SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
January 24, 1966
Twenty-five snowmobile drivers journeyed from Vail to Aspen the hard way—across country. They found that a scooter on skis through the highest and roughest terrain in the U.S. is exhilarating, exhausting—and cold
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January 24, 1966

A Wild Ride In The Rockies

Twenty-five snowmobile drivers journeyed from Vail to Aspen the hard way—across country. They found that a scooter on skis through the highest and roughest terrain in the U.S. is exhilarating, exhausting—and cold

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The trip began at 6 o'clock on a morning so cold the temperature appeared to be visible. You could see particles of cold glinting in the floodlight in front of The Lodge at Vail, and big chunks of cold in the shape of dark mountains all around, and overhead a limitless expanse of cold in a dull, gray-brown sky. Nothing, however, looked quite as cold as the 25 snowmobiles that were to take their drivers (us!) over the mountains and which were lined up at the summit of Vail Pass, 10,603 feet above sea level.

Our party consisted of five writers, three photographers, one radio operator, one forest ranger, one first-aid man, five mechanics, the president of Polaris Industries (the biggest U.S. snowmobile maker), three public-relations executives of snowmobile firms, one snowmobile factory manager, three executives of ski resorts from Vail and Aspen and a beautiful Swedish girl, Miss Bettan Olwaeus, a very fine skier, who said she did not really know why she was there. People in Vail had been discussing the forthcoming trip, she explained, and someone asked if she would like to take such a journey, and she now found herself at the point of driving a beautiful new bronze-colored Larson Eagle, weighing 625 pounds and selling for $895, through country where, certainly, no woman had ever driven a snowmobile before.

How, in fact, had any of us got into this extraordinary jam? The credit, if that is the word, belonged to three snowmobile manufacturers who had joined forces to promote a 93-mile cross-country ride over roadless mountains and through closed passes from Vail to Aspen, Colo. "We hope to demonstrate the toughness and reliability of snowmobiles in general," read the official announcement of this unprecedented journey, with a cool disregard for the softness and unreliability of mankind.

There were nine Polaris snowmobiles for the trip, eight Johnsons and eight Larsons. Snowmobile enthusiasts are deeply concerned about the advantages and disadvantages of different makes and models, and with reason. There are now more than 20 snowmobile makers in the U.S. and Canada, and sales jumped from 300 in 1959 to 30,000 last year. The machine assigned to me was a 14-hp Johnson Skee-Horse, selling for $1,014. It was started by pulling a rope, the way you start a power lawnmower. The pull was really not very heavy, but the early hour and the high altitude seemed to take a toll. "Here, let me help you," said a kindly mechanic and, turning on the ignition, something I had neglected to do, he started the motor with a slight tug of the rope. Now all 25 machines were warming up, and the windless air vibrated with a syncopated stutter. Toxic-looking smoke from the exhausts hung in a layer about head high. "I don't envy you this trip," said a lady bystander. "There's something masochistic about it."

Masochistic! Leopold von Sacher-Masoch! That phony! We huddled around the snowmobiles, ashen-faced, shaky, half-asphyxiated, not so much cold as chilled with the foreboding of freezing to death.

To put a snowmobile in motion you merely squeeze the throttle on the grip of the right-hand handlebar. If you squeeze too hard you jump ahead. If you open the throttle slowly you ease forward slowly.

In either case, you find yourself sliding over the snow. After jumping, easing and jumping, we swung around the shoulder of a hill, passed a sign reading ENTRANCE OF THE WHITE RIVER NATIONAL FOREST, moved out of sight of the highway and began to travel in single file on a sort of terrace overlooking a treeless valley a mile or two across. In the east and south there were glossy-blue and spectral-white mountains in a cluster around Quandary Peak and other high peaks that are called fourteeners in Colorado because they are among the 52 mountains in the state more than 14,000 feet high. We would have been better able to appreciate the scenery if we had not been half buried in the snow. A snowmobile is a sled mounted on skis and driven by a gasoline motor (usually eight to 14 hp) that operates a flanged track under the machine; the driver sits out in the open on a long padded seat and steers with handlebars like those on a motorcycle. Or he may kneel on the seat so he can throw his weight more readily from one side to the other on turns, or he may even stand up as he rides along, wobbling like Ben Hur in a chariot race, to accomplish the same end but, in any case, he is always in the depth of winter as long as he is on his snowmobile, a cold wind whistling past his ears, icy particles blowing in his face, and snow spraying all around as if he carried a homemade storm with him as he skidded through the deep drifts.

An Army Mountain Rescue Team had gone over our projected route a week earlier to see if it could be negotiated, but new snow had fallen and restored the slopes to their universal sameness. The first machine in our party was a Polaris driven by Peter Seibert, the builder of Vail. It cut a track in the new snow, and each following machine kept in the track of the one ahead, forming a ditch about a foot deep. Mine was the eighth machine in the line. The driver ahead of me was Allen Hetteen, the president of Polaris Industries, whose firm made around 7,800 snowmobiles last year. Hetteen was regarded as the best-dressed man in that part of the Rocky Mountains. He had found an ideal garment for snowmobile operation; it originally was designed by a refrigerator company for the use of butchers who work in iceboxes. Hetteen drove a specially built Polaris with a double track, hauling an empty sled. He said he had the sled along to haul out disabled Johnson snowmobiles. Or their disabled drivers. Directly behind me came Hal Steeger, the editor of Argosy magazine, driving a Larson Falcon. We kept about 100 feet apart.

After a couple of hours of interrupted progress Hetteen waved to us to let the machines in front get farther ahead. The trail made a 90� left turn off the terrace and went down a slope for 150 feet, and at the bottom made a 90� right-hand turn to continue west in the depth of the valley. Each driver was to wait until the one ahead was in the clear around the lower turn.

Hetteen's machine and sled were poised on the edge of the slope. They vanished with a roar of the motor and a spray of snow. I eased up to the edge in turn, but I could see nothing of them, merely a cloud of snow rising as if someone had set off a small charge of dynamite. Then Hetteen and his sled emerged from the willow thicket at the base of the cliff, calmly moving in place in the procession.

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