LOOKOUT PASS – Spring may be almost a month old, but 135 hard-core snow lovers waited until this weekend to say goodbye to winter.
And what a noisy, gas-powered goodbye it was Saturday on the slopes of Lookout Pass Ski Area on the Idaho-Montana border, just off Interstate 90.
Instead of skiers having fun coming down the snowy slopes, as they did all winter, this crowd had fun racing up those same slopes on snowmobiles that cost as much as $20,000 apiece.
“We call it ‘Race the Face,’ and it’s the 13th year in a row we’ve done it here,” organizer Chris Pfahl, of the Mullan-Lookout Mountain Skyrider Snowmobile Club, said as engines screamed in the background.
Snowmobile racers from as far away as Utah, Wyoming and Oregon joined racers from Eastern Washington and North Idaho for the two-day event, which continues today from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Spectators can watch for free. The ski lodge is open for food and beverages.
Besides awarding cash prizes to winners in 20 classes of competition, Pfahl said the event is a fundraiser for the Mullan-Lookout snowmobile club.
The club spends $25,000 a year to operate a special multitrack diesel-powered grooming machine over 400 miles of snowmobile trails in Shoshone County, Pfahl said.
The grooming of snowmobile trails – much like that on alpine ski hills and Nordic ski courses – helps eliminate moguls and compacts the snow for a longer life.
“I live on a trail and I can ride right out of my house,” said Pfahl, who works as a mining engineer in Wallace when he not pursuing his first love – snowmobiling.
Pfahl wasn’t racing (“I’m too old for that”) but watching and helping other race organizers from the outdoor deck adjoining the lodge at the ski area. A late-morning batch of sunshine made things even better, he said, before afternoon rain reminded everyone that winter was indeed gone.
Nothing, though, deterred the racers, who were equipped with full-face helmets, shin guards and metal chest protectors. Two at a time, they started out in a serpentine slalom course at the base of the hill, then shot straight up the open slopes of the mountain along the chairlift line.
At times they used gymnastic maneuvers, hanging out over their machines as counterbalances when rounding corners.
A large digital clock displayed the time of each racer.
“The real fast ones will get to the top in less than a minute, maybe 54, 57 seconds,” Pfahl said.
One of the fastest racers Saturday was Corey Markovich, a 30-year-old general contractor from Butte. He said he didn’t want to miss the “Race the Face” season-ender, even though the event means his snowmobiles will stand idle until next winter.
Markovich and his wife, April, a mortgage lender, travel somewhere almost every weekend for a snowmobile race. She watches, he races. They occasionally go out for a recreational ride together. “It’s a fun, family-thing to do,” she said.
Last weekend, the couple traveled from Butte to Beaver Mountain, near Logan, Utah, for the season-ending snowmobile racing competition in the Rocky Mountain division.
“I’ve been racing nine years and I love it,” Markovich said.
He brought three sleds with him to Lookout – an improved Polaris “Dragon” stock machine and two faster modified snowmobiles.
His machines are made by Polaris, but there also were Arctic Cat and SkiDoo models on the hill – with some owners displaying the Ford vs. Chevy, Honda vs. Toyota, “mine is better than yours” mindset that fills most worlds of horsepower.
Markovich’s modified sleds had their intake and exhaust ports improved with after-market products supplied by an Idaho company specializing in such equipment.
“It smoothes them up and boosts the horsepower from 140 to maybe 160 or so,” Markovich said of his “mods.”
To get to Lookout Pass, the racer put his three 2007 model year sleds in a 40-foot enclosed trailer, pulled by a late-model, four-door Ford one-ton diesel truck.
And the cost of all those toys?
“I try not to keep track,” said Markovich, a sponsored racer who gets financial help from Polaris, his construction company and others. “I can tell you there’s easily 100 grand rolling down the road there.”
The parking lot was filled with motor homes and other late-model, 4-wheel-drive pickup trucks and various trailers, including several enclosed models made specially for snowmobiles.
“I’m sure this is good for the economy of these small towns, like Wallace and Mullan, that host these events,” April Markovich said. “We’re all going to eat and drink and stay the night here at local motels.”
The only things missing from the couple’s snowmobile-racing weekend, she said, is their Saint Bernard.
“The motel we stayed at last year asked us not to bring the dog if we came back this year,” she said, not offering details.