briefly displaced the steady exertion with what could easily have become an exhilarating yet terminal cartwheel. But by the time we reached the start of the serious incline, about six miles in, the washboards had grown as big as fallen tree trunks, and each one exacted a toll.
Some nine miles from town, we reached the Pyramid Pass trailhead, where the road gave way to a narrow trough packed down by previous travelers—a three-mile bobsled run through the woods. I cruised cautiously along, ducking limbs and feathering the accelerator to keep from leaping out of the tight track.
If it were easier to ski the dozen miles to the base of Pyramid Peak, that's what folks would do, but it's not—not by a long shot. And when we suddenly emerged from the dense timber, I instantly recognized why it's so worth getting there.
Before us spread a huge southwest-facing bowl, blanketed in snow. Fingers of forest crept up the bottom half of the slope to separate the lower reaches into distinctive descent options. Up higher, stunted firs caked in white looked more like dessert than woody flora, with vanilla icing layered on so thick you could almost imagine the taste of a big, messy bite. Old Man Winter kept a supremely decadent palace here. And we could ski it.
Or, as others might prefer, snowboard it. We'd heard back in town that some local fellas had made camp at the base of the peak. We found their shelter, a crude hovel constructed of scrap lumber loosely covered with remnants of industrial plastic wrap, tucked under a protective canopy of the forest at the bottom of the run out. If the mountain was winter's mansion, their camp was like a dung hut lumped outside the gate—party central for the shredheads of the Swan Range.
We parked our rigs, and as we kitted up to start skinning we watched one of them high-marking a steep pitch just above us on his sled. We didn't entirely mind the company. We could see slithering tracks descending the upper reaches of the peak, and their presence reassured us about the snow stability. If anything on that mountain was going to slide, it would likely have come down on those guys by now.
I was so stoked by the whole scene I stopped noticing how tired my hips felt. The sun washed the mountain in dazzling brightness, and I couldn't wait to get moving on my skis...that is until it got steep...and the solar inferno started to toast my suddenly overheated, overtaxed body...and I started to fall behind...and feel slightly nauseous. Uh oh.
Frankly, if the clouds hadn't moved in and curtained the mountain about 30 minutes later, I might have expired on the climb. But with the hot sun veiled, I was able to soldier on. We rested on a bench about a 1,000 feet up to chat with the campers, watching one of them gamely huck a 15-foot drop and merrily face-plant the fluffy landing. Inspired by the reckless embrace of amusement, my spirits lifted.
We rounded into the south side of the bowl through soft, deep snow up to the corniced southwestern ridge. Dolan and Garton slipped ahead up the summit cone while I struggled at the rear, grinding out the vertical with a weak stomach. I arrived at the peak about 30 minutes behind, totally spent. But the sun picked a good time to show itself again, and we marveled at the views east into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and west across the valley toward the Mission Mountains.
So far, so great. Now I just had to get down, but what looked like a benign descent from below appeared considerably more demanding from above. My legs trembled as we made our way along the northeast ridge above the bowl's southern exposure. The bottomless powder from the shaded face we'd ascended hadn't held on this side, where wind and sun had created an inch-thick crust. It would not be easy skiing. My stoke wavered.
I slumped against the mountain while Garton dug a test pit. She got mixed results, but nothing that deterred us from skiing the wide-open slopes where a slide would be most likely. It was go time. Knowing my performance would be recorded for posterity, I rallied to make a few graceful turns, my vanity an effective source of determination, though only temporarily. A couple of nice moves on the steeper opening pitch and some relaxed curls on the moderate terrain below just delayed the inevitable. The challenging snow had its way with me, and I pitched forward onto my head and somersaulted. I was thoroughly gassed.
Fortunately, we took our time getting down, savoring the ride through the high alpine and taking plenty of pictures of Dolan launching big airs along the way. Thank God, because the further we dropped the more unmanageable the crust became for me, and by the time we made it back to the sleds, I had nothing left. I doubted my ability to make even one more turn.
Under the circumstances, pounding the snowmobile for 12 miles over the washboards back to town seemed vastly preferable to the alternatives. I'd survive the ride plenty well enough to enjoy a cheeseburger and a pitcher afterward with the gang at the Potomac bar. No reason to burst with inflated self-regard, but I'd notched that convincing entry on my backcountry resumé.
Yes sir, I really did spur that snarling little beastie up to 60 mph on my way to a wilderness summit, and I wrote the magazine article to prove it.