Rider Progression – By Collin Marsden
Rider Progression. We’ve all heard of it. Since the explosion of backcountry and mountain riding it’s a common theme echoed around the world of snowmobiling. But what is it exactly? Is it learning and practicing new skills and techniques? Maybe it’s making better decisions while traversing challenging terrain. Or is it upgrading or customizing your sled to better suit your needs as a rider. Rider Progression is all the above, and more. You can ask twenty seasoned backcountry riders what Rider Progression is and you will get many different answers. Rider Progression is personal. It’s a little different for all of us. The moment we turn the skis off the trail, stand up on the sled and put the wrong foot forward it we begin our progression, and it never really ends. As humans, we have an instinct to explore, and push boundaries, to seek out new surroundings. It gives us a sense of freedom. Combine this instinct with a snowmobile, and it motivates us to leave the trails behind and push into the deep. As we journey deeper, we continuously move out of our comfort zone, and that’s how we progress as riders.
I began my foray into the world of Rider Progression in 2014 when I decided to take part in a Sledcore Ride Clinic. I went there looking for instruction, and while I got plenty of that, I also met a great bunch of likeminded people of all different skill levels. Meeting people who also are looking to get outside their comfort zone is fundamental to Rider Progression. You need to have people to ride with. Other people who are also pushing themselves outside their comfort zone. Not all riders out there think it’s a great day having to pull you out of a bad stuck twenty-five times, and those people will probably forget to call or text you when they head out on the snow again. But when you hit the snow with others who want to push further, every stuck is a valuable lesson. The events leading up to a stuck are often the highlights of the day. You may have witnessed your buddy do something amazing, or witness an epic fail, either of which is well worth going over to grab a ski, or saw off a tree or two.
In March of 2017, I was very fortunate to be invited to spend a weekend in central with some Sledworthy Alumni, or veterans as they like to call themselves. The group consisted of Andrew and John Goldsworthy, Justin Daniels, and “The Chef” Andrew Tilley. Joining us was Jordan Swyers, A.K.A. Young Maverick. The weekend was centered around the Hodge’s Hills Tree Zones. I had a quick flyby of Hodge’s on a tour with my wife earlier in the Winter, and I was more than thrilled at the opportunity to get back there so quickly with a gang of powder slayers. Going there with these guys would give me an opportunity to see what this Tree Zone riding was all about. For me it was the ultimate test of where I was at in terms of my riding. In the four years since my first experience with Sledcore, I had become comfortable executing all the basic maneuvers and techniques taught to beginners. From basic boon- docking, side-hilling, downhill U-turns, and elevators, I could hold my own in typical deep powder and hilly terrain. Also In those four years, I further developed my Rider Progression by working on personal fitness and endurance, and I had upgraded and customized my sled. All of this to continuously improve and gain access to more terrain. Now I had a chance to put it all to the ultimate test.
Although I have picked up most of the physical skills required to traverse challenging backcountry terrain, I still find myself in trouble from time to time. It’s usually failure to commit fully to a maneuver or slight hesitation due to being unsure of the outcome. It’s a mental block. This is probably the biggest hurtle many riders will face. There is probably no terrain less forgiving to the slightest hesitation than Hodge’s Tree Zone, so to say it was outside of my comfort zone would be an understatement. I knew going in, it would be challenging, and by tagging along with these veterans I would be forced to put myself into uncomfortable situations to keep up with the group. I made the short trip from Pasadena (NL) and met the group bright and early on Saturday morning at The River Shack in Badger. The group of vets had traveled from the East coast on Friday night and had some severe trailer issues during their trek across the island. The boys had tired faces when I got there and were a little slow getting on the move. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or their aging years catching up to them, but I was sure to remind them of the latter whenever I had an opening. As for the trailer, I am sure there is a great story coming to Sledworthy with all the details of ‘The Night the Trailer Died’ as it was quite entertaining to hear the events first hand.
Once we hit the snow however, it was clear these guys were in their element. We wasted no time ripping up the trail en route to the Tree Zone. The guys were shredding the entire way. Entering the tree zone there is no transition, no time to mentally prepare yourself. One instant you are in open country, and then suddenly you are on a steep side slope surrounded by trees. As we ventured in deeper, my heart was pumping. It was pure adrenaline. Sled on edge, weaving our way through the trees. I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to keep up. Being in constant motion and keeping my sled on edge, I never had time to think about what I was doing. Without realizing it, my instincts had taken over. I was staying out of trouble because I was focused and committed. I did ok while we were traveling, but when we stopped to play, and take some pics, things changed. The moment the camera appeared, I started thinking instead of just doing.
Very quickly I found myself in trouble. After making a couple of rookie mistakes, my confidence left me. Without the confidence to commit fully to the lines I was picking, I found myself stuck more and more. I started feeling really frustrated, and for a moment I thought I was too far out of my comfort zone. Part of me just wanted to just give up. Luckily for me I was riding with a great bunch of veteran riders. The savvy vets recognized immediately that my day was getting away from me. They had all been there before. I remember Andrew G coaching me through a very difficult downhill u-turn, on a very steep slope. I had to turn towards the trees on my left and use the shift in center of gravity to get my sled on it’s right side and side-hill to the right across the slope. It was very intimidating. I know I looked at him like he was crazy because of what he had suggested, and I came back at him with a “Hell No!” I was essentially turning into disaster and if I didn’t fully commit to the move, I wouldn’t have an out. But Andrew continued to persist and build up my courage. He knew I could do it, he just had to get me to try. I remember thinking he is not going to give up or shut up so I gave myself a “Let’s Go”. It may have been two other words, but one of them would not be appropriate for this article and I’ll leave it to your imagination what they were. I took a deep breath and dropped off the little ledge onto the slope. I felt a sudden rush as I pointed the skis left towards impending disaster. However, I did not look at the trees below, I kept my focus on the group of guys and sleds waiting for me to my right. I naturally felt the sled want to roll to the right, and getting my left foot on the right running board the sled came up on its edge and curved right. From there it was an easy controlled side-hill across the face to where the guys were waiting. Andrew was probably more enthusiastic that pulled it off than I was. That’s why he is such a great guy to ride with. As a took my time and side-hilled across, I felt a huge weight come off my shoulders. I proved to myself that I could do this. After that, the rest of the day was awesome, I still had my share of stucks, but they were from determination, not hesitation. I never thought about the camera for the rest of the day. I just focused on my lines and observed the others. I also got to help pull a few skis, as I got to see firsthand that Hodge’s is challenging for even the best of them.
If you’re interested in riding the Hodge’s Tree Zone, we definitely recommend The Rivershack in Badger (NL). Their website is Rivershack.ca – incredible view of the Exploits River, wicked kitchen, three large bedrooms with two double beds in each room. Ten minutes East on the NLSF trail and you’re at the cross point on the highway which leads you into the Hodge’s. If you’re not into the tangly tree sloped stuff…don’t worry, this trail system will allow you to circle the Hodge’s and also access the highest point. There’s something for everyone in there.