Aspen resident Andre Mpitsos rides his snowmobile on Richmond Ridge on Sunday, March 7, 2021, near Aspen. Mpitsos was returning from the weekend trip at a remote cabin to take a break from the crowds, he says. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ed Klim was skiing a local hill in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in January when he ran into some skiers from out-of-state. He asked them where they were from. 

“They said Colorado. We don’t have any snow back there,” recalled Klim, president of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association. “I thought oh boy, if Colorado is sending their young skiers to Michigan to visit our hills, there must be something going on.”

It’s been a slow start to winter in Colorado and that’s depressed not only skier numbers, but snowmobile traffic as well. But across the country — really the world — snowmobile sales are skyrocketing. 

Klim said new snowmobile sales in the U.S. for the 2020-21 winter are pacing close to 20% ahead of the 2019-20 season, when U.S. snowmobilers bought about 51,000 new sleds. But in Colorado, Klim said, sales of new snowmobiles are up about 2%, which mirrors past years when snow was not bountiful.

“Snow has always been the number one determinant for demand for our product. You guys are having a little bit of a slower season than the rest of us and that’s because of snow,” he said. 

The boom in snowmobile sales across the country is an extension of last summer’s pandemic-powered surge in the sales of boats, ATVs, RVs and other outdoor toys that help people get out and away from crowds. 

A snowmobiler rides on Richmond Ridge on Sunday, March 7, 2021, near Aspen.. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun).

“People are buying everything right now. You can’t find a used or new snowmobile anywhere in the Great Lakes region right now. Really across the country. They’ve all been sold,” said Klim, who lives in Lansing, Michigan. 

Southern Colorado saw record crowds of snowmobilers in the early season, when heavy snow blanketed the San Juans. But popular snowmobiling areas in Colorado’s central and northern mountains only recently began drawing crowds as storms opened trails. 

Snow was slow to arrive on northwest Colorado’s Rabbit Ears and Buffalo passes. New storms have buried the rocks and stumps and trails are opening. And snowmobilers are making up for lost time.

“I was up on Rabbit Ears yesterday doing some maintenance on trails and the parking lots were three-quarters full and that’s just a regular Tuesday,” said Ed Calhoun, the longtime president of the local Routt Powder Riders snowmobile club. “Use is so high right now, everyone is grooming the heck out of trails to get caught up.”

Calhoun said local dealers around Steamboat sold out of snowmobiles in the fall. But it wasn’t until about three weeks ago, when storms arrived and groomers were able to carve in trails, that parking lots started filling. 

“We are seeing a lot more first-year users of snowmobiles, too,” Calhoun said. “So we are offering lots of training and education to help get people up to speed.”

Sold out: Avalanche safety classes

Heading into the 2020-21 winter, search and rescue teams were on high alert for a surge in newcomers in the backcountry. 

It’s been a particularly grim season for avalanches, with 33 skiers, snowmobilers and climbers killed in slides nationwide through February. Of those, 20 were skiers and snowboarders, four were climbers and nine were motorized backcountry users. 

In Colorado, nine of 11 avalanche fatalities this season have been skiers or snowboarders. Two Colorado snowmobilers died in slides last month. 

Brian Lundstedt remembers a season like this. It was 2011-12. Like this season, the snow didn’t really arrive until late. And when it did, it was dangerous, with the new snow stressing a buried weak layer that spiked avalanche risks. His brothers, Tyler and Jordan, were snowmobiling up near Buffalo Pass when they were caught in a slide. Tyler was killed. 

Lundstedt now runs a team of volunteer avalanche safety instructors who cater to snowmobilers. This season, Lundstedt sold out all his Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness avalanche safety classes this winter in Montana, Wyoming, California and all over Colorado. 

“We can’t do enough classes. If people didn’t book in December and January, they can’t get in,” Lundstedt said. “Every time we drop a class, it sells out in a blink.” 

Lundstedt is seeing some newcomers to the sport, eager to learn about avalanche safety. But the majority of snowmobilers filling up his classes are long-time riders. 

“There is an alarming number of five-year-plus riders who are taking their first class because they are seeing what’s happening on the news,” he said. “It’s tragic when a season like this is what drives people into education, but at the end of the day, at least people are starting to get wise.”

Aspen residents Sigrid Fischbacher, left, and Andreas Fischbacher unpack at the trailhead following a snowmobile-ski trip on Sunday, March 7, 2021, near Aspen.. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lundsetd has been all over the West this season, teaching avalanche safety. And across all mountain ranges and all aspects, he’s found that persistent weak layer buried deep in the snowpack. That layer collapses under the weight of new snow, shedding the avalanches that have made this one of the deadliest seasons for backcountry travelers in more than a century. The weakness in the snowpack is a big threat for motorized users because their heavy machines can add even more stress to faceted, rotten layers of snow.

