Just do it, I told myself as I aimed my beel directly at Will and took a deep breath. It was the day of reckoning. Our guides warned us that backcountry snowmobiling was no walk in the park and now we knew what he meant.
I charged; summoning the energy despite feeling unexpectedly achy and wasted after only Day 1 of a two-day learn-to-ride program at Togwotee (toe-ga-tee) Mountain Lodge.
This Wyoming resort for snowmobilers is not your city slicker, nose-to-rear guided riding you find at most ski resort outfitters. Togwotee delivers off-piste, powder plunging, hold-your-breath exploration for every level of rider.
In fact, slednecks return annually to this haven in the Bridger-Teton National Forest outside of Jackson Hole because there’s no other place in North America like it. Nearly 9000 riders a season appreciate the gear, the guides, the lodging, the food, the fully stocked bar, hot tub and 2.5 million acres of open space.
The Lodge started as a family operation in 1926 and witnessed the heyday of snowmobiling in the 90s when every family member had their own sled. As the economy and optimal weather slept so did the sport. The struggling Lodge sold to National Park concessionaire Aramark in 2008 but their family retreat feel survived the takeover. “Togwotee offers such diversity in terrain and consistent snow accumulation,” said Derek Thompson, TML’s marketing director. “Everyone from beginner to expert can enjoy this prestigious area.”
As the machines have gotten lighter, faster, more ecologically friendly and are able to take on extreme terrain like never before, even women, families and teens are discovering big mountain sled riding.
TML’s 54 individual, pet-friendly cabins, six family bunkrooms, a 28-room lodge, 25-30 guides and a fleet of top of the line sleds from Skidoo and Polaris are luring them in. Hence, the new learn-to program and the emphasis on backcountry education. “If you ride in Yellowstone it’s like riding a moped in a museum,” said Will, our TML guide. “We’re trying to separate ourselves from others. This is a ‘next level’ riding clinic, to prepare people for the backcountry.”
Unsure of what that really meant, we wandered into the meeting/social hall at the Lodge ready for anything at the crack of 9:30 a.m. The pacing for this beginner program is spot on. Even if you’re taking a class it’s still nice to sleep in. We had packed a ton of food with plans to cook in our cabin but when we heard breakfasts, happy hours and dinners were included in the three-night, $594pp package you could bet we’d be skipping the Tator Tots and bacon for the breakfast buffet with made-to-order eggs and fresh fruit and coffee to fuel up for riding.
Getting Down To Business
The Lodge asked beforehand about our snowmobiling experience. This was not the place to claim you are an expert and find yourself launching a 50-foot cornice. The snowmobiling season lasts through the end of March so there’s plenty of time to get to that level if you’re really into it.
Day 1 would start with a two-hour chat about safety, gear, what we need to think about “out there”. Day 2 we’d not only practice our new skills like the ready knee, three point lean, wrong foot forward, but discuss terrain traps and run avalanche beacon drills.
The plan was to challenge ourselves with the terrain and techniques to get us out but to do it safely, with confidence.
Day 1 started with the basics. We rode a groomed trail along the highway before crossing under a bridge and entering a clearing. We practiced steering, turning, leaning and a variety of stances in the knee-deep powder field. Our guides gave the four of us permission make mistakes. I had butterflies. Our snowmobiles got stuck. My thumb regularly slipped off the throttle, sending me sideways to “kiss the hood”. I launched over the handlebars a few times too but the landings were soft.
By the time we retreated for home I was sweating and already 10 times more confident in my maneuvering and stance. Some of my weight-shifting even felt, dare I say, second nature.
It was near noon. We had stiffly woke, ate and climbed aboard for Day 2. Now, I steadied the machine, gunned it, then rocked it, until I could feel it floating up onto one ski, then the other. With each shift I could feel it tip just a little bit more. And there it was. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would be booking an angled turn in powder, on one ski on a snowmobile.
The snow bounced underneath me. I broke a sweat. I practiced until my arms were mush but damn if I wasn’t getting it! We scarfed our sack lunches and beelined for Engel Mountain at 9,300 feet. Our guides had now deemed us worthy of the intimidatingly steep approaches and epic views of the Continental Divide.
We had just enough time for a water break and selfies before Will signaled for us to round up. The day had waned. Our hearts heavied. We didn’t want to go home. We were beginners once but now we were adventurers. Whether you’re looking for amazing views, miles of groomed trails or over-the-hood powder in the backcountry, Togwotee has it and they can teach you to love it.
Togwotee Mountain Lodge is less than six hours north of Salt Lake City near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and makes an ideal weekend escape. The Lodge provides everything from lessons and guided rides to unguided corporate retreats. The next Learn To Ride Weekend is March 15-18, 2016. Sign up early to reserve your spot.
Photos: Top -- This snowmobile center is no place for wimps; Left -- Togwotee Lodge has been attracting riders since 1937; Below -- The snowmobile paradise is under six hours from Salt Lake City (Whitney Lewis Photography)