Editors Note: This is the Breaking Trail column from the December 2020 issue of Snow Goer magazine.
Luckily, a relatively recent eye-opening moment had an uneventful ending, but it still delivered a strong message.
I was leading our group of test riders on a spirited run on a bright, sunny morning on a trail I knew well. Coming out of a turn, I rolled back on the accelerator and was powering down a straightaway through a stretch where the available light transitioned from bright white to heavy shade as the trail essentially became a tunnel between a thick patch of sun-blocking lodgepole pine trees.
I was starting to take a very quick glance behind me to check for trailing headlights when – BAM! – I hit a big, frozen clump in the trail, likely left by backcountry riders the previous day weaving between the trees and crossing the trail at that point. That’s what I found out later anyway – beforehand I never saw what I hit. I just felt the sudden impact, and the ZR 8000 RR I was riding lurched and bucked, with the tail of the sled rising more quickly than the nose.
I was shocked to suddenly be airborne and, following the general trajectory of the sled, my butt and legs were accelerating upward more quickly than my handlebar-gripping hands. It had been many years since I had been unseated quite like this.
In panic situations, I truly believe that time does indeed slow down, because even though it happened in an instant, I definitely had time to think about the need to keep the handlebar straight as I struggled to stay with the machine. With trees tight against the trail on both sides, there was no room for error: If I landed anything less than square and let the sled pull left or right, I would be into the trees at speed – not good. If I lost the handlebar, however, the sled and I would at best be tumbling down the narrow trail with a big group of fast-moving sleds directly behind me – not so good either.
I kept my wits, managed to stay with the sled, kept the handlebar straight when I landed even though I was unbalanced to the right, and “saved it” – as evidenced by the fact that I’m still here to write this column. After I regained full control, I looked back to see our Snow Science editor T.J. hit the same clump and get tossed into the air – not as violently as I did but still off-kilter. Through the snowdust I could see the others in the group braking hard, reacting to me and T.J. Afterward, folks at the back of our group kicked away at the misplaced berm to flatten/remove the booby trap so other riders didn’t have to experience it quite the way we did.
At our next trailside stop, T.J. came over and gave me a high five. “Nice save – I saw you looking like you were going to ‘scorpion’,” he said, using a common term among Western riders, where the unseated rider rotates over the hood of the sled while still holding onto the handlebar, “and it gave me a second to scrub a little speed before I hit it, but I still hit it damn hard!” I congratulated him for his own save, then others in the group made a few wise cracks and we moved on – we had more miles to ride and more positive memories to make.
The night after the incident, though, I became increasingly rattled. I thought about what I should have done to avoid the situation: Was I going too fast for conditions? Was I overconfident because I knew the trail so well? Was I paying enough attention to my surroundings? And, equally important, what could have happened had I not saved it? How would I have explained to my wife and kids (if I were able) how this occurred, and why I’m either in a hospital bed or an urn?
Snowmobiling is my number one passion in part because of the feel of acceleration and speed, but every now and then it seems we need a reminder about its potential negative impacts if we push it too far or don’t respect it. I managed to escape this one completely unscathed – other than a shot to my ego, there wasn’t even a bruise or an aching muscle. Not everybody is always as fortunate.
Ride sober, ride smart, learn from my mistake and please pay attention out there, so we can all enjoy many more winters together.