JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - They’re the rodeo clowns of the World Championship Snowmobile Hill Climb.
When the brave souls who race their 500-pound machines toward the summit of Snow King Mountain, they have peace of mind knowing that 1,500 vertical feet away is an army of volunteers willing to throw their bodies into harm’s way to save the rider or the machine.
What’s in it for volunteers?
Other than a free sandwich and a cookie at the bottom of the hill, being a member of the hill help team provides excitement and the best seat in the house.
“I love it,” said Marty Post, an eight-year veteran of the volunteer contingent. “It’s a huge adrenaline rush. It is dangerous, but it’s just too fun. It’s why I keep coming back.”
Many of the hill helpers are amateur snowmobilers themselves. They say they don’t want to see good snowmobiles get damaged. Some of the machines can cost $30,000, and nobody wants to see $30,000 tumble down the steepest section of Snow King.
“A big part of it is we’re really into snowmobiles, and we don’t want to see them wrecked,” Derek Mortensen said. “We like to be here so we can help save them money. You’ve got to respect those expensive sleds.”
Mortensen was visiting from Afton. While there’s an inherent danger in the activity, he said, quick thinking helps avoid disaster.
“I’ve had a sled go on top of me and a rider fall off on top of me,” Mortensen said. “I had to catch the rider and then the sled.
“There’s a danger involved,” he said, “but you have to be smart and pick and choose what you’re going to do. You wouldn’t stand in front of a freight train to stop it. If it’s coming too fast, you get out of the way, but if it’s within your ability to help, you stop it.”
Some of the hill helpers joke in the face of danger.
“I just got thrown from a sled and I’m OK,” Shannon Mortensen said after a particularly exciting rescue in this year’s race.
Mike Turner, also of Afton, said there’s a social element, too.
“It’s a chance to see friends you’ve grown up with climbing,” Turner said. “We’ve got a couple friends from back home that are out here, and we want to help them out and support them.”
If the hill help can’t catch a sled in time, it rolls down to a net strung high on the slope between a chairlift post and a tree.