My half-sister-in-law Meredith is 16, and was just shy of earning her driver's license when we met up in Breckenridge for a long weekend of skiing and snowboarding. So it should come as no surprise that she showed little interest in her former favorite sport of snowboarding, and instead spent several days singing the praises of the only snowmobiling tour in Breckenridge that would let her drive her own snowmobile. Eventually she wore us down, and so off we went to an afternoon rendezvous with White Mountain Snowmobile.
We were picked up at our hotel, and driven about an hour out of town to a high-altitude headquarters of rambling trailers and sheds, perched on the border of the Arapaho National Forest. I suppose the relaxed minimum driving age should have been a hint that White Mountain’s management puts payment before people. We got another hint upon arrival, when we separated into two groups. A large horde of beginners had come for a regular tour and a few experienced drivers had signed up for the more costly "High Adventure" tour, a fast-paced, high-pitched "extreme" snowmobiling adventure with their very own guide. When the staff realized that due to an administrative error, the High Adventure group was not nine but three people, they promptly canceled the High Adventure tour and told the three experts that they could tag along with us newbies. They took it well - but personally, after spending an hour on the road to get there, I would have been really annoyed.
We were taken into a trailer to pick out our protective gear. We suited up in one-piece snowsuits, helmets with no face shields, goggles, and warm boots. Supplies of certain sizes of helmet and suit were perilously limited. The gear was old and grubby, but it kept us warm – although my husband was cursing the lack of a face shield when icicles started forming in his beard. The snowmobiles, or "sleds" in the lingo of the would-be High Adventurers, were shiny new Polaris models. Apparently since the last time I went snowmobiling almost ten years ago, some brilliant person invented built-in hand warmers! They were, in fact, so warm my hands started sweating, and I had to turn them down to low. Unlike other snowmobiles I’ve used, these were simple and painless to start up. Our guides gave us a quick safety lesson followed by a short, easy trail ride leading to a big practice loop where we could get used to bumps and curves in a safe environment. Meredith took advantage of the practice loop to taunt me loudly, taking care to point out how slow I was.
Operating a loud, smelly, expensive vehicle which I am very likely to drive into a tree is not my favorite way to spend an afternoon, particularly when I’m minutes away from some fantastic skiing. But it was the best and only way to experience the astonishing scenery at the top of the Continental Divide. For those of you who don’t remember grade school, the Continental Divide is a pivotal point in the United States, the central high point from which waters flow in opposite directions. When weather permits, you can see 125 miles away. Visibility when I visited was about 125 feet.
The trails were mostly on private land owned by the Climax molybdenum-mining company, which closed in the 1980s, as well as in Arapahoe National Forest. If you really want to know what moly-whatever is, I’ll tell you. It’s a metal which is added to steel to make it more durable. Sorry you asked?
Although we were fogged in for most of the tour, we did have a few moments of clarity in which to be astonished by the scenery around us, made all the more dramatic by the fleeting glimpses we were offered. The fog also posed challenges, as we followed our guide down a loosely linked collection of trails. He veered off the trails in places, letting us run wild over a succession of gorges and gulleys. Our narrow line of black, exhaust-spewing sleds drew dark, sinewy curves on the hillsides as we navigated harrowing hairpin turns and zigzagged through coordinated turns.
We got up to 45 mph at times, which was challenging given the poor visibility. The tour was recommended for all levels of experience, but slowpokes could easily lose sight of the group despite the wide open spaces we were often traveling through. They may have felt some pressure to keep up, and therefore might have gone faster than felt comfortable. At one point, Meredith skidded off the trail and hit a tree, causing some shaky nerves but only $75 in repairs. Any newcomer to snowmobiling could have easily done the same.
The Ride Home
Quiet and sleepy on the van home, I chatted with our driver and learned some interesting factoids about the surrounding area. I asked about the local wildlife and got two answers: One, that there is a herd of elk, some bear, and bighorn sheep in the hills. Two, that locals sometimes ski off the back of Copper Mountain and then hitchhike back once they hit the road (insane!). They are also known to cross-country ski the back bowls on full moons.
And Meredith? She was shaken, but not stirred. The snowmobiling bug seemed to pass out of her system, and the next day on the chairlift, she solemnly confided to me that snowmobiling "really wasn't that cool after all."