For many people, winter is the time to put away the summer toys and cozy up with a blanket for winter. For others, it just means a different set of toys come out to play. The snowmobile is critical winter transportation for some and a fun hobby for others. What I didn’t expect was for a snowmobile to be so different, and I got to learn it at the site where America forged its first and only mountain infantry division of the Army.
One of my lifelong dreams is to command as many different vehicles as I can. I’ve achieved more than I thought I would by driving cars, riding motorcycles, flying a plane, driving a boat, and most recently, becoming the engineer of a locomotive. But I want more. I want to light the afterburner of a fighter jet, take control of a Boeing 747, drive a semi-truck, ride in a sub, and maybe, do some silly things with these vehicles. Some of my goals might not be easily possible, but one day you will see me racing a Smart Fortwo around the Nurburgring.
My contacts at Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) gave me the opportunity to scratch another item off of my ever-expanding bucket list. Last week, I descended into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to ride a pair of seriously fun machines. There, I got to take command of a Ski-Doo Renegade and Ski-Doo Summit Adrenaline, two very different machines for conquering snowscapes, even at altitudes above 10,000 feet.
(Full Disclosure: BRP invited me to historic Camp Hale to test two of its popular snowmobile models while taking in an entire snowmobile tour experience. BRP paid for my travel, lodging, lavish dinners, and provided the warmest cold gear I’ve ever worn.)
For some additional disclosure, I’ve never ridden a snowmobile before. Sleds, the slang term for snowmobiles, are a common sight in the Midwest in the winter. Yet, until now, I’ve always enjoyed them from a distance. The closest I’ve come to a snowmobile was riding a Can-Am Spyder and a Can-Am Ryker. BRP’s people say that the very first prototypes for the Spyder did ride on a Ski-Doo snowmobile frame. However, production Spyders have their own frames not shared with the Ski-Doo snowmobile line. Still, I’ve been told that riding a Spyder and a Ryker is not too different than riding a sled, and I got to see how true that was.
This is all to say that last week, I entered a territory that was unexplored for me.
BRP chose a historic site for this event. During World War II, the United States saw a need to train soldiers to fight and survive on frozen mountains. In 1939, Finnish troops successfully fended off Soviet soldiers, illustrating that mountain warfare can work. Early on in the war, the War Department joined forces with the American Ski Patrol Association to recruit 8,000 skiers and outdoorsmen to the cause. [Ed Note: We got a Camp Hale deep-dive here! Great stuff, but if you prefer to get right into the snowmobile action, scroll on down to Sledding Adventure – PV]
In 1942, construction began on a massive facility to train what would become the famous 10th Mountain Division, America’s first and only mountain infantry division, which helped defeat the Nazis. The White House explains:
The Army began construction of Camp Hale in April of 1942 in the Pando Valley after the Department of Agriculture authorized the War Department to use 179,000 acres of National Forest lands to train soldiers to climb and ski in preparation for operations in harsh, cold, high-altitude areas. The valley floor — which sits at 9,200 feet in elevation — was broad enough to hold a large encampment, and the Eagle River, which passes through the valley, provided a year-round water supply. Near the encampment were training grounds fit for the Army’s purpose, including the rugged Tenmile Range’s rock faces, deep snow, and frigid temperatures. The site also took advantage of existing infrastructure, such as the nearby rail system and highway, which remain important arteries through the Rocky Mountains.
Visitors can see traces of the life of the thousands of young servicemen and approximately 200 servicewomen who were stationed at Camp Hale along the valley floor, surrounded on all sides by forested hills and mountains stretching up to more than 14,000 feet. At its height, Camp Hale sprawled across nearly 1,500 acres. Its 1,000 buildings included 245 barracks (which could house more than 15,000 soldiers), mess halls, warehouses, training facilities, firing ranges, administrative buildings, stables, corrals, a veterinary center, theaters, chapels, a field house, and a hospital. The camp also featured parade grounds, recreation areas, gunnery ranges, a combat range, ski hills, a stockade, a motor pool, railyards, and an extensive road and bridge network. Several contiguous areas on the side slopes of the valley also served as training areas for skiing and rock climbing, storage areas for ammunition, and target training sites.
