snowmobile, race, competition

How to Catch a Snowmobile Barreling down a Mountain

Words: Aimee Berg
Photography: Neal Henderson

Local volunteer Ryan Blair explains what it’s like to chase after a 500 lb snowmobile as it tumbles down a mountain.

Every year, the world’s fastest uphill snowmobile racers flock to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the annual world championship hill climb. Since 1975, riders have been snaking through gates up Snow King Mountain (1500 vertical feet) in the center of town. Yet plenty never make it to the top. And every time a rider bails out, someone has to catch his $10,000-$30,000 sled.  Enter the hill crew: locals like Ryan Blair who volunteer to get hit, run over, and tangled up in the 400-500 lb machines as they come bouncing and rolling down the mountain at speeds up to 40 mph. For what?  “A hat, and a lot of appreciation from the racers,” says Blair, 28, who has spent 14 years catching snowmobiles without so much as a helmet.

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1. Look and listen for trouble

Be aware. Pay attention. The majority of time, wrecks are unexpected. One person can fly through without a single issue. Then the next person comes through the exact same line, and it throws them off the snowmobile. But sometimes you’ll hear a vehicle coming up and it’s going aahahah blubblub – ahahaha blubblub. That’s a bog in the motor. Or if a rider’s jerking the sled side-to-side, ripping it around, then I’m payin’ attention to this guy for sure. But you still gotta be on your toes because you never know. 

2. Move quickly

Get in athletic stance and be ready for anything at any angle.  I’m on my toes, ready to the jump left, right, downhill or start hustling uphill. Once they wreck, the faster you can get to that snowmobile, the greater chance you have of stopping it.  But you never know where they’re really going to end up. They can be 20 feet away from you and, a half a second later, on top of you.   

3. Grab it and hold on

When you reach the snowmobile, try to grab anything you possibly can and hold on for dear life. If they’re on their skis, they’re going pretty fast but do your best to grab the brake. If they’re on their side and tipping over, they’re quite a bit slower, so try to grab it when it’s doing that. Still, you might reach for a bumper and end up grabbing the track or the handlebars.  If you get your hand stuck in the hood, be cautious; some of the exhaust pipes are a couple hundred degrees. Use some sense.

© YouTube/Klim

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4. Jump on, pile on

Once you grab hold, do your best to jump on it and slow it down with your body. Sometimes the snowmobile keeps rolling, but once you grab it, don’t bail out. (The only time you really bail out is if that thing is coming down so fast it’ll literally kill you if you step in front of it.) If you get thrown off, stand up if you can, and keep running to jump back on it. Once one person gets on it, then another and another and another and another – it’s purely teamwork. We have multiple crews set up at four different sections of the course, but sometimes even 15 guys piled on that snowmobile won’t even stop it.

5. Ride it out till it stops

Usually, what finally stops the snowmobile, is the fact that somebody gets in the right position while it’s rolling and something – like a ski or a body riding it – sticks into the snow and the sled doesn’t have enough momentum to get up and over again. Once it stops, you get the rider down to it, slip rubber brakes over the skis, and send the rider down the mountain. It’s his job to drive it down slowly. That’s if the snowmobile is in good shape. If it’s so busted up that it won’t go anywhere, that’s a lot of work. We’ve had 3 or 4 guys literally walk it down the mountain pulling it and lifting it, pulling it and lifting 400-500 lbs. of dead weight.            

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