How to Get Unstuck
Patrick Garbutt | On 21, Feb 2017
All riders get stuck at some point.
Yep, even some of the best get stuck. It doesn’t happen as often to the better riders, but when it does it’s usually a curse-inducing stuck with a captial ‘S’. Less skilled riders might get their sleds buried in the snow more frequently, but it’s not always the end of the world in those cases. Whether it happens to you or one of your riding pals, chances are good that on any given fresh snow day in the mountains, you’re going to have to get at least one 500lb+ snowmobile unstuck.
The Art of the Unstuck
There are a million factors that play into how much effort it’s going to take to get your sled back on top of the snow again. Obviously, the job is easier when there’s a good-sized crew of dudes to pitch in. But sometimes you might be all on your own, and need to get moving again without the help of your army of sledding pals. You might be upside down in a creek, pinned against a tree or, if you’re lucky, the victim of the ultimate deep day occurrence—the downhill stuck.
What technique you’ll need to use to resolve the problem is highly dependent on the situation. Who is available to help? In what orientation is the sled? What is the snow like (heavy, firm, bottomless)? Are you stuck on a slope?
Whatever the situation may be, you’re going to want to use the technique that requires the least amount of effort. Getting unstuck even once can tire you out quickly, and you don’t want to empty the tank early in the day. Becoming tired leads to getting stuck more, and it can be a vicious downward spiral that can start to break you down mentally as well as phyisically. There are a number of techniques you can use to get unstuck, but using brute strength should be a last resort! The worst thing you can do is injure yourself by straining your back or other muscles and joints. You’re just stuck, don’t pop a hernia dude!
Here are a variety of techniques that you can use to get unstuck, from least-to-most physically demanding. Start at the top and work your way down until you’re free and clear!
Pin and Wiggle
This move works best if you can anticipate a stuck when you still have a tiny bit of momentum left that can translate into a downhill or forward motion. The Pin and Wiggle is pretty straightforward. Grab a fist-full of throttle and throw your weight from side-to-side on the running boards. If you’re on a sidehill, try to hammer most of your weight to the downhill side while pulling on the bars. Pushing away from the slope will help your track tear through the snow piled up in front of your sled and get you moving again.
One caution is that the Pin and Wiggle can sometimes make things worse if it doesn’t work right away. You’re essentially gambling—the play is to bury your track even farther in the hopes of gaining some traction down there somewhere. If there’s nothing to grab, you’ll end up with running boards hung up on snow and your track suspended in the air. When that happens, it’s time to break out the shovel.
A drawback to the Pin and Wiggle is that it doesn’t work well in situations where the sled is stuck facing uphill.
Sometimes all you need is just the tiniest little bump to get you moving and to a spot where your track can hook up again. Have a friend grab your ski loop and apply forward pressure by pulling steadily as you hit the gas. The key for the puller is to know that the puller is only assisting the sled moving forward under its own power. As the puller, don’t hurt yourself by single-handedly attempting to yank the machine out of its trench, which just ain’t happening.
The best bet is to try to “walk” the sled out by applying a small amount of throttle without spinning the track. You can move forward this way in small increments until you’re back on solid snow. Just try not to run over your puller when the sled finally gains traction!
If walking it doesn’t work, then Plan ‘B’ is to mash the gas and hope for the best, but do it knowing that you might make things worse. If you decide to take this route, go ahead and apply the Pin and Wiggle at the same time for your best chance at success.
The Ski Pull obviously works best if you have one pal pulling on each ski, but sometimes even that isn’t enough to get you going again.
The Roll is a fantastic technique to try when you’re on a slope. The steeper the slope, the less effort The Roll requires. It can be done on the flats as well, but you might need a helper or two unless you’re used to moving incredibly heavy things around (think pianos). You’re basically going to roll your sled upside down to get it out of the rut you’ve created, then hopefully stop it rolling somewhere close to right-side-up.
You can execute The Roll from either the uphill or downhill side of the sled. If you’re downhill, just start pulling on the bars to get the sled rolling. But watch out! Once it starts going it might not want to stop, and you’re in its path! For this reason it’s better to perform The Roll from the uphill side of your machine, but sometimes you might need break it loose from the downhill side first.
From the uphill side, you’ll usually just need to lift up on the uphill ski to get things going. The trick will be to stop the sled from continuing to roll down the slope, or stopping upside-down again. Execute the move slowly and with as much control as possible, and sometimes you can grab the track or ski briefly as it goes around to slow the rolling sled’s momentum once it’s started. If it gets rolling out of control, just clear out and let it buck!
Here’s a couple of tips if you’re going to use The Roll. Before rolling your sled, engage the parking brake. That way if your sled does a couple of rolls and ends up facing downhill on its skis, it won’t take off like a rocket.
