Leaping the great white divide

By Jon Roe

Eighty metres and 30 centimetres. That’s how far Cassiar, B.C. native Ross Mercer sailed off of a ramp over the frozen lands of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

In an official world record attempt at the world’s largest snowmobile terrain park, the Compound, Mercer gunned the engine on his Ski-doo and nailed the ramp at 126 km/h. Mercer shattered the previous record of 74.6 m.

If you haven’t heard of professional snowmobile jumping, count yourself a member of a large club. The sport is small, but growing.

“There’s probably 20 of us who do it professionally in the world,” said 25-year-old Mercer from his home in Yellowknife. “It’s starting to hit mainstream because of the X-games and these big events that Red Bull’s done. We’ve been making films for about 10 years. The first couple were just kind of ‘Billy Bob’ style, y’know what I mean? Just Billy Bobs rallyin’ around.”

Another example of a fringe sport getting time in the spotlight, snowmobile jumping has been picked up by the corporate “extreme-marketing” craze and interest in the sport is increasing.

“Probably the last five, six years have been when it’s really started to become a sport,” said Mercer. “It’s just in the last two or three years that there has really started to be corporate interest in it as far as sponsorship and the sled manufacturers getting on board. It’s just sort of exploding right now. Every year it just kind of doubles.”

The sport is comparable to professional motocross. Riders enter back country jumping competitions or freestyle tricking showdowns. Though amateurs can enter the events, they don’t stand a good chance of qualifying past the first couple of rounds. Larger events are by invite-only.

Mercer has only been pro since 2003, but he has been riding his entire life.

“I’ve ridden sleds since I was a little kid,” said Mercer. “I’ve always been into hittin’ jumps and stuff. You know how kids are, just hittin’ them small. I had a chance a few years ago to ride with a film company that was making a movie. I just started really pushing myself and trying to go bigger. They were pretty stoked [so] I got into the movie. Things just kind of progressed from there. I’ve kind of made it a full-time job to ride and seek out sponsorship.”

The sport may seem simple, but it requires more dedication and precision than one would think. It’s not as easy as revving up your engine, nailing the accelerator and jumping off a ramp. Control needs to be maintained throughout.

“Control in the air [is important], of course, and controlling your speed because you have to know where you’re going to land,” said Mercer. “You know, for freestyle, you gotta do tricks in the air. It’s all about sled control and that kind of thing.”

The available arsenal of tricks for riders is comparable to motocross. Mercer admits that snowmobile jumping is very similar to motocross, a sport he has a lot of respect for.

“Of course it’s always in the shadow of freestyle motocross, because they’ve been around longer,” said Mercer. “Those guys are super good, they ride year-round. They’re really gnarly. It’s always kind of been in the shadow but it’s just kind of coming into it’s own because of the way back-country is and the fact that guys are getting a lot better hitting ramps. It’s getting to be a really good sport to watch on TV or live.”

Snowmobile jumpers do have an opportunity to practice sans snow, at least if they’re doing distance jumping and freestyle.

“You can hit ramps in the summertime with woodchips rather than snow,” said Mercer. “We all travel a lot. Wherever you live is probably not where you ride for the most part anyway. I don’t do most of my riding at home even though I do live in the mountains. A person can set up a ramp pretty much anywhere. For the back country, you need to have access to the terrain.”

Beyond the year-round training, motocross jumpers also hold another advantage: dirt. When riders hit the ground on a snowmobile, they’re hitting a mix of snow and ice. Predictably, riders face a lot of injuries.

“We’ve all been hurt a lot,” said Mercer. “It happens. Most guys are down for a while each season. Mostly joints, broken backs. We seem to break our backs a lot.”

Mercer himself has gone through his fair share of injuries.

“I broke my back last year,” said Mercer. “I was out for seven weeks. It wasn’t really that bad for me. I was close to getting paralyzed, so that was probably the closest to ending my career or whatever I’ve ever been. I’ve broken a few bones. My knee gives me trouble–I need surgery on my knee. There’s sort of lingering injuries and there were ones that were bad that you kinda get over quickly. Everybody gets hurt a lot.”

Mercer’s age and professional experience are comparable to the other riders on the circuit. At the most, riders have been doing it for eight years professionally.

Because there are only about 20 riders on the pro circuit, it’s a pretty tight group. Though Mercer acknowledges there can be some healthy rivalries, there’s little animosity and they’re all working towards the same goal: promoting their sport.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie because it’s such a small group and a small sport,” said Mercer. “We’re all kind of pushing it, to try and make it happen.”

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