Driving a sled at night is a surreal experience — the world a tunnel, lit by the machine's yellowed light; the trees towering high on either side of the glittering track. From the snowmobile in front of me appears a raised fist — it's the sign to stop from our pierced and humourous Canadian Wilderness Adventures guide, JC, who is leading the group onwards to gorge on cheese fondue at Blackcomb's Crystal Hut. I brake to a stop. A four-sled caravan is now winding its way up behind us; I watch as the sled train counterbalances their sleds against the sideslope. We've reached the top of Wizard Chair via the access road, and Whistler Village is a kaleidoscope of light that shines through the fog below us. Piercing the black sky above are the stars, the Milky Way splashed from horizon to horizon.
Needless to say I am beginning to understand the allure of sledding. With a push-button start and powerful four-stroke engine — Ski-Doo Renegade Rev XRs — the beast is a predictable ride. Sleds have come a long way over the years — less pollution and better mileage from four-stroke engines combined with sophisticated suspension and better-engineered innards have catalyzed something of a sled revolution in backcountry access. Sleds are becoming the tool of choice for not only those who dig sledding in its own right, but for backcountry touring parties looking to explore the farther reaches of the Coast Mountains. (As long as it's not in the Whistler watershed or any Provincial Park: would-be sledders should check sledlink.ca for terrain.)
Sleds are certainly no longer the sole transport of frozen northerners; nor are they strictly the domain of "slednecks" — a rather self-explanatory term for the fearless riders pushing their machines to ever greater feats: cresting up fast on a hill (highmarking), jumping off cornices and cliffs, and surfing steep pow.
Tonight, I am just getting a better feel for riding my beastie. Canadian Wilderness Adventures offers a range of guided sled trips, from the night fondue at Crystal Hut to the Yukon breakfasts at their Sproatt hut, with a variety of dedicated sled outings catered to riders from beginners to experts. As a non-owner, my experience has been limited to hanging on for dear life while someone else guns the throttle and/or learning to drive on the way to and from various backcountry operations, often on rutted and rolling roads.
But thanks to CWA, I now have a bit more experience tucked under my belt. A tour up Sproatt taught me the basics. Sproatt is that big hulk of rock and snow that divides the Callaghan from Whistler, perched on the western side of the valley; it is also home to a CWA cabin with stunning views over the Olympic Park and Callaghan Country. The morning began innocuously enough, sheltering frozen fingers in the shade: a series of FSR spurs lead on and up Sproatt's southern side, and as we climb we practice rolling through tighter turns, descending through dips, and throwing our weight against gravity as we clung to side-hills. Like backcountry touring and steeps skiing, sledding is a skill to be mastered. By the time we are half-way up, the guide gives me the go-ahead to whip ahead for a photo-op. I gun the throttle, and see what the sled is made of. Thanks to the morning's sled training I lean with the machine, keeping it under control, and soon a massive grin spreads across my face as I revel in the force of the thing.