The second tip is incredibly important if you have electric start. Make sure that your kill switch is pressed down or tether pulled before rolling. Otherwise the weight of the sled on the bars when upside-down can sometimes depress the start button and/or the throttle, and suddenly you have a running sled and a track spinning at 100mph next to your face.
A final word of caution about The Roll is to guard your airbag trigger handle as the rolling sled’s skis and track go flopping past you. Accidental deployments have happened this way before when a ski caught and pulled the handle on its way by.
The Roll is a great method of getting unstuck, especially when you’re alone on a hillside. Be aware that it won’t work if there are any downhill obstacles that the sled will roll into, because this will invariably make things worse if your sled becomes pinned against some object below like a rock or trees.
The Tip Over
This technique works well when you’re stuck on a flat or low-angle slope that isn’t steep enough to execute the Roll and you’re buried deep enough that a Ski Pull isn’t going to cut it. It’s also got to be a situation where you will eventually be able to continue forward in the direction that the sled is facing at the time. You’ll need a buddy for this one.
To execute the Tip Over, stand on one running board and pull hard on the bars to get the sled onto its side as best you can. With one person holding the sled there, with the track suspended out of the rut as much as possible, the other person uses their feet to stomp down the snow on the far side of the rut to fill it in as much as possible. This nets two things—first, the snow that was suspending the sled by its running boards is knocked down, and second, the hole is filled in somewhat with packed snow that will serve as traction.
Next, switch sides and repeat the process, tipping the sled the other way. Now, when that’s done and you flatten the sled back onto its skis, the snow hanging up the running boards should be mostly cleared and a bunch of new, nicely packed snow should provide good traction under the track.
Follow the Tip Over with a Ski Pull and you should be on your way.
Sometimes just swinging the front or the rear of the sled to one side is enough to buy it the traction it needs to get going. Unfortunately this technique requires more grunting than most, but some people just can’t get enough of it. It’s a good choice when you’ve got to get your sled turned in a new direction, either because you’ve spun out going up an icy hill, or there is some obstacle in your path.
The key is to spend some time stomping out a pad for your to drag/lift the end of the sled onto. Try to make your pad either level with or below where your sled is sitting so you’re not working against gravity. If you’re stomping out an area for the rear of the sled, try to avoid packing the skid full of snow, because that will just make it harder to lift/pull.
Try to avoid this one at all costs! There are rare occasions when it might be necessary to straight-up muscle your sled out of a hole, such as a nose-first creek crossing gone wrong. Otherwise, be willing to try just about anything other than the Deadlift, which is your best chance of blowing a disk in your back or suffering some other crippling injury.
If you’re dead-set on the Deadlift as some guys invariably are, at least give yourself your best chance at success. Spend a little time clearing some snow around your machine and packing down a solid area for footing. Make sure you have as many hands on deck as possible, and do a count so everyone’s efforts are in sync. Use your legs and keep your back as straight as possible when lifting.
A sling, which is a sewn loop of nylon webbing used by climbers, can be used to help pull and lift on a sled with less bending. Simply girth-hitch (pull a loop through itself) the sling around a bumper or ski loop, and you can pull with a straight back instead of being bent over. You can even let go of the sling if your buddy needs to keep the sled moving past you, and the sling will stay attached to the machine for a later retrieval. A sling that is around 1 meter long seems to work best, offering enough length for a straight-backed pull, without the risk of getting tangled in the track if you let go of your end.
Don’t be afraid to pull out your shovel! Digging out around your sled might be a little more time-consuming, but it’s easy to do and there’s almost no risk of straining your body, which can’t be said for any of these other techniques. It’s also good practice for avalanche rescue! You get to practice chopping snow blocks and learn how to put your shovel together quickly.
Karma—it’s not just for Buddhists anymore
The word karma means action, work or deed and it refers to the principle of cause and effect in which the actions (good or bad) of an individual influences the future of that person. Doing a good deed and helping out a stuck buddy can influence your own future in a positive way. Or maybe you’ll just realize how much getting stuck sucks, and you’ll try harder not to do it yourself! Either way, pitch in and help out.
However, there is one important caveat here, and it applies to situations in which you or a friend is stuck on (or under) a slope with avalanche hazard.
Your group should never expose more than one rider at a time to a significant slope with avalanche hazard. Here’s a case in which three riders were involved in a fatal avalanche after two sledders approached another who was stuck on a slope.
That means that if one rider is stuck on, or under a slope, they should work to get unstuck on their own while the rest of the group watches from a safe location. This way your group will not put more riders at risk than are necessary; and in the event of an avalanche, there will be one less victim and one more rescuer. Always practice safe habits in avalanche terrain!
Check out our “How to Get Unstuck” video from our formative Sledshot.com days. It shows a few of the timeless techniques discussed above. And happy digging!