Between April and November of 1942, hundreds of construction workers — many living in harsh conditions in tents, trailers, and even in cars and trucks — rushed to build Camp Hale. Racial discrimination against Hispanic and Black construction workers at the camp caught national attention and led to an investigation by the War Production Board, prompting the United States Army to issue an order against racial discrimination in war construction projects in the region. This history — and the history of segregation within the Army itself during World War II — is a critical component of the experience of visiting and understanding Camp Hale.
The region surrounding Camp Hale was used to harden soldiers to the frozen elements while also training them in mountain warfare. In addition to teaching those soldiers how to climb and ski, they learned how to deploy ordnance in mountain ranges and they were trained in the weapons they would use in mountain combat. Camp Hale also served as a prisoner camp.
The camp was so large that it featured many of what you’d expect to find in an established town, including stables, a movie theater, and a ski shop.
The 10th Mountain Division put their skills to the ultimate test, too. The Division deployed three army regiments to World War II, where soldiers fought in the Battle of Riva Ridge. This fight, nestled in Italy’s Apennine Mountains, required the 10th Mountain Division to climb a 1,500-foot cliff at nighttime to defeat five divisions of German soldiers.
Camp Hale was used to train the 10th Mountain Division until 1945, when the camp was deactivated and the 10th Mountain Division moved to Texas. After the war, many of the veterans who trained at Camp Hale decided to use their experience to create the ski industry as we know it today.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, 10th Mountain Division veterans founded or managed over 60 ski resorts after the war. Others would go on to educate others on the wilderness. After the war, Camp Hale and the surrounding region would be used to train others, including the 38th Regimental Combat Team and the 99th Infantry Battalion. The Central Intelligence Agency also trained roughly 259 Tibetans for a covert operation against China. Finally, in 1965, Camp Hale was dismantled.
Camp Hale and the Tenmile Range aren’t just important because of how they helped win World War II, but also because the region is considered to be sacred ground for indigenous people, from the U.S. Forest Service:
The Camp Hale and Tenmile Range area is rich in ancient human history, bearing the marks of centuries of habitation by Indigenous peoples. For thousands of years, the Ute people traveled to the Pando Valley when winter snows melted as part of an annual migration circuit to hunt game and collect medicinal plants. The area also served as an important transportation corridor for those traveling to sacred hot springs in Glenwood Springs, and the traditional Ute trail lies under the road that runs along the Eagle River today.
Forced from much of their homelands when precious minerals were discovered, their history serves as a stark reminder that the United States’ commitment to its highest ideals of democracy, liberty, and equality has too often been imperfect, particularly for Tribal Nations and Indigenous Peoples. The Camp Hale and Tenmile Range area remains culturally important to the Ute people, who return to their homelands to pray, hold ceremonies, honor their ancestors, and hunt, fish, and harvest plants for medicinal purposes, ceremonial use, and basketry.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been cleaning up the area since 2003, but remnants of Camp Hale remain, including concrete structures. The U.S. Forest Service says that the landscape around Camp Hale has been left untouched since the 1940s, so it’s sort of a living museum of what the region looked like back then. The clean-up effort is still ongoing, thus, you’ll find warning signs that you might find bits that look a bit weird.
In 2022, President Biden designated Camp Hale a national monument, protecting it from development. Today, the former grounds of this base serve as a playground for snowmobilers in the winter, side-by-side and Jeep drivers in the summer, and other outdoor activities including camping, archery, and fishing.
Last week, Camp Hale was also the site of my sled adventure with BRP. It was a new experience for all of the journalists at the event as none of us had ridden a snowmobile before.
