Snowmobilers fly up Powderhorn for event

Dale Shrull / The Daily Sentinel Cole Willford of Fruita catches air off a jump during qualifying run at the Rocky Mountain States Hillclimb Association race on Saturday at Powderhorn Mountain Resort.

Dale Shrull / The Daily Sentinel Jesse Hotchkiss of Hotchkiss motors through the uphill course at Powderhorn Mountain Resort on Saturday during the Rocky Mountain States Hillclimb Association race on Saturday.

Dale Shrull / The Daily Sentinel Ben Cilensek of Rock Springs, Wyoming takes on the uphill course during the Mountain States Hillclimb Association race on Saturday at Powderhorn Mountain Resort.

The engine whine sounds like a howling cat, then it hits its crescendo as the rider cranks it to full throttle.

Leaning to the right, then back to the left, crouching, he manipulates the sled to get maximum speed and aerodynamic position. The skis pop off the ground, then comes the first jump and the sled is airborne.

After the sled returns to earth, the rider again twists the throttle to full, the track churning through the snow and spewing it out the back, as the whine of the engine fades into the distance mingling with the aspen trees.

This is snowmobile uphill racing and for the first time ever, Powderhorn Mountain Resort hosted this unique type of racing.

The Rocky Mountain State Uphill Association race welcomed the top racers from all over the West, including Canada, on Saturday.

A number of local racers who travel the circuit were thrilled to stay close to home for a change.

“I travel a lot of miles since most of the circuit is up in the Northwest part of the Wyoming-Idaho border,” said Cole Willford of Fruita. “It’s nice to be close to home.”

The three-time world champion uphill racer competes in eight or nine events a year. That means his Ford F-450 pickup truck with a massive trailer that carries his four snowmobiles puts on around 12,000 miles a season.

In 2015, Willford competed in the Winter X-Games in Aspen in the HillCross event.

“I enjoyed the head-to-head competition and big jumps, and overall thrill factor that it had to offer,” he said. “It was just another level of competition that opened some horizons for me as far as getting recognition (and sponsorships).”

During Saturday’s qualifying runs, Willford showed the speed and handling ability that has made him one of the best uphill racers over the past five years. Even at 39, he remains one of the top riders on the circuit.

“The best thing about hill climbs is the overall competition it gives you. It challenges you, not only physically but also your mental strength,” he said.

One by one racers took off from the bottom Powderhorn and raced all the way to the top in a time-trial format.

Most, if not all competitors, point to the great camaraderie of the sport and the willingness to support all riders even in the heat of competition.

Eben Abshire of Grand Junction, just missed qualifying for the X-Games in SnoCross in the past but now, he’s fine with racing in uphill competitions.

“The hill-climb atmosphere is definitely a lot different,” he said. “There’s such great camaraderie here. Everybody wants to win but everybody supports everybody and I really like that.”

Willford agreed: “There’s great friendships among all of us, it’s something that’s really unsurpassed compared to other competitions.”

Abshire, a Paonia native, won a semi-pro title in the past but had a health scare that forced him off the sled for about 13 months.

Stomach cancer hit the 
35-year-old father of two hard, but he’s back healthy again and still loves to compete.

“I enjoy it. I truly do enjoy the competing side of it — the want to win,” he said.

The riding skill of the high-level riders is on display with every run. Riders will move both feet to one side or the other to take on turns, stand at times and crouch at other times,  lean in all different directions, all the time keeping the speed as high as possible.

In the modified divisions, racers make improvements to the entire sled to make it as fast as possible.

“It’s really unlimited to what we can do to the sled,” Willford said.

Upgrading shocks and suspensions, different skis, more aggressive tracks for better traction, turbo engines, smaller gas tanks, ergonomic handle bars, these machines are built for speed and handling.

Depending on the course and steepness, modified sleds can hit top speeds of more than 60 mph.

At Powderhorn, the course was a little longer than many courses on the circuit with top riders zipping from bottom to top in around 90 seconds.

Johnathon Durmas, 17, is just getting up to speed in his uphill racing career. He loves that it’s similar to taking the sled out into the backcountry.

“You have to be level-headed and good at mountain riding,” he said. “It’s like stuff you do in the backcountry, but you have to have a racer mentality.”

Willford and Abshire both take on mechanic duties too, working of their sleds, which can be quite the time-consuming task.

“I have a love-hate relationship with it,” Abshire said with a laugh. “I enjoy it to a certain degree but getting three sleds together for a weekend is a lot of work.”

Willford offered the same kind of chuckle about that love-hate relationship.

“It is rewarding to have the ability to be mechanically inclined but by the end of the season it takes a toll.”

A lot of riders will race three different sleds in different categories like stock (a sled with no modifications) to modified or improved. Engine sizes can range from 600 up to 1,000 cubic centimeters.

Abshire said uphill racing, whether it’s qualifying or finals, comes down to making the most of a single run.

“There’s butterflies when you go to the line because you have only one shot at it, but after that it’s just racing and reacting,” he said.

Racing continues today with the finals starting around 8 a.m.


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