The distinct whine of snowmobiles cut through the howling, early morning wind in the Deschutes National Forest, about 5 miles north of Dutchman Sno-park. Mike and Austin Alvarez, father and son, and Cale Voos had unloaded their sleds from their trucks by 6 a.m. Their machines would be the first to till ribbons through the fields of untouched, creamy powder at Dutchman Flats. They were on their way to the office: a location they keep as a quasi-secret that is filled with corniced ridge lines and deep pockets of fluffy snow.
“We want to get the good stuff before it’s tracked up,” Austin Alvarez said.
After a recent blizzard doubled the snowpack at nearby Mt. Bachelor ski area, The Alvarezes and Voos couldn’t resist squeezing in a quick powder session before work at the highest sno-park in Oregon. Like many people whose favorite winter activity depends on skis and, say, an 800 cubic-centimeter engine, the trio has been elated by Central Oregon’s change in the weather.
The area had received 8 inches of new snow the night before.
This was the type of snow — both for its consistency and abundance — they spend all year dreaming about. The additional snow unlocked more backcountry while providing softer landings that let these three snowmobilers push their boundaries.
Setting off, they churned their high-end snowmobiles through the snow like Jet Skis through water. Stepping off the machine meant the rider would sink in some instances, up to his hips. The snow was so substantial, even the expert riders were concerned with getting stuck.
“It was like a Champagne-type snow,” Voos, 27, said. “It was light and fluffy. Every time you hit it, it pops and sprays everywhere. It’s just a good time.”
Moon country dreamin’
On this morning, the trio’s mood was playful. They churned powder with their sleds, having perfected a rocking turning method that buries one ski while the other sticks in the air. They made sharp turns by resting a knee on the bench or by altogether standing on one side’s running board. The three snowmobilers handled their machines with a deftness that made them seem weightless. When they arrived within half a mile from the office, extraordinarily deep snow and a narrowing time frame precluded the snowmobilers from reaching their destination. Stopped in a row and shouting above the din of their engines, the group decided to check out “the saddle.” A spiny ridge, the saddle features a hardened snow lip and a steep transition and is located several hundred yards north of Moon Mountain.
“Let’s hit it!” someone hollered beneath a full-frontal helmet.
They rode single file along Snowmobile Trail 7 to Trail 6, sometimes veering off to christen snow banks and thread pine trees. Soon they reached Moon Mountain, which appeared strikingly triangular from its east face. The snowmobilers paused to take it in while snow checkered their line of vision. They longed to conquer it. But thick clouds shrouded the 300-foot peak, and flat daylight hid its bumps and drifts.
They recounted past sessions on the mountain, which involved steep, challenging ascents through trees and rocks. Success is rewarded by barreling down the steep slope.
Moon Mountain, which local snowmobile club Moon Country Snowbusters nods to with its name, might be an ideal emblem of the kinds of terrain that snowmobiling unlocks for public land users in Central Oregon. Located about 5 miles from the Dutchman Sno-park parking lot, Moon Mountain can be visited by those wearing snowshoes or alpine touring skis, but such a trek would be physically taxing — and time consuming. Snowmobiles, whether transportation to a backcountry ski session or simply ridden for fun, are permitted on vast swathes of the Deschutes National Forest. The nonprofit Moon Country Snowbusters, of which all three snowmobilers are members, grooms 250 miles of trails through Wanoga, Vista Butte, Edison, Kapka and Dutchman sno-parks. That figure includes vast stretches of the Cascade Lakes Highway. Snowmobiles offer a quick safety line in the instance that a rider gets injured. The snowmobilers abide by the rule of never riding alone; all carry shovels, first aid, water and rations. They tell family and friends where they will be riding, and when they expect to return.
“It’s always good to have a plan,” Austin Alvarez said.
Riding the saddle
The riders, now fully warmed up, arrived at the base of the saddle. Fat dollops of snow clung to its rim and cascaded like overflowing cream down its side. Austin Alvarez, 24, sparked the action by climbing the steep transition to make a hairpin wheelie and return down the hill, which is the re-entry maneuver.
“It’s a controlled maneuver that’s handy if you’re in the trees; you can turn around without getting stuck,” Austin Alvarez said. “You don’t have to make a big loop, you can just stand it up on the bumper and set it back down on this hill. You look down over your shoulder at where you want to go and it just falls over the top of you and lands pointing back down hill.”
Mike Alvarez is impressed by his son’s fearlessness, and whooped and clapped after Austin Alvarez successfully executed the re-entry on the snowy face. He said his son honed his ease with machinery when he began motocross racing at age 10.
“Believe it or not, when I was a kid I was pretty scared of everything,” Austin Alvarez said. “The more I push myself the more I feel comfortable with it. Every time you go out, you do something that scares you a little bit to get yourself out of your comfort zone. If you just keep doing the same thing in your comfort zone you don’t get any better. Every time I go out I try different maneuvers.”
As far as “jumping sleds,” Austin Alvarez was always fascinated by a snowmobile video series called “Slednecks.” The innovative backcountry riding inspired him to begin documenting his feats. Voos and his brother, Chad, both from Bend, own a snowmobile video company called Clutched Films. They featured Austin Alvarez in 4-minute segments in their Clutched No.1 and No.2 videos that came out in 2015 and 2016, respectively. The Vooses shoot about half of their footage in Dutchman Sno-park, Cale Voos said. They invite Austin Alvarez, who’s sponsored by several snowmobile companies, to filming trips in Idaho, Wyoming and Whistler, Canada.
“Whenever you go somewhere new you have to think outside the box. You don’t know what’s been done before or if someone has jumped off something. You go outside your comfortable zone, and then that seems comfortable, and then you move to the next thing. You just push it every time you go out.”
Mike Alvarez, who co-owns All Seasons RV & Marine in Bend, where Austin Alvarez works in the parts shop, nurtured his son’s love of going fast with annual family snowmobile trips to McCall, Idaho. They’re still an Alvarez tradition.
“It brings back memories of fun times,” Austin Alvarez said.
It was Voos’ turn to rip up the 60-foot ridge-like saddle. He rode up and disappeared behind its mellower backside. The whine of Voos’ machine grew before he shot his machine off the cornice and soared into the air. Still airborne, Voos tapped his brake lever, which stopped the spinning rubber track and caused the snowmobile’s front to angle down, parallel to the face’s transition.
Voos landed his 500-pound craft, the front of which disappeared beneath massive curtains of powder. His skis poked through the downy snow. Regrouping with his friends, who whooped and hollered, Voos dislodged snow from between his goggles and helmet with a gloved finger.
“Atta boy! That looked so good,” Austin Alvarez said.
Even though it was only 9 a.m. and other snowmobilers were just beginning to fill Dutchman Sno-park’s parking lot with their trucks and trailers, it was time for the trio to call it a day.
“I can count on both hands the amount of times I’ve ridden in that deep of snow,” said Voos, who estimates he’s ridden snowmobiles more than a thousand times since he was a toddler. “It’s not fun when you have to leave 4-foot-deep powder.”
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