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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At this point I noticed the drop was not a slope. It went almost straight down. It was too late, however, to turn around and go home. I squeezed the throttle of the Johnson, evidently a little too hard, and it leaped like a horse in a Western movie. There was a ledge, five or six feet wide, about 30 feet down, and the front skis landed on this and went out into the open air again, though the rear end clung to the snow. I had neglected to get instructions on the use of a brake. In fact, I did not know snowmobiles were equipped with brakes. I thought the drive track itself acted as a brake when the power was cut off. There was, however, another handle on the left-hand handlebar, exactly like the throttle on the right-hand handlebar, and in the course of grabbing everything on the way down I happened to squeeze this as the snowmobile landed in deep snow at the base of the cliff. The results were gratifying: the snowmobile skidded into a drift, surged back the other way, throwing up a geyser of snow 10 feet in the air, then steadied and moved forward, and when I opened my eyes we were in our regular place in the procession.

"I am not known as Yellow Prentiss for nothing," said William Prentiss, the public-relations manager of Johnson Motors, a little later. Prentiss was also appropriately dressed for the occasion; he had found a Japanese army mountain-survival suit—which looked something like a lot of baseball catchers' chest protectors sewed together—and remained snug and comfortable, equally protected against the weather and well-padded in case the people who had been invited on the trip turned against the promoters of it. But in fact we had forgotten about the cold. While we were driving along, our field of vision limited to the snow ahead, the sun had come out. The sky was blue and more than blue, and the crystal light was benign over those endless mountains.

We were going west along a stream through what is called Wilder Gulch on some maps, climbing up the Ptarmigan Pass to cross the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet. The reason we were able to go that way was that the Tenth Mountain Division in training during World War II laid out a trail to the pass. Seibert, our trail master, had trained there at the age of 18.

At their present stage of development snowmobiles usually have trouble if they are stopped when moving uphill. When they are started again the flanges of the track shoot the snow backward without moving the machine ahead, and it sinks deeper and deeper into the snow. So at the start of a long climb through the trees we stopped to let the machine ahead get to the top, then turned on as much speed as possible to climb in turn.

Above the timberline the solitude was emptier, and at the summit ridge of Ptarmigan Pass we seemed to have come to the least-trodden snow since the first snow fell on earth. On the south wing of the pass a colossal, fan-shaped field of snow tilted up to the horizon, and across this half a dozen drivers raced in sweeping curves, leaving trails almost as deep as the machines behind them and snow blowing away in front like water before the bow of a ship. Nobody clocked them. From this Ptarmigan Pass (there is another, better known, in the Williams River Mountains) it seemed one could see most of the 1,500 mountains in Colorado that tower more than 10,000 feet. They made gemlike incisions in the horizon, the cloudless and colorless sky merging beyond them in a shining emptiness of snow and space.

After about an hour a photographer said, "There won't be three more minutes of sunlight." He was right; smoke-like streaks of wind blew across the ridge around our feet. We dropped down the west side of the Continental Divide on a wide slope, about as steep as the pitch of the roof of an old-fashioned farmhouse, through a snowstorm. Here it was strange to see the snow getting shallower from one minute to the next and the air brightening.

We came out in good weather—1,300 feet lower—to an Army-built trail beside Resolution Creek. In midafternoon we came to the first man-made structure we had seen since leaving Vail Pass, a closed gate across the trail. We ate lunch beside an abandoned Army post, went south along the Eagle River, and crossed Tennessee Pass in well-settled country. Our exhausted party fell into bed in Leadville, the highest incorporated city in North America, and tried to get a good night's sleep. The next day we were to cross Independence Pass at 12,095 feet and get to Aspen, 49 miles away.

In the carefully restored plainness of the Pioneer bar there was plenty of evidence of the toughness and reliability of Leadville—it has survived catastrophes since 1878 and now flourishes again as a popular ghost town—and nobody doubted the toughness of the mountains. But what interested me was the toughness and reliability of snowmobiles. They have been tested for only six years. Back in 1959 a self-taught French-Canadian mechanic named Joseph Armand Bombardier mass-produced 300 snowmobiles at his factory in the farm town of Valcourt, 75 miles east of Montreal. Bombardier's machine, called the Ski-Doo, sold like this: 300 in 1959, 2,500 in 1961, 5,000 in 1963, 13,000 in 1965. Another Canadian firm, making the Hus-Ski, produced 250 machines in 1962 and 4,000 in 1964. The Hatteen Derrick and Hoist Company of Roseau, Minn. had made snowmobiles as a sideline since 1954 and now, as Polaris Industries, began competing with the Canadian pioneers. And there were many local firms turning out such machines as Trailmaker, Motoski, Eski-Motor, Fox Trac, Snow Bug, Chickadee, Blue Goose and Arctic Cat.

Three big American firms have now entered the snowmobile lists. Johnson Outboard Marine introduced the Skee-Horse and Evinrude the Skeeter more than a year ago. American Machine and Foundry put its machine on the market in 1965. One estimate is that total snowmobile production will come to about 45,000 machines next year.

In the past the machines were demonstrated at snowmobile meets, with teams of professional drivers speeding them in obstacle races, guiding them at full speed between trees, jumping them over cliffs or hurtling them through flaming barriers to show how safe and practical they are. Bombardier dominated the industry, winning most of the races, outjumping the small American competitors and conducting grueling cross-country trips through forbidding weather. But now, with big American manufacturers in the business, the old American know-how is being used to take people on snowmobiles into far more uncomfortable regions than had heretofore been considered possible. And the end of this rivalry is nowhere in sight. Not even in the Rockies.

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