A snowmobile is an unwieldy beast, with handling a far cry from his 250cc motorbike, finds Andrew Louis.
How hard can riding a snowmobile be? It looks like a jetski on snow.
Our group of three Aussies and one Kiwi is about to take a snowmobile tour through the Routt National Forest in Colorado. I'm no stranger to machines with handlebars. I commute to work on a 250cc motorcycle every day, and made a good fist of riding a jetski off the coast of Penang, and I'm going to find out if those skills mean anything.
Half a metre of fresh snow fell overnight, and the powder is still falling as our guide, Ben, tells us to jump onto our snowmobiles. All I see is the tops of windscreens poking out from mounds of snow. Wiping away the fresh powder, I manage to find the handlebars and, eventually, a seat. The brake is on my left, similar to my motorbike, but there is no clutch or gears to worry about.
Ben warns us repeatedly that we will get stuck if we don't follow the track. After the safety and operating briefing, we set off in single file. The two-stroke engines are loud, but start easily enough despite the cold conditions.
I make it all of 10m before sliding off the track at the first bend. Fail. I wasn't even going fast. My snowmobile dives into the deep powder. When I jump off, I sink down to my thighs. As Ben gets my snowmobile back on to the track he advises me to really lean into the turns and keep off the brake.
A short distance through glades of pines, the track opens up to a large open area the size of a football field. Now we get a chance to open the throttle and see how fast the machines can go. Carving our own circuit, the snowmobiles throw snow everywhere, making vision difficult. At times I had to stand up just to see over the snow spray.
They can get up to speeds of 80km/h depending on the conditions (we're not going to break any speed records today). Even though there is no wind there is still wind chill, which really bites once we're moving at over 50km/h. Any exposed skin becomes numb and feels like it's being jabbed by icicles. I'm glad the snowmobiles come with built-in handgrip and seat warmers.
After exorcising our speed demons, we continue through Colorado's breathtaking countryside.
The trail goes through open ground populated by evergreen pines. Once or twice the track cuts through a fairy-tale glade and I can't help thinking it would be very easy to get lost out here. Even with a guide we manage to become separated when the path splits in two. There are no distinguishing landmarks and the trees look the same. Best plan is to stay put and wait for Ben.
The snowmobile is a different beast than my motorcycle or a jetski. Don't touch the brake unless you absolutely need to. You have to really put your weight on to the handlebars to turn because it's controlled by two small skis at the front. To make sharper turns, you need to slide your bum off the seat to transfer more weight into the turn so those front skis have more grip.
Don't forget to wear something balaclava-like over your face and neck. At times you may feel the snowmobile is about to tip - but the worst that can happen is you'll land in soft snow.
Fortunately, I had only the one mishap at the start, but once mastered I had the best fun in Colorado's fantastic winter wonderland.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies twice daily to LA from Auckland, increasing to three daily services from December - March.
The writer travelled courtesy of Colorado Ski Country USA and Travelplan Ski.