Our experience would happen through Nova Guides, a Red Cliff, Colorado provider of outdoor experiences. At Nova Guides, you can take in Camp Hale’s history by snowmobile, ATV, Jeep, or at your own pace. The firm offers tours, rentals, cabins, a cozy lodge, and more. On that day, an experienced snowmobile rider and tour guide at Nova Guides taught us what we were getting into.
We started the day on the BRP Ski-Doo Renegade Sport and the Ski-Doo Grand Touring Sport. My review of all of these snowmobiles will come later. For now, you should know that both of these snowmobiles are essentially the same. Both of them have a Rotax 600 ACE 600cc liquid-cooled four-stroke two-cylinder engine. These engines make 62 HP and drive a 137-inch long, 15-inch wide track. Well, that’s the power they make at sea level. BRP estimates that at about 10,000 feet, they were lucky to be punching out 40 HP.
The biggest difference between the Renegade Sport and the Grand Touring Sport was comfort. The Grand Touring Sport comes with a big and comfy seat, a large windshield, plus a second seat with a backrest and handholds for a passenger. The Grand Touring Sport also has luxury options for more snazzy equipment and displays, but these were base model sleds.
The Renegade Sport does away with comfort and the passenger. It gets a small sport seat for a single rider and a small windscreen. Both snowmobiles are oriented toward trail riding, however, they can also handle fresh powder so long as it isn’t too deep.
During our instruction, we were informed that riding a snowmobile like the Renegade Sport and the Grand Touring Sport involves sitting on the seat and turning the handlebar in your desired path of travel. However, if you want to ride that sled with speed you’ll need to shift your weight to the inside of a turn. And I don’t mean lean like you’re on a motorcycle – you need to literally relocate as much of your body to the inside of a turn as possible. Use your legs and get those hips out there.
This part felt similar to riding a Can-Am Spyder and a Can-Am Ryker. Since those trikes can’t lean, the best way to ride them fast is to shift your body weight. If you don’t shift your weight on a Can-Am on-road vehicle, you risk horrible understeer. Don’t do it on a sled? You risk rolling the machine over.
The difference seems to come from a couple of factors. A Can-Am Spyder’s front wheels are spread out over 59.9 inches, while the Ski-Doo Renegade Sport has an adjustable 43-inch stance. The Spyder also has rubber tires working with pavement. While the Renegade looks like it has plastic skis, there are metal blades underneath the skis that do a lot of the work. So, don’t try to take a corner on a sled super fast while sitting straight up, because the sled is likely to dig one ski in and lift the other ski right before sending you over.
Our instructors also informed us that a lot of snowmobiling is about commitment and throttle control. Even on high-powered sleds, you will need constant throttle to keep from sinking into the snow. You also need to commit to whatever you’re doing, because if you give up halfway through, you can get stuck or worse.
Our adventure began by leaving the Nova Guides lodge and going for a short loop nearby. This allowed me to get acquainted with my machine and its thumb-based throttle control. The Rotax 600 ACE responds like the four-stroke engine of a motorcycle. Power delivery is predictable and linear. It took me no time to gain the confidence to take that throttle all of the way to the grip, unleashing however many ponies still had enough breath at this altitude.
Indeed, as the instructor informed us, shifting my weight into a turn made for a cleaner, quicker way to go around a turn. When I sat straight up, I had to slow down, and even then I lifted a ski.
After some time of scooting down packed trails, we arrived at what was more or less a makeshift racetrack on the packed snow. It was here that the instructor turned us loose, hoping we’d get used to our machines. Putting me on a track is either a good or a bad thing, depending on the situation, because I will go as fast as I physically can.
Indeed, immediately I powered out of the gate, full throttle onto the counterclockwise circle track. I let off of the throttle a bit going into the first turn, shifted my weight left, and pointed the skis where I wanted to go. I felt the skis grip the ground under me and I rounded the corner with speed. I was able to reach 60 mph on the straights and maybe kept it at 45 mph in the turns, though I was a bit busy looking where I wanted to go to look at the speedometer.
