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
January 24, 1966

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.

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.

On the second stage of our journey, for example, from Leadville to Aspen, we headed for Independence Pass on the icy road (closed to automobiles in winter) beyond Twin Lakes. We were in a narrow, gloomy valley between Mount Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado at 14,431 feel, and La Plata Peak, 89 feet lower. We followed a road that curved along the winding bends of Lake Creek—beautiful in summer but now suggesting some sort of parody of the automobile travel for which the road had been built. At Mountain Boy Gulch the road at 10,400 feet ran for miles along the base of cliffs and nearly vertical slopes, studded with avalanche areas for which the road is closed from November to July each year. With a new fall of snow and a bright sun, it was decided that it should be closed to snowmobiles as well—at least if some other route to the summit could be found.

A Forest Service packhorse trail ran through the woods on the opposite side of the valley from the road, and we followed it for two miles on a narrow ledge, between trees barely far enough apart to let the snowmobiles between them. We were in deep woods where, despite the snow, the forest retained its tangled and incoherent confusion, a sidehill forest with snags and fallen limbs and trees half buried in the snow.

The first three machines chewed up the trail so that the rest of us could not get through. We turned the machines around and went back down, to go up the route we had tried to avoid. "The trouble with snowmobiles," said a Forest Service official in Denver before we started out, "is that they will take you just far enough into the wilderness so you can't get out." We could get out, but the day was now pretty well along, hauling on the machines had been taxing, and the long climb up the highway added to the succession of confused images, one long switchback after another, each so much like the last it seemed that every mile we progressed took us back precisely to the point we had just left.

No one on the trip is likely to forget the shock we experienced when we came out of the tortuous twists and sheer drops of Independence Pass and found that an advance party had come from somewhere to build a big fire across the road, with a long stop for a lunch of fried chicken, bread, cheese, bologna and white wine. There were other surprises: as the going became easier, we suddenly spotted the ghost town of Independence on a little tableland on the left below the road, a mere half a dozen fallen houses with rafters showing above the snow, left behind us in an instant. Then there was the moment when the light began to fade and the blur of trees and road made the speed seem phenomenal. Finally, there was the last 20 miles—a road so straight and smooth that the machines could race along side by side at 30 mph. It is boredom that makes one conscious of one's reactions: exhilaration is dumb. I could only think: how wonderful. Or as Miss Olwaeus, who passed almost everyone, said when we stopped at Aspen, "Terrific." The Leadville newspaper referred to the trip as a perilous journey. The Forest Service in Denver issued a release saying the successful completion of the trip opened up a new era in winter recreation in the forests, but warned against the danger of going too far into the woods to get back out. Winter peril or new era in recreation, one thing is sure—if some means of outdoor sport more uncomfortable than snowmobiles is ever discovered, American industry can be counted on to perfect it.

PHOTO MAPFROM THE SUMMIT OF VAIL PASS the snowmobiles crossed a roadless pass on the way to Leadville, then climbed over trails and a closed road to conquer 12,095-foot Independence Pass.
La Plata Peak
Independence Pass
Mount Elbert