November 1, 2020
To Sled or Not to Sled. A Yukon Skier and Snowboarder Dilemma
Around about the first snowfall every year, sometimes sooner, I start getting a lot of questions from former students, clients, and ski buddies about all things backcountry skiing. Most of these questions have to do with gear. We are currently in the Golden Age of equipment choices when it comes to backcountry skiing. Never before have we seen such a cornucopia of light, reliable, high performing, backcountry ski and split board equipment. It’s awesome. It’s also overwhelming. A close second to questions regarding what the best backcountry ski set-up is for shredding in the North are those regarding an even bigger investment in backcountry riding....snowmobiles. Most prominently, ”Do I need a snowmobile (aka: sled) to enjoy backcountry skiing in the North?” The simple answer is, “Of course not”. The more complicated answer is, “Yes, you absolutely do”.
In my experience, there are two types of backcountry skiers in the North. Those who own and use sleds to access ski touring terrain and those who don’t own sleds but are constantly in an existential crisis over the fact that they wish they owned a sled to access ski touring terrain. Now I know this statement is controversial and I say it in jest. Of course, there are skiers and split-boarders who don’t own sleds and are perfectly happy individuals. But there is a heck of a lot more who wage the internal struggle with the question…Should I buy a sled?
So, let’s get into the pros and cons of owning a sled for the purposes of backcountry ski access here in the Yukon.
I’ve tried to make this discussion as specific to Yukon and northern backcountry skiing as possible but obviously some of the things I will discuss apply to backcountry skiing across the board. Sled skiing/sled assisted ski touring has always been a thing but with the phenomenal progression in mountain sled technology and capability, it has exploded in recent years. In fact, more and more of my southern BC and AB buddies have decided to forgo season’s passes to their local ski hill and instead invest that cash in their motor ponies. Full disclosure, I own sleds. I use them to access ski terrain all the time. With this obvious bias exposed, let us proceed.
So without further ado, let’s get into it.
The most obvious advantage to a sled is the ability to access really good ski terrain, really fast. The approaches can be long here in the north, heck, they can be long anywhere. As Yukoners, the vast majority of our riding takes place in the White Pass and Haines Summit. Both these places are big wide, alpine passes that offer a glimpse of incredible terrain beyond the reach of a day skier. The east side of White Pass is a classic example. Sure, you can walk out there but it takes even the fittest people all day before they’re even into ski terrain. If your focus is to get to a ski zone and maximize your ski time, there’s no better way than to throw your leg over a sled and hit the go button. There’s a reason sleds are often called the poor person’s helicopter. Sleds also provide the ability to explore new terrain and a greater variety of terrain. If you’re like me and love exploring new zones, then a sled is a no brainer.
Sleds can make backcountry skiing safer. Sleds can also decrease safety (see below). In the north, we face the challenge of having little access to professional rescue if we have a backcountry emergency. A sled can offer a quick rescue response, especially if it is paired with a well-equipped rescue skimmer for patient extraction. When I’m going into a remote area, a sled gives me the option to bring more medical and emergency equipment. If you’re ever faced with an injury in the backcountry, a sled can turn a complicated, drawn out rescue into an easy bump out to the road.
Accessibility. Let’s face it. We’re not all former xc skiers with V02 maxes hovering in the mid 70’s. Hell, even if you are, your fitness is no match for the access a sled provides. Using a sled to allow all users access to the backcountry is a great benefit IMO.
Kids. There’s nothing I love more than loading my kids onto machines and getting off the beaten path for a day of ski touring or sled laps. Sure, I have great days with my kids 500 meters from the highway too but there’s something special about getting them into more remote terrain. Furthermore, I really feel that having the kids drive sleds and help deal with the mechanical issues than can arise challenges their bodies and brains in ways that nothing else can.
It’s fun. Let’s face it, driving snowmobiles can be fun as hell. In fact, I’ve seen many skier friends go from sled-skiers to straight up throttle hounds in just a season or two.
