Clark Without a face guard or a neck warmer for protection, all the exposed skin on my face chin, cheeks and nose tingled with an icy edge of pain from a wind chill that was probably well below zero. But somehow, my mind didn't focus on the pain when the throttle was pressed down and the whine of the snowmobile filled my helmet while winding through trees in the Routt National Forest near Hahn's Peak.
Joe Aga, a snowmobile guide for Steamboat Lake Outfitters, was leading the tour.
"I'm in the mood to do some exploring," he said on Wednesday morning before he set off.
It was cold; the temperature dipped to below 10 below zero at about 8 a.m.
Aga's exploring led the tour through a tight blur of a pine-tree stand, out into a small open space of what looked like a regrowth area of spruce trees, then back into the thick woods. The sleds stayed steady on a trail called Ellis Creek, which was covered with about four inches of new snow, and the smell of Aga's sled's exhaust mingled with the pine. But then Aga put his hand up, indicating he was slowing down. He yanked the brake, turned the sled and skidded a left turn onto an adjoining trail. It looked like a short cut.
The tour again weaved through trees, slowing the sleds down to make some corners, and then speeding up on straightaways, close to 40 mph. Somewhere in that tree stand the trail crossed the Colorado border into Wyoming. Finally, it ended and the wide open meadow of Little Red Park spread out like a white lake bed below.
Aga guided the pack down into the park, which is probably the size of 10 football fields.
With Hahn's Peak to the south and more mountains lining the north, west and east, the eyes can't help but take in the miles of terrain between the sled and the horizon. At that moment an overwhelming feeling of freedom takes over the body.
On a 550-horsepower sled, the mind says it can go just about anywhere in those mountains on a snow machine, which offers the ability to log at least 100 miles of snow travel in a day. That's a normal day for Aga and the guides at SLO. That might be the reason snowmobiling is becoming one of the fastest-growing winter activities in the past five years.
Chad Bedell, an owner of SLO, said for the past five years, patronage has increased an average of 20 percent a year.
"It is getting more and more and you see more private people doing it, too," he said.
Ed MacArthur, owner of High Mountain Snowmobile Tours, agreed.
"I think it's people looking for other alternatives to skiing when they come to the mountains," he said.
And locally, there is probably some of the best snowmobile terrain in the country, said Aga, who also guided at Yellowstone National Park. Local hot spots include Little Red Park, Big Red Park and the entire trail system near the Colorado and Wyoming border, north of Hahn's Peak. Buffalo Pass, Rabbit Ears Pass and Dunckley Pass in south Routt also have good trails that lead to some epic snowmobile terrain.
But snowmobiling is an investment. A good new sled will run about $6,500. A used one in good shape is probably $3,500 to $5,000. Then, depending on quality and age, they get less expensive, said Gary Eubank, owner of Extreme Power Sports.
Though expensive, a well-kept sled can last for years, and Eubank said he knows guys who have put up to 13,000 miles on their sleds.
"If you like the sled and it's been good to you, it's worth putting some money into," he said.
Can't afford to buy? Tours can be a way to get a taste of snowmobiling and run in the $75 to $150 range. Plus, people can rent snowmobiles for about $150. Just look in the phone book.
PACKING FOR THE BACKCOUNTRY
Getting far into the woods in the winter can be an exciting, beautiful and wonderful experience. But a shift in the weather, equipment failure or just plain bad luck can change the backcountry from a winter wonderland to a miserable and possibly dangerous place.
However, being prepared and carrying the right gear can make a life or death difference in a bad situation. Here are some important items to pack in or put on a snowmobile when going into the backcountry.
Shovel: This item can come in handy for digging a snow cave for shelter to digging a buddy out of snow. Small and collapsible shovels are available and they are light and easy to carry.
Fire-making materials: From a lighter, waterproof matches to steel wool and a battery or other packaged fire starting kits, these are some of the most important pieces of emergency equipment. When it's cold, all it takes is some fuel and a fire starter to solve that problem
Cell phone or radio: Sometimes these won't work in the backcountry, but from high places they can be used to call for help.
Food and water: Throw a couple of extra energy bars in your pack and carry ample amounts of water if you can, just in case.
Avalanche beacon and long pole: Avalanches happen. If you and your buddy have the proper equipment, it can save your life.
Extra clothes or space blanket: It's nice to have that extra fleece vest or winter coat in your backpack when you're cold. Also, a space blanket, which folds to as small as a wallet, is nice to have when you need to be warm.
Snowmobiler Gary Eubank helped compile this list