“Things are going much bigger than we’ve ever seen before and because of that, we need to apply a completely different filter to things we normally do,” Lundstedt said. “If you’ve been riding for 20 years, this is the second time you’ve seen conditions like this so the normal safe places we go and the methods we’ve used for particular avalanche problems, they do not work this year.”

“You might not make it right back.”

In late January, Scott Jones held the annual meeting of the Colorado Snowmobile Association. More than half of the 30-plus snowmobile clubs that make up the association reported they were not consistently grooming trails because of lack of snow. 

But interest is high, especially among newcomers to the sport, said Jones, the executive director of the association. 

“We are pushing a lot of online education and our dealers have been doing a lot of avalanche introduction classes,” said Jones, whose group also is working with the Colorado Tourism Office and other state agencies to promote the “Know Before You Go” message of planning for backcountry adventures. 

Jones said his group is tailoring a more basic message for the new arrivals to snowmobiling. 

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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“We used to tell people if they were going into the backcountry they should take a class, get avalanche safety gear and check the avalanche forecast,” Jones said. “Now, we have kinda dumbed it down a bit. We are telling people if they are going out they should be prepared to spend 24 hours outside. You might not make it right back.”

Lack of snow “is probably a good thing,” Jones said. 

“Imagine avalanche conditions like this with biblical snow. I mean, it’s bad enough now and we have people pushing deeper to find powder,” he said, “snowmobiling in places where you don’t really think about people snowmobiling. As bad as it might be for some of our outfitters this season, I’m kinda glad we didn’t have a lot of snow this winter.”

Roger Poirier, who manages recreation on the White River National Forest — the most trafficked forest in the country — said snowmobile use has been growing for the last five years. The forest increased its patrols and staffing at high-traffic areas like Vail Pass Winter Recreation Areas, where rangers on skis and snowmobiles are on duty every day of the week in winter. The agency is also working in partnership with Colorado Avalanche Information Center to better promote avalanche education and safety in the high country. 

“I think our increased patrols and Vail Pass have helped prevent violations and accidents in the first place,” Poirier said. 

U.S. Forest Service snow ranger Kate DeMorest, lead manager for the Vail Pass area, stops while skinning up Shrine Pass to talk to one of her snow rangers on snowmobile patrol. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

At Vail Pass, the Forest Service collects fees from both human-powered and motorized backcountry travelers and those collections totaled more than $46,000 in November and December 2020, up from $31,000 in the same months in 2019. 

The fee system is part of the White River National Forest’s winter travel management plan, which turns 10 this year. The White River’s winter plan — the only one in the state — identifies areas where snowmobilers are allowed, restricted and not permitted. 

Poirier calls his forest’s long-negotiated winter travel management plan “a decision framework that affects and influences how people move across the landscape.”

“We have strived to really deliver a quality experience versus a quantity experience,” he said. “We think more miles of trails does not always equal a better experience.”

Poirier said he’s eager to see final numbers for motorized traffic at developed areas like the 55,000-acre Vail Pass in the 2.2 million-acre White River National Forest. He wonders if there is record traffic or “are they more perceived because COVID has thrown a new lens on everything.” 

“Everyone is saying anecdotally, ‘Wow we have never seen this level of traffic before,’” he said. “In my view, we are aligned with current trends and where we have been. That’s a lot considering COVID restrictions to say we have the same use as the previous year. There are a lot of people getting up to the forest to recreate and find a breath of fresh air and find a bit of sanity that only the mountains can provide during a pandemic.”

Aspen residents Elana and Chris Royer enjoy a view of Taylor Peak A accessed by snowmobile on Sunday, March 7, 2021, near Aspen.. (Hugh Carey, special to The Colorado Sun).

Joe Kelley, the owner of Power World Sports in Granby, has sold out of all his snowmobiles this winter. He saw a swell of first-time snowmobiler buyers last fall, well before the snow started falling. 

“I’m not sure a lot of them have even gotten out riding yet this season,” he said. “Snowmobiling is a tough gig. There’s a lot to learn. It’s not like getting on a mountain bike.”

Kelley is not surprised to see the slow start to the Colorado snowmobile season. And not just because of the lack of snow in the early season. Colorado is a tough place to ride, he said. It’s not like spots in the Midwest, with thousands of miles of flat trails offering an easy learning curve for first-timers. 

“Colorado is a tough environment for snowmobiling,” he said. 

His team at Powder World Sports has helped newcomers pick the right avalanche safety gear when they buy sleds. The sales team also helps direct inexperienced riders to less fraught terrain. 

“We certainly encourage people to go to places that don’t have a lot of that avalanche danger,” Kelly said. “We want them to have fun and stay in the sport, you know. One bad day on a snowmobile can really turn people away.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...