Our instructor informed us that, unlike most vehicles, you won’t be using the brakes a ton on a sled unless you absolutely need to. Just letting off the throttle is often enough to drag you down without using the brakes. Besides, if you grab too much brake, you can cause the snowmobile track to lose traction, and now you have to deal with that on top of whatever you were trying to slow down for.
Here, I used just a dab of brake to scrub speed before entering a corner, punching the throttle once again at the apex. Doing this was thrilling and while I didn’t have a timer on me, I felt myself getting faster with each lap, sometimes passing the other journalists as if they were sitting still.
Despite how easy it was to operate the Renegade Sport, it was a bit of a workout. See, this particular ride was working against me. I’m a flatlander, so my body still wasn’t used to the high altitude. I found myself running out of breath while walking up stairs, which doesn’t happen at home. The Renegade Sport and the Grand Touring Sport sleds are manual steering, so you have to use muscle against the snow, the ice, and the nearly 500-pound weight of the machine if you want to go a certain direction with alacrity. Sure, you could sit down and go slower, but where’s the fun in that?
After we set some hot laps, the instructor showed us the other side of snowmobiling. It isn’t just about speeding on packed snow. For many riders, it’s about getting into fresh, deep, untouched powder and conquering it. Throttle input is absolutely critical here. Much like riding a vehicle on a sand dune, you have to keep momentum to not get stuck. That means giving it the beans and keeping it there.
Once again, I was quick to give this type of snowmobile riding a go. Entering into the deep powder was interesting. Before, the sled had hard controls and was planted on the ground. In the powder, the snowmobile felt more like a personal watercraft as it sort of bobbed and flowed through the snow, while not really touching the ground under it all. As the instructor noted, keeping momentum was crucial here. While I felt the steering go light, I could tell that if I gave that rear track a reason to dig in, I was getting stuck. So, I kept it at full throttle no matter what.
Also crucial for riding in powder is weight distribution. The skis can become ineffective in powder. If you want to turn, you better slide your body off that seat. When you do, you’re congratulated by the sled leaning the direction you shifted your weight, eventually starting a turn.
While I didn’t get stuck, other journalists learned the hard way what happens when you let off the throttle. Our instructors were quick to point out that getting stuck is something that happens when you ride and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. However, it is why you don’t want to ride alone. If you get stuck in deep enough powder and there’s nobody to save you, I hope you dress warm enough.
After covering the basics, we hit the trails, exploring Camp Hale and the surrounding mountains. It was a thrilling experience, especially when we parked at the top of a 12,000-foot peak, enabling an incredible view of the Rockies. We went far, high, and through deep enough snow that even a car with studded snow tires might struggle. The payoff was this view.
Going down the mountain was equally fun, as we encountered quick curves and long enough straightaways to achieve speeds over 70 mph. Riding the Renegade Sport felt like a combination of my previous experiences with side-by-sides and motorcycles in one, but with a lot more labor. After half of a day on the Renegade, I began to feel sore.
But I didn’t have time to rest, because after lunch, we got to play with the extreme end of BRP’s Ski-Doo snowmobiles.
Mo’ Power Baby
After parking the Renegade Sport, Nova Guides pulled out a set of Ski-Doo Summit Adrenaline sleds. Despite the similar appearance, these sleds are completely different than the Renegades were.
Some parts were similar enough. The Summit Adrenalines had 146-inch long, 16-inch wide tracks and a slightly lighter weight than the trail sleds. They had a similar suspension, too. Then you start looking a bit deeper. In addition to being lower machines, the stance is a narrower 36 inches and the bars stand straight up. The seat was also an afterthought.
One huge difference between the two sleds is the Rotax 850 E-TEC engine. These are 849 cc two-cylinder two-stroke beauties pumping out 165 HP. Or, at least, they’d punch out that much power at sea level. Here, BRP’s people believe they’re making about 120 HP.
