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.
Eventually we crest the top of Sproatt, and get the chance to explore the sunshine-soaked alpine. The trees thin to reveal meadows and a panoramic view of Whistler below. I try to surf the heavy beast in powder; it's a trail machine, my guide says, and so not quite meant for it, but I start to get a feel for leaning the skids from side to side.
After whipping around in the untouched snow we pull in to CWA's Sproatt cabin. Inside we stuff ourselves with a logger's breakfast, devouring eggs, bacon and vegetables from a giant cook-up that has been roasting on an 18" frying pan sizzling over an ironclad, wood-fed stove. My fingers thaw; out the frosted windows the view stretches dead across the Callaghan, where we can see distant tracks traced across the icecap.
It is night, and I have just finished ripping up Blackcomb to Crystal Hut. The old triple-seater sits quiet, immobile against the stars, oblivious to its coming dismemberment this summer. I have downed an artery-hardening quantity of cheese, and my officially sanctioned single glass of white (CWA is careful not to let anyone rip around tipped). Beside me sit two fire-breathing circus performers who have just returned from Disneyland; my Swedish server, Liselotte, chats up an entire table of her stuffed kinfolk. And much to my perverse pleasure, Dave Morris of the Alpha Lake Three throws down a heart-throttling rendition of "The Man Who Sold the World" on acoustic guitar. (And thanks to popular demand, he is now working on expanding his catalogue to include Joy Division.)
As the evening winds up, we don our helmets and bundle up for the drive down. The return ride takes about half the time as the climb up; the efficiency of a sled in snowy terrain is evident. With engines growling, we prowl the way back home.
Sledding in the backcountry is no joke, and should be treated with reverence and respect for the elements. Sledders remain the most at-risk group of backcountry users. According to the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA), from 2000 through 2010 snowmobilers accounted for 41 per cent of all avalanche fatalities; backcountry skiers, 29 per cent. But it is the trend that is somewhat disconcerting; whereas backcountry skiers have dropped from an average of six to 2.5 fatalities per year, snowmobilers have risen from a low of 3.2 to 7.2 fatalities per year, with a noticeable spike beginning around 2007/2008 season.
Since 2010, increased education in avalanche awareness and proper rescue equipment has begun to take hold in the sledding communities. Training courses oriented to sledders have been developed by guide organizations so that the information is relevant to mechanized means of travel and recreation in the backcountry. All sledders should undertake the minimum of an Avalanche Safety Training course (AST-1) and carry with them all the tools of survival and rescue, including a shovel, probe, and beacon — and always travel with a partner carrying the same. A list of certified AST providers along with avalanche hazard and terrain info can be found at the website of the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC), avalanche.ca.
Sledding adventures in the Sea to Sky can be had at:
Canadian Wilderness Adventures
Canadian Outback Adventures
Totally Awesome Adventures
The Adventure Group (TAG)
Check with these providers for courses offered in sledding-oriented Avalanche Skills Training.