RIVERDALE — Randy Sugihara is no stranger to snowmobiling injuries.
The professional backcountry snowmobiler has suffered a blown-out knee and shoulder, a broken foot, tears to just about every muscle in his back, and has always been able to return to his sport as strong as ever. But an accident Feb. 26 could have ended his career, or even his life.
In late February, Sugihara went to Pinedale, Wyo., for a movie premiere for his production company, an event held to promote breast cancer awareness. Afterward, he and fellow sledders decided to ride in the area for a few days.
On the third day of riding, they built a highly technical jump in which the rider had to clear a 90-foot gap to reach the landing slope. Having accomplished such feats before without much trouble, the decision to go for it wasn’t difficult for Sugihara.
This time, however, he came up about five feet short, and he and his sled crashed into the wall, flipping him and the machine up onto the area where he was supposed to land.
“I knew as soon as I launched, it was not going to be good,” he said. “I was too high in the air to bail, so I tried to ditch my sled at the last second, but my body hit the snowmobile.”
Sugihara was flown to Ogden Regional Medical Center, where he learned he had broken his back in six places. While he’s currently bedridden for most of the day, he knows that if his accident had been just slightly different, he could have been paralyzed or killed.
“The first thing I did after it happened was wiggle my toes and fingers,” he said. “That was very positive and fortunate. I lucked out.”
After hearing of the accident, his wife, Stacy, rushed to the hospital to see him.
“When I heard my awesome wife’s voice, that’s when I knew everything was going to be all right,” he said.
Sugihara’s path to professional snowmobiling started with riding dirt bikes, “but after I crashed, I figured snow was softer than dirt.”
He got his first snowmobile in 1995 at age 25, and immediately fell in love with it. He started competing in snowcross races a few years later, followed by asphalt racing at Rocky Mountain Raceways, but after a while decided racing wasn’t really for him. Ever since, he has spent his winters in the backcountry of the Wasatch and other mountains around the west.
“Racing is a hurry-up-and-wait game,” he said. “In the backcountry, you can ride all day with your buddies and family and just have fun. You’re still trying to raise the bar, but you don’t have the stress of competition.”
In the years that followed, he gradually picked up sponsors and officially went pro. He now has more than a dozen sponsors ranging from local equipment retailers to his own auto dealership in Ogden.
He has appeared on the television show “Thrillbillies,” and four years ago started his own production company, Alpine Assassins, to create backcountry snowmobiling films.
Sugihara credits his friends with helping him get through the initial ordeal of his accident. They bundled him in their coats and hats, built a roaring fire next to him, and even curled up next to him to provide extra warmth.
“I was in good hands,” he said. “My friends are heroes in my eyes.”
He said the care of family and friends is also key to his long-term recovery.
“They’re truly healers, without a doubt.”
Friend and fellow rider Alonzo Coby, who was there Feb. 26, said it was “the longest three hours of my life.”
“Randy just had a freak accident,” Coby said. “On any other day, he would have cleared that jump.”
Sugihara said there were some red flags that should have made him reconsider the jump, such as improper snow conditions and flat light that affected depth perception.
“I should have listened to myself, and now I’m paying the consequences,” he said, “but we all acknowledge that things like this are part of the sport. I’m willing to pay the price to live life to the fullest.”
He hopes doctors will clear him to begin physical therapy next week, and is confident he won’t need surgery.
While an accident as serious as his might prompt some people to quit the sport, Sugihara said that option has never been on the table for him.
“Age is becoming a factor, but I have every intention to go out and keep ripping it up,” he said.
He also has family to consider, but Stacy and their two sons, ages 10 and 13, are also skilled riders who have taken to snowmobiling.
“It’s our family sport, and the family that plays together, stays together.”