Finally, let’s talk about base camps. Skiing for multiple days from a base camp or setting up a spike camp for the winter is now super popular. A sled makes camp set-up and take down quick and easy. A sled can turn an all-day slog to your camp into a 45-minute dangle-fest.
There aren’t any.
Just kidding. There’s a ton.
Cost. Buying and owning a sled or multiple sleds costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. Buying a new sled that has the capability to do the things you need it to do in the mountains can be expensive. You’re looking at $15-20K by the time you set it up with ski racks and luggage. There are a lot of great used sleds out there and there are also a lot of used shit boxes that seem great and, if you’re new to sledding, sometimes you don’t find out the difference until it’s too late. Add to the initial purchase the cost of fuel, belts, maintenance, repairs and the need for a trailer or pick-up truck to move the thing around, and it start to add up quick.
Mechanicals. At some point, every snowmobile is going to break down or get stuck. Whether this is as minor as a shredded belt or as major as a blown engine, it’s going to happen. Almost every year I assist a broke down sledder or come across an abandon sled in the mountains. I’ve been that guy myself once or twice over the years. The best way to deal with this aspect of sledding is to accept that these are machines, they break. Be prepared for it by learning about your machine, carrying the tools you need, and having a plan to deal with it. This plan often involves a good buddy and case of beer.
Fiddle factor. Sometimes, I just don’t want to deal with my sled. Loading and unloading, trailering, parking, and getting it unstuck can be a PITA. The simplicity of clicking into my skis and touring for the day often trumps sledding for me. It’s just a simpler way to enjoy the mountains that I often prefer.
Safety. As discussed above, a sled can make for a safer day under the right circumstances. It can also compromise your safety. Becoming a competent mountain sledder is hard. Putting a 500lbs machine between your legs with enough power to climb a 40-degree slope at 10 000 feet can lead to disaster. Add to that the fact that most sled skiers like to double or tow and you can have a down right circus on your hands in no time. I was once lassoed around the lower leg by a toe line and dragged about 500m before my ski partner realized what was happening. It resulted in a pretty bad lower leg injury. Sleds can also take you far away in a hurry. You can find yourself in the middle of nowhere in no time. If you break down, get lost, or bust yourself up out there, life choices are going to come into question. Finally, managing avalanche terrain as a sledder is much different than doing it as a ski tourer. On a sled, you’re covering terrain so fast that decision making can become complex. Sure, you can argue that being on a sled decreases exposure time, and it does, but things are coming at you fast and it requires constantly adjusting your mind-set between skiing and sledding.
Impact on other users. Many of us go to the mountains for peace and tranquility. Having a sled buzz past you during your ski tour can be soul crushing. I would argue that some skiers are too sensitive and need to be more accepting of the fact that the mountains are getting busy. I would also argue that some sledders need to be more sensitive to non-motorized users and give more space. It goes both ways. The irony of this is that a sled can solve this problem for you by allowing you easy access to a zone far away from all other humans. The good news for Yukoners, is that there are plenty of great places to ski tour right off the highway in White Pass and Haines Summit.
Environmental considerations. I’m not going to debate Climate Change here. It’s a thing. And it’s impacting our winters. There is no doubt that sled accessed skiing has a higher carbon footprint than non-motorized ski touring. Of all the cons associated with sled assisted skiing, this is the one I struggle with the most. For the moment, I still selfishly justify it by striking what I believe is a good balance between sled assisted ski days and human-powered ski days. My point here is that if you are a backcountry skier who already struggles with your climate conscience, then adding a snowmobile or two to your life will amplify this guilt.
That’s about all I have to say on this topic. Sure, there are other aspects I didn’t discuss or perhaps we can get more nuanced but hopefully this has helped you make a decision regarding adding a sled to your life. You absolutely do not need a snowmobile to have an enjoyable backcountry ski career in the north. If fact, for those that have chosen this route, I envy you to a degree. That being said, if you are willing to overcome some of the challenges that snowmobile ownership poses there is no doubt that it can enhance your northern skiing experience.
Tape ‘er to the bar. Or don't.