Before we straddled the Summits, our instructors gave us another teaching session. Despite appearances, riding these sleds will be nothing like riding the Renegades. Those Renegades were sit-down affairs. These? We were warned that the only true way to ride these at any speed was by standing up and putting your weight right there at the bars. That’s why the handlebar stands straight up. We were warned that if we sat down, these narrower sleds with our big bodies on top of them would want to topple over in sharp turns.
Our instructor further explained that he uses these Summit snowmobiles to train soldiers and those soldiers are required to stand the entire time the sled is moving. If any soldier sits, the ride is over. The instructor told us he wasn’t going to treat us like soldiers, but it was important that we tried to stand for as long as possible.
Pulling out of the Nova Guides lodge, we hit the first circle again. The differences between the sleds were immediate. First, if you’ve never ridden anything with a two-stroke engine, I’ll try to describe it. There’s basically nothing at the very bottom end of the throttle, then the power comes on like a sledgehammer. At just half throttle, the two-stroke engine hits with so much throttle that it’ll throw you to the ground if you aren’t paying attention. From there, the Rotax engine provides a seemingly endless well of power. Even at full throttle, the sled feels like there’s more power where it came from.
Thumbing full throttle on this sled either results in a wheelie, or the rear track losing traction as you do the snow equivalent of a burnout. The power is intoxicating, violent, and corrupting. The Summit accelerates so fast that you just don’t have time to look at the digital speed readout. Just know that you’ll be blowing past 70 mph before you can catch your breath in the high mountain air.
As the instructors warned, the Summit is definitely standing room only. Sure, you can sit, but if you do, the Summit feels unstable and any turn will make you feel like the machine wants to tip. Even gentle curves done while sitting down may be just enough to lift a ski. The suspension clearly wasn’t tuned for sitting, either, as bumps that were gentle on the Renegade will send your tuchus flying on the Summit.
But, if you stand, it feels like the machine suddenly gains 50 percent more stability and you can go much faster. Our instructors said this is because when you stand and keep your body right at the bars, you’re putting more weight on the skis, helping those metal runners find more traction. If you want to see 70 mph or higher on that speedometer, you better stand.
This, plus the engine, made riding the Summit a vastly different experience. Even though fundamentally, they’re similar vehicles, operating them is far different. If the Renegade feels like riding a trike, the Summit is like a stand-up personal watercraft. Mind you, these 165 HP naturally-aspirated units aren’t even as good as you can get. You can also equip a Summit with a turbocharged Rotax 850 that makes 180 HP. BRP says those engines will keep making 180 HP up to 8,000 feet, too.
Snowmobiles like the Summit are good for trail riding and for powder, but what they excel at is climbing and deep snow. If you look at a mountain and see snowmobile tracks that seemingly go straight up to the peak, those riders were almost certainly on a deep snow sled. These sleds use boundless wells of power and the skill of the rider to plow their way through snow most other vehicles could only dream of getting through.
Now, because all of the journalists there were beginners, Nova Guides wouldn’t take us up a mountain. But we did find deep snow to play in. Here’s where the Summit had another sharp departure from the Renegade.
On the Renegade Sport, just shifting your weight while sitting was enough to start a turn. That wasn’t going to work here. In fact, once you get to deep snow, the handlebar of a Summit reverses its function and becomes more like a motorcycle. I’ll explain.
To steer the Summit in deep snow, there’s a process. First, you have to blip the throttle. If the snow is deep enough, you will need a lot of throttle. Now that you’re hearing that two-stroke sound like a pissed-off chainsaw, make sure you’re standing and shift your body weight in the direction you want to turn. Finally, push the handlebar in the opposite direction that you want to turn.
Oh, and be sure to look where you want to go, not what you want to dodge. If you look at a tree, you are likely to hit it. This is great advice for cars, motorcycles, and planes, too.
