By Sarah Pridgeon
Female racers are sometimes in short supply during Jackson Hole’s annual Snow Devils World Championship Hill Climb and it’s unusual for a participant to hail from Sundance. Chrystal Cooper of Sundance High School claims both these distinctions and, having entered her first competitive event just a week ago, is bracing herself for this weekend’s 1500-foot climb up the face of Snow King Mountain.
Though snowmobiles have been part of Cooper’s life since she was a toddler, this year marks the beginning of her competitive career. She competed in Pinedale’s White Pine Snowmobile Hill Climb on March 8 and, particularly for a first-time participant in a sport that’s much like a high-speed backwards downhill ski race, showed great promise.
“It was my first time racing and I was in the 800 stock class, 800 improved stock and 800 mod,” she says.
The first day of the event involved time trials. In the stock class, she took fifth place out of 10, was eighth in improved and was third in the mod class – all good enough to qualify the next day’s finals.
In Sunday’s finals, Cooper continued her strong debut, finishing fifth in the mod and improved classes and eighth in the stock after missing the final gate.
Of course, for someone who climbed onto their first skidoo at the ripe old age of three, competing is a natural progression.
“I just got the urge that I wanted to do it and try something new,” Cooper nods. “I always said I was going to do it and this year I followed through.”
Cooper now races for three sponsors: Star Valley Skidoo, DelMar Suter and Ray Carter.
“I ride all three of their sleds,” she says. “My dad knew DelMar and he told him that they needed women riders for the shop, so he told him that his daughter could ride and DelMar said ‘heck yes’!”
Her passion for snowmobiling blossomed early but unexpectedly – at first, it seemed like the last hobby that would ever appeal to her.
“I was so scared that first time,” she smiles. “When I was little, I hated the sound of snowmobiles and I would cry – but now, to me, the louder the better. Back then it was more like butterflies than adrenaline, but now it’s wide open.”
It wasn’t long before she progressed from her tiny beginner’s machine to a Yamaha Snow Scoop, eventually moving into full sized snowmobiles as she became a teenager. She practices by riding up in the Bearlodge at the weekends and after school, whenever she can grab some daylight.
“I’m so thankful to my dad for helping me to get where I am and taking his time to help me get better at it. He takes me out to practice,” Cooper says.
“[Our routine] is different every week because my dad works rotating shifts, so it can go from two hours in a week to six.”
Jeff Hodge can also claim part-responsibility for her skill level, she says.
“I obviously thank my dad for getting me this far but also Jeff Hodge, who takes me out riding and gives me pointers,” she explains.
“His little boy rides with me, we’re like two peas in a pod. He’s going to be doing a hillcross race in Deadwood in April – he’s 11 and calls himself my biggest fan.”
The hills of the Bearlodge may not quite measure up to Jackson Hole’s almost vertical rise, but to Cooper that’s an exciting prospect.
“I think that, after last weekend, I can come out strong again. It’s definitely a mental sport, you have to be positive and mentally prepared and have self-confidence and courage,” she says.
“I’m most excited about having a chance at a world title, that’s a big deal to me, and it should definitely be an experience. Once you punch the throttle, there’s a feeling in your gut – the adrenaline rush.”
Cooper believes that she will be among fewer than 20 competitors in the pro women’s class.
“Since I’m 17, I could have raced in the junior class but I chose not to because some of the boys that are 17 could kick my butt, so I went to the next available class for me,” she laughs.
“It feels good to be in the pro women’s class and riding for [my sponsors].”
Her proud parents will be standing on the hill to witness her in action.
“My dad will be there for me at the bottom of the gate, ready for me to go,” she smiles. “It scares my mom – she didn’t come to Pinedale because she didn’t want to see me get hurt, but she’s coming to Jackson Hole.”
And while the possibility of a world title is her main motivation, Cooper also enjoys the opportunity to meet the like-minded women who compete alongside her.
“I’m racing with a really great group of people and they have their own clique, they’re really sweet girls,” she says, happy to note that the other women took her under their wing as a first-time competitor in Pinedale.
Cooper’s hill climbing adventures are not likely end with this weekend’s event. Competing is something that she sees herself doing as a hobby for many years to come.
“It’s very addictive – it’s an adrenaline rush from the time you unload your sled until the time you leave the hill at the end of the day,” she says.
She plans to attend college in Wyoming so, while the slopes will be a little different, she will be able to continue her practice regime and enter as many competitions as she chooses. But first, Cooper will head to Jackson Hole to begin her career in style.
“Let it rip, tater chip – that’s my saying,” she grins.
The Snow Devils World Championship Hill Climb is an annual four-day event that draws an estimated ten thousand spectators from around the west. It is one of the largest all-volunteer sporting events in the state and the Snow Devils club donates proceeds from the event to a number of charitable organizations throughout the region.
Along with Cooper, former Sundance resident Tom Roby is a multiple time champion on the hill climb circuit and a local favorite at the Jackson event.
If you are unable to travel to Jackson Hole this weekend but would still like to see Cooper in action, the event will be streamed live at www.snowdevils.org. Cooper will be competing on both Thursday and Friday; race schedules will be announced at the event.