How to Drop Cliffs on a Snowmobile
In no other motorized sport can a rider drop larger vertically than on a snowmobile.
Yet, you may have noticed fewer large cliff drops featured in snowmobile media in recent years. There’s a reason for that.
Big cliff drops are unique—which makes them impossible to practice repetitively—and they are dangerous. When a big cliff drop goes wrong, the outcome gets heavy, and fast.
Broken bones, internal and head injuries, avalanches and even death are all very real outcomes that must be considered every time a rider approaches a large drop. There have been times when walking away from a big drop has been the proudest moment of my riding season.
Here’s the process I’ve followed in my progression to successfully and safely execute large cliff drops.
How to Drop Cliffs on a Snowmobile
Finding the Feature
The only way to safely manage the risk of a cliff drop is to first understand all the possible outcomes. Sound excessive? Well it’s not—it’s the process I’ve used for years, working a scenario backwards from the worst possible outcome to success. If at any point there’s a problem along the way that doesn’t have a solution, I walk away. Simple as that.
To find the right feature, you should consider all of the factors below:
It is critical that the take-off angle is either flat or minimally downhill so that you—not gravity—are in control of the take-off speed.
Is it a safe platform to stand on, build a take-off and scope the landing? Viewing the take-off from below and from the side will help ensure that what you intend to stand on is safely supported.
The slope angle of the landing should be 50 degrees or more, with soft, deep and stable snow. For large drops, the steeper the landing the better.
A safe rule of thumb for the length of the landing is a ratio of three-to-one. That means if the drop is 10 feet, the landing length should be 30. This allows for a margin of error if the landing zone is not reached or overshot. Yes, finding long enough landings for big drops is not always easy.
It’s pretty obvious that you don’t want to do big drops in hard snow, but there are other factors to consider as well. For example, warm pow in the landing may stick to your goggles when you touch down, blinding your view and potentially causing a crash after landing.
To assess the snow conditions, first determine which direction the landing slope is facing. This will make it easier to use the weather and snowpack history to estimate the quality and depth of snow in the landing. On steep slopes, snow tends to slough, which can create pockets of hard snow that are difficult to see. The only way to know 100% if the snow is safe is to hike it and probe.
Landing a snowmobile on a slope is like hitting it with a small rocket. The likelihood of triggering a weak layer and causing an avalanche is heightened. If your avalanche training, observations, experience and gut feeling can’t rule out the likelihood of a slide, then you should put it off until conditions improve.
You might be surprised to learn that many of my mistakes over the years have come from underestimating the “What now?” after a landing from a cliff. Risks are increased if the terrain below has trees, rocks or terrain traps. Don’t let the feature blind you to danger lurking down the slope.
Starting the build is my favourite part. It means everything above has been considered, solved and this drop is doable. But it still doesn’t mean I’m committed. So much experience can be learned in the build. A couple key contributors to the success of the build are:
So many riders over the years, myself included, have made critical errors from not having the in-run level from ski-to-ski. Because gravity plays such a huge part in a drop, even a slight side-to-side angle on the in-run can result in a sideways drift that can take you off your landing zone and into a world of hurt.
Line It Up
Whether you’re building the take off by boot stomping or shovelling, taking the time to accurately line up the take-off with the landing will help ensure that you don’t fall off line in the air.
The less your track is spinning on the take-off, the more predictable your speed will be. Packing a solid in-run will help ensure good traction on take-off, which allows the rider to better control their speed.
Choose Your Speed
Speed will be the biggest factor in determining success or failure.
Unfortunately, knowing the right speed to take on a large drop is something that can come only from experience, a strong understanding of gravity and a skillset that I don’t know how to explain.
Sure, you can throw a snowball or some other trick to help gauge the speed required, but there is no substitute for experience here. If you don’t know how much speed you need for a large feature, then you should put it on hold and gain more experience on smaller drops first.
Even when a drop is safeguarded against error, things can still go wrong. That’s why it’s so important to have an emergency plan in place. Do you have the first-aid equipment and training required to manage a trauma incident? Can you communicate with emergency services (is there cell service or a satellite communications device ready) if you need help? Is there enough visibility or daylight left for air support if things go really bad?
Remember, when an injury happens in the backcountry, there is no option to simply call in an ambulance. It is so important to make sure you understand the limited amount of support available, plan accordingly and for your crew to be self-sufficient as much as possible.
You’ve found the right feature. Assessed the risk. Completed the build. Established your take-off speed. You have an adequate safety plan. Your engine is warmed up.
Now comes the ultimate moment of decision. You—and only you—can make the choice to do it or not. The decision needs to 100% organically come from your own true desire, with a full understanding of the risks. Dropping a cliff under pressure or for the purposes of showing off, bragging rights or “Getting the shot” are all red flags that should warn you to stop and walk away.
Finding the landing angle in the air is crucial. One of the hardest parts about cliff drops is being comfortable having the front of the sled drop down to match the steep angle of the landing.
Otherwise, all of the regular principles of a straight air apply to a drop; the only difference is that you’re falling down more than going forward. So if you’re not already experienced and comfortable with straight airs, then work on those first before attempting drops.
Riding Your Line
Once you’ve landed, follow your exit plan to a tee. Yes, your stoke will be extremely high even if it’s only a 2-foot drop—trust me, you’re going to be so pumped. Stay disciplined and stay focused. Ride your line to completion first and then prepare for shouting, fist pumps and high-level stoke from your crew.
My final advice is this: Start small. Find the thrill in accuracy and gain experience. Choose longevity over progression. No matter how far you progress, stay humble and always remember that the mountains are much, much gnarlier. Come home safe to what really matters in life—our families and loved ones.