Eagle County snow adventures by ‘sled’ | VailDaily.com
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Eagle County snow adventures by ‘sled’

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” So, you’ve skied every inch of the mountain this year and you’re getting bored.

If you feel like you’ve done everything you can do on a pair of skis or a snowboard, then it might be time to shake things up a little bit. Snowmobiling is an often overlooked and easily-dismissed alternative way to spend a day in the mountains. It’s like the onion-rings of winter sports; they’re always on the menu, but everybody’s too busy ordering fries to notice them.

If you want to rest your brain and your body but still have a good time, a guided tour with one of the valley’s snowmobiling franchises allows you to take advantage of the views while letting a professional worry about the small stuff, like not getting lost in the wilderness.

The only thing that might get a workout during a snowmobile tour is the wallet, but with tours ranging from beginner to advanced and other options too, a day on a sled (slang for snowmobile) can cost only slightly more than a lift ticket at Vail or Beaver Creek.

How does one determine if they are an advanced snowmobiler?

Don’t worry, part of a guide’s job is to determine what level of ability a customer can handle. If a customer desires to go on an advanced tour, a series of tests must be performed on the sled to prove that they can handle the challenging terrain.

“I don’t just throw them in the flames,” said Curtis Cook, a guide with Piney River Ranch for four years. “I don’t want to dig them out when they get stuck.”

Piney River Ranch’s guided tours begin at 10 a.m. at the North Trail parking lot just off of Red Sandstone Road in Vail. Once all of the clientele has gathered at the company’s lower base of operations (a small heated trailer where you can change clothes) and the appropriate waivers were signed, the group’s guide, Gregg Haggen, gave the standard safety speech.

“How many people have ridden snowmobiles before?” Haggen asked.

Hardly any hands went up.

“Ninety five percent of accidents occur by going to fast into the corners,” Haggen warned.

The groomed access road that leads to the ranch is full of sharp turns, and though generally considered safe, accidents can still happen. Snowmobilers must stay on the groomed area because rocks, logs and other debris lay hidden underneath the deep powder on the sides of the trail. Everyone must wear helmets.

After a brief demonstration on how to operate the machines, the long line of brand new Arctic Cat snowmobiles took off towards Piney River Ranch, an old wooden building 11 miles into the wilderness.

On the way up to the ranch, there were some opportunities to open up the throttle on the snowmobile and really let ‘er rip. Although the sleds are equipped with a governor (which limits how fast the sled can go), they can still reach speeds of 50 mph. That may not seem very fast, but given there’s no seatbelt and you’re riding on a very slick surface, it’s fast enough.

Haggen brought the group to a halt in an open powder field that used to be a fox farm in the early 1900s. Everyone was treated to a clear view of the massive Gore Range mountains in the distance. Haggen then turned the group loose in the field, and the riders took advantage of the free time by going as fast as they could on the open track.

Eventually, everybody was rounded up and led to the ranch, where a hot lunch awaited the cold group. During this lull in the action, clients can sit by the fire and warm up while enjoying a burger or pulled-pork sandwich.

Scott MacKaben took ownership of Piney River Ranch last year with his wife Morgan. He made it clear that they were out to give their customers an experience that they would never forget.

“It’s a lot of fun. I think we’ve got a great product. We make people’s vacations,” Mackaben said.

His hands-on attitude towards business became evident when he helped the staff behind the bar with serving duties.

All of the crew’s hard work has been paying off, he said.

“We’re really pleased. We’re busier than we can handle really,” MacKaben said.

Once all the food was devoured, the second leg of the tour began. Once again, riders followed Haggen single file down the groomed trail back towards the starting point of the tour. Haggen led the group on a narrow trail through the woods, back to the fox-farm field, and then on to the little trailer where it all began.

If this job seems like too much fun to be work, Haggen makes it clear that it’s not without its chores and daily grind, but for the most part, it is a lot of fun.

“We live here because we love the mountains, and this is kind of an extension of that,” Haggen said. “On our off days we’re still hanging out together. We’re just a big bunch of buddies and I think that translates into a better experience for our guests.”

Jim Headlee of Louisville, Kentucky would probably agree with that statement.

Headlee and his wife and four children decided that snowmobiling would be a great way to end their vacation in Vail.

“I liked every part of it. Just seeing the views was spectacular. It exceeded our expectations,” Headlee said.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or cowen@vaildaily.com.


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