Shad Free brings his snowmobile off the hill for the final time this season, looping around the parking lot at Grand Targhee Resort before loading it into the back of his truck.
A heavy, thick fog had set in over the mountain April 21 for the second day of the Crazy Horse Hill Climb, and visibility was the hardest obstacle to overcome for the snowmobilers making their runs up the hill. Perhaps doubly so for Free. Taking a pause in sorting his truck bed to make room for his sled, Free leans in to show what looks like a faint halo framing the iris of his right eye.
“I had a corneal transplant in my right eye just a couple of years ago,” he says. “Had a roof staple go through my eye in 1994 and then there were complications. I don’t see very well as it is, so when I have to race in the fog, it’s kind of brutal.”
The stitches in his eye are the remnants of just one in a scroll of injuries the 47-year-old rattles off. There was the femur fracture suffered at Snow King in 2011, when his bone jammed into his hip as he tumbled near the top of the hill. Holding up his right hand, he says he once peeled the thumb off.
“I broke this,” he says, wiggling it. “Tore it off.”
But Free blows off the injuries that came before and the injuries that still could come. The conditions are what kept him from putting the right bow on the end of this season.
“It’s kind of a bummer, ’cause you’d like to go for it all the time,” he says. “You’re a racer. Racers always go for it. So to have to rein it in, that’s a challenge.”
Free is one of only a handful of Jackson Hole snowmobilers who still charge hills across the West in winter. It began in 1999 when he bought his first sled.
“I bought a sled and then just one day I just got kind of a wild hair up my ass and I was like, ‘I’m going to go race.’ And so I did Snow King.”
His foray into hill climbs may have been less about the competition and more about the adrenaline rush he’s chased forever. Before hopping on a sled, Free was a ski racer with the Jackson Hole Ski Club, and then in college competing for Western Colorado University. And before he was Shad Free, the Jackson snowmobiler vying for world championships, he was Shad Free, the guy who took a sled down Corbet’s Couloir.
And was ticketed for it.
The stunt was documented by the SledNecks, a team of snowmobilers that got its start making films about the freestyle stunts guys like Free were tackling in the late ’90s.
“It was just a freestyle movement,” he said. “We were rebellious, we wore all black and just acted like imbeciles.”
The stunt at Corbet’s was a piece of rebellion that still follows him to family dinners. Gene Smalley, the head of the Bridger-Teton National Forest at the time, caught and ticketed Free for the stunt. Ten years later, Free married Smalley’s daughter.
“It was kind of a funny joke,” Free said. “She’s like, ‘Do you want a picture, Dad?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ve got one in evidence!’”
That rebellious ethos never left, but it gave way to a more serious approach to the sport in 2003, which set off a run of eight years of all-out snowmobile racing until the injury at Snow King in 2011.
That stretch resulted in three world championships. He took the 700 improved stock title at Snow King in 2009 and the 1000 improved stock and improved stock King of the Hill titles in 2010. There were two trips to the X Games as well, where Free competed for hillcross titles in Vermont in 2001 and Aspen, Colorado, in 2003.
“It was brutal, and it was really a bummer, too, because I was at the height,” he said of the 2011 injury. “I had just turned 40, and it takes 10 years on Snow King to really figure out that hill.
“It looks like just this steep, gnarly hill, but there’s so many variables. It feels like you’re riding up a basketball sometimes.”
If the hill can be compared to riding on a basketball, this year he rebounded it. In winning the 2019 pro masters improved stock championship, his world title collection now sits at four.
“He’s done everything for the culture of snowmobiling,” Jackson Hole Snow Devils President Jeff Toolson said after a laugh. “He’s the guy that gave snowmobilers a bad name with his stunt off Corbet’s. And he’s the guy that gave it a good name by promoting the sport and sticking behind the club. It’s cool to look back at what he’d done in his past and pretty crazy that he can be successful with how old he is.”
“I’m going to be 48 in June,” Free said, considering what the rest of his career might look like. “My family is so important to me, and this year it took a lot away from them. The preparation, the sled work, the training, everything.”
The full Rocky Mountain Hill Climb Association circuit is off the table now, Free said. He’ll instead focus his attention solely on the World Championship Hill Climb at Snow King. For one, it’s easier on his family, and secondly, he wants a fifth world championship.
“Racing for a world championship at Jackson Hole is why I’m still doing this,” he said. “It’s hard to explain, especially to somebody that doesn’t live in Jackson or doesn’t know the history of the hill climb, and that we’re 43 years into it. … I feel like I’m still talented enough and I’ve got enough of my body left that I can do it.”
Likewise, Free carries a heaping scoop of hometown pride with him when he takes the mountain. With only a handful of Jackson Hole snowmobilers competing for world championships, he wants to do his part in ensuring titles remain in Jackson.
“I think it’s just a passion for being a hometown guy,” he said. “Sometimes in Jackson Hole, snowmobiles get a bad rap, and we’ve gone through all kinds of stuff trying to save riding grounds, and I just want to be there in the end, and I want to support the sport as much as I can.”
As for why there seems to be a decline in Jacksonites competing for titles, both Free and Toolson point to the price tag on the sport, and the risk that comes along with charging up mountains for time.
“The racing has definitely changed,” Toolson said. “These guys are putting $30,000 into a snowmobile. It’s not the rebellious attitude anymore, it’s professional.”
Free’s plans counter that. He said the rest of his racing will solely be on stock sleds, which cuts way down on maintenance costs.
“Keep it simple,” he said. “Gas, oil, grease.”
As for the risk, Free takes a quick glance down his body and decides he’s still in good enough shape. The fear of adding another line to his medical report doesn’t seem to exist.
“I’ve raced my entire life, so I have a higher tolerance for fear,” Free says. “I’m at the point where the only thing that scares me is not going over the top [of the hill]. It went from being fearful and riding on eggshells to now, if I don’t go over the top, I’m pissed.”
He has age 50 in mind for the year he’ll finally hang up the riding gear for good. That will give him three more years racing for world championships.
Hearing that tentative plan, Toolson chuckles.
“I highly doubt it,” he says of Free retiring at 50. “It’s going to be one of those things, mentally he’s going to want to keep doing it, but the physical side is going to catch up to him eventually.
“They’re not all like Shad. Not all of us snowmobilers are like Shad Free.”