Like a motorcycle, the Summit turns through countersteering. You have to go right to go left. You have to go left to go right. But it doesn’t end there. Here’s another situation where you have to commit. Once you’ve initiated the turn, the sled will lean into the curve, sometimes quite sharply. You can’t let it lean too sharp because it’ll dump you into the snow. You also can’t let it lean too shallow because then you won’t turn much, if at all. If you let off of the throttle, the skis may dig in, either throwing you off, rolling the sled over, or getting you stuck. Give it way too much throttle, and the sled may get away from you.
In other words, turning a Summit is basically controlled chaos and it’s not something you master in an afternoon. It’s also a workout. Even though you’re gliding on top of soft snow, you’re still wrangling a nearly 500-pound sled plus your own weight through everything. It took repeated use of muscle to coax the Summit into going where I wanted.
Cheating wasn’t an option, either. If you sat down and tried the old weight shifting method, the Summit laughed in your face by continuing totally straight. No input made a difference unless you stood.
Our instructors told us that the optimal way to turn is to keep your body glued to the handlebar, but they admit that’s difficult for a beginner. It takes not being worn out, being used to the high altitude, and having practiced riding the snowmobile for at least some actual time. There were other tricks to turning, too, such as putting both feet entirely on one side of the snowmobile, which puts all of your weight on that side. That is also difficult at first. However, once you master the technique, we’re told, turning does become much easier.
Regardless, riding the Summit was equal parts a violent experience and a graceful one. Once you got into a turn, it was like a smoky snow ballet as the snowmobile cut through the snow with sort of the composure of a big ballerina. In a way, gliding through the deep snow on a Summit felt like an art form.
With light fading fast, we got out of the deep snow and started hitting the trails. Those of us who were confident in our raucous steeds opened them up, blasting past 70 mph as the trees of the historic Camp Hale blew by us at ever-increasing speeds. We also went looking for wildlife, which we didn’t find. But that didn’t matter because we were having just too much fun. After the ride, we had dinner in a yurt at the top of a mountain.
More Than A Workout
Our instructors did disagree in one area, and it’s what happens after you master the turning technique. One instructor said once you master riding the sled, it takes very little energy to operate it. Another instructor said it will always take at least some muscle to operate a sled, even for experienced riders. Unfortunately, all of the journalists at the event were tired before hopping onto the Summits, and turning them became a circus of journalists repeatedly falling into the snow. That included me. I fell off one time, ending up about two feet deeper into the snow than the Summit was. Then I fell a second time.
After that second fall, the sled didn’t continue without me. Instead, it landed on top of my left leg. It was the first time I had ever gotten pinned under a vehicle. Thankfully, BRP provided us with ridiculously sturdy boots and thick snow pants, so I felt the snowmobile there, but it wasn’t hurting me. But, the snowmobile was completely on its side, pinning my leg down. I had no movement from my left leg and my right leg wasn’t strong enough to get the snowmobile off of me. Thankfully, two guys came over and pulled the Summit off of me. I was completely unscathed! But it was another reminder of why you shouldn’t snowmobile alone. Had I not been there in a group, I would have been trapped indefinitely.
Even though I wasn’t hurt, just an afternoon of operating the Summit made me the sorest I’ve been in years. I’m not sure if it was the altitude, the workout, muscle loss from my hormone therapy, or a combination of all of them, but I was so wrecked that I passed out the moment I got into my hotel room. I couldn’t even write the blog I promised the editors that day.
I will give you more detailed reviews of the vehicles I got to ride, but for now, I felt like I had to talk about just the adventure of riding them. I don’t regret it one bit! Riding these sleds checked off a bucket list item and I had a total blast. I never knew riding a snowmobile would be so different to everything else I’ve operated, but they were unique. Just as cool was doing it in the shadow of an important place in American history.
(Images: Daniel Milchev, unless otherwise noted.)