By Ben Hancock
We have seen in the last decade that snowmobiling has moved from being a family sport to being a sport that is more done with just dad or mom going out and riding, and kids stay home. To help bring the family back into the sport, we are having a Kid’s day coming up on 23 March 2019. Our goal is to help get families involved in snowmobiling.
This is going to be a great event full of fun and education. We want families to come and see if they like snowmobiling, with lots of fun and games for the kids to make this a day to remember. We are also going to have lots of great information on what you should wear, activities you can do, and avalanche safety. For example, to help kids understand how to use their avalanche gear, we are going to have games that will help teach kids how to use their avalanche beacon and gear. We will also have food and snacks for the day with prizes and giveaways. Come have a great time learning and experiencing snowmobiling with your family on March 23rd, 2019 at the Monte Cristo parking lot.
By Bob Stockwell, Salt Lake Valley Snowmobile Club President
Riding in the West provides incredible experiences. The mountains that we like to call our snowmobile homes are epic, rising thousands of feet and capturing snowfalls that, during great years, are measured in double-digit feet totals.
The combination of altitude, slopes, and snow that make the Western part of North American such an incredible place to ride also unite to make it an incredibly dangerous place to ride. And when you add in the capabilities of the modern snowmobile, riders easily put themselves into peril, often without realizing it.
Of course, I’m referring to the nearly omnipresent avalanche danger. In Utah this season, with the early snowfall and the regular storms dropping huge amounts of unstable snow onto our mountains, we have experienced the deadliest avalanche season in years.
With these realities in mind, over a dozen riders from the Salt Lake Valley Snowmobile Club (SLVSC) headed out into the Soapstone area of the Uinta mountains in late February to practice avalanche rescue skills. For this practice, the SLVSC crew was accompanied by three of the Utah Snowmobile Association board members: Cal Taylor, Justin Bagnell, and Matt Lund, each experienced riders with AIARE training, plus Mike Fogg from the Weber County Search and Rescue team.
The must-have gear when riding in the backcountry is pretty necessary: a modern transceiver (beacon), probe, and shovel. And yet, many riders only seem to carry one or two of these critical tools. Probes are usually the tool typically left out of a rider’s kit. The simple reality is that without all of these tools with you and in proper working order, avalanche survivability decreases significantly. The bonus tool is an avalanche airbag, as this is the one item a rider can use during an event to improve their chances of survival.
As we got into the field and our leaders set up the practice scenarios, the lack of gear within our group became quickly apparent. While we did have 100% of our riders wearing operational beacons, we found that about 30% of our crew didn’t have probes, and more than 20% didn’t have shovels. Through conversation, we learned that every rider, who wasn’t carrying their gear, actually owned the tools but didn’t think it was essential to have it all with them that day.
The first 15 minutes of rescue are critical. If you’re able to dig out the face of the victim within that time, over 90% of the time the recovered person survives, but after 15 minutes, the survival rate plummets. The key takeaway here is that there just isn’t much time when a rider is trapped under an avalanche. In our drills, SLVSC members found out how difficult it is to dig out snow approximately 1.5 meters deep on a slope, with the average time to dig down to the target running just over 15 minutes. And this wasn’t avalanche debris, which is much more difficult to move. We need to be better to ensure our friends have the best chance to survive.
We practiced beacon search, probe, and shoveling, before combining the three skills to work through a staged avalanche scenario. As one of our members shared with me at the end of the day, “This was much harder than I ever expected. I’m really glad we did this practice today.”
A common attitude about avalanche by riders is that if they ever trigger a slide, they will just outrun it on their high-powered sled. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, an average-sized dry avalanche travels around 80 mph, and it’s nearly impossible for someone to outrun an avalanche or even have time to get out of the way. Add to that the fact that the avalanche danger we have faced all season throughout the West is that our slides are deep and wide, often triggered remotely breaking hundreds of yards across.
Another topic during our training was “effectively riding alone.” Simply, this means that you’re riding with a person or people that can’t get you out if you get slid. Many factors come into play in this scenario: of course, tools and training are critical, but so is the riding skill of your companions. In December of 2018, right at the beginning of our season this year, a rider died near the Wyoming Range near the Horse Creek Trail and died as a result of effectively riding alone. The rider triggered a small avalanche and was buried in less than 20-inches of snow underneath his snowmobile, an accident that in most cases should have been survivable. But his companion that day did not have the riding skills to get to the buried rider, which likely caused the unfortunate outcome.
As backcountry riders, and especially as members of local clubs and the USA, we must do all we can to get the knowledge, get the tools, get the training, and practice our skills to give ourselves and members of our riding community the best chance of surviving a worst-case scenario. At the SLVSC club, this practice will become at least an annual event, and I recommend that all riders find time to practice these skills on your own rides. You may give up an hour of your riding day, but that’s more than a fair trade to make sure everyone comes home alive at the end of the day. For information on AIARE motorized courses you can take, please visit https://avtraining.org/aiare-motorized-program/.
By Andy Nassetta and Craig Gordon from the Utah Avalanche Center
The 2018-19 winter is best remembered for the abundance of snow and consistently stormy weather, making headline news throughout the west… and for a good reason. It’s an epic winter in nearly every snowbelt community on the west coast. Unfortunately, avalanche accidents eclipse the good news of deep riding and fist bumps at the trailhead and this seasons avalanche fatalities hit close to home here in Utah. Tragically, five Utah based family’s lives have been changed by avalanche accidents. And sadly, these stories could’ve had a different outcome at the end of the day with a better understanding of the avalanche danger, avoiding the terrain where that danger exists, along with wearing and knowing how to use avalanche rescue gear.
Knowing how we got to this point is critical, and I think we can learn quite a bit from a few key elements. As a matter of fact, four of the avalanche accidents in Utah all had common themes.
Regions that experienced avalanche accidents this winter usually have inherently shallow snowpack structure with weak, basