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Afton Hill Climb known as favorite among racers

Luke Rainey is one of the most decorated hillclimbers on the circuit and is a Star Valley native.

◆ Sledders of all levels to compete February 19-21.

That winter day in 1996 is still a blur in his memory. Riding a black, green and purple Arctic Cat ZRT 600, 20-year-old Dirk Hillyard made it to the top of the hill during his class event of the Afton Hill Climb. One corner on the hill was particularly challenging.

“I was able to set myself and my snowmobile up that corner that I didn’t lose momentum. It happened so fast it was kind of a blur. I don’t remember how I made it, but I did. I was excited.”

He was especially excited when he found out he’d won first place in the 600 stock class, one of several classes and experience levels of the annual event sponsored by the Rocky Mountain States Hill Climb Association (RMSHA).

Twenty-five years later, Hillyard is still buzzing a sled up and down hills. But now he does so as president of the Star Valley Ridge Riders Snowmobile Club and taking a leading part in promoting and organizing the 2021 Afton Hill Climb – the 28th year of the event celebrated by “sledders” throughout the mountain west and into Canada. (Note to visitors: calling the machines “snowmobiles” is a sure sign you’re from out of town. Here, they are sleds.)

This week’s Afton Hill Climb, Friday through Sunday, Feb. 19-21, will take place at Grover Park in the Bridger-Teton National Forest with the climbs north up Phillips Canyon – an area, Hillyard described, where you can “see where they dug gravel out of the mountain.”

With some 600 entries in several classes during the three-day event, Hillyard encouraged not only local sledding entrants, but also viewers to cheer them on. There will be restrooms at Grover Park, along with local vendors selling food and apparel. Those wanting to go watch as a family or individually can park in a plowed field on the road to Grover Park, where a courtesy shuttle will pick them up and drop them off. Watching is free. Racing begins at 8 a.m.

For racers, levels include juniors, amateurs, semi-pro and pro with classes in 600 stock, 700 stock, 900 stock and 1000 stock, with other classes broken out from there into modification groups. The first two days are qualifying events, which narrow the final fields to class winners, and a chance to run for King of the Hill. Entry fees for races vary, with pros at $100 a class, while amateurs and juniors are $75 a class.

Speaking by telephone with SVI Media the week prior to the races, Hillyard said riders from youth to trained professionals come to the annual Afton Hill Climb from Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. “A lot of the racers get interviewed and a lot of them will say Afton is their favorite because of the natural challenges and the rough and the jump and stumps” of the hill.

“Afton is a really challenging hill because it’s got a lot of natural challenges,” Hillyard related. “Rocks and hills and a catwalk.”

A catwalk, he added, is a jump in the hill created years ago by a logging company.

Each year, the Star Valley Ridge Riders Snowmobile Club promotes and helps organize the Afton Hill Climb, part of the RMSHA circuit of Hill Climb races this time of year throughout the mountain states. Prior to the Ridge Riders promoting the Hill Climb, Hillyard recalled, the town of Afton promoted and helped organize the race. The year Hillyard won his race, the mayor was Jerry Hanson, who helped promote the Hill Climb, and is now a new Lincoln County Commissioner.

Since the Ridge Riders began promoting the Hill Climb, the group, with the help of fellow sledders with the Sno-Skippers Snowmobile Club, has used the funds they receive in agreement with RMSHA for various local needs.

“We try to give back” to the community,” Hillyard explained.

Last year, the Ridge Riders provided the funds for a beacon check station at a cost of $2,500 installed up Smith’s Fork. The Sno-Skippers club helped spearhead its installation last February with help from Simplot for a movable signpost with a flashing yellow light. The check station allows snowmobilers and other recreationists to ensure their avalanche beacons are transmitting or as a reminder to have one.

“It took us a couple years to buy the beacon check station,” Hillyard related. “We’re going to buy another beacon and put it at Willow Creek.”

Each annual Hill Climb, he continued, is a chance for racers and locals to come together in the outdoors for a fun event. “It brings a lot of people to town so it’s a good shot in the arm for our little town and in the middle of winter when otherwise business is a little slow.”

And in the wake of COVID-19, Hillyard reminded locals it’s a chance to get out in fresh air, social distancing on bleachers provided for viewers. “We welcome everyone out. Come and enjoy it.”

In addition, Hillyard expressed gratitude for the cooperation of the Forest Service, as the Hill Climb is on Forest Service property. “We work closely and have a good relationship with our local ranger district. We operate under a yearly contract with them. [We acknowledge] the Forest Service and appreciate them working with us and allowing us to have this event.”

Hillyard laughed when asked if he still races. “I ride for pleasure now. I let the young bucks [race].”
*For more information on the Afton Hill Climb and the RMSHA race circuit, see www.rmsha.net. For more information on the Star Valley Ridge Riders, see their page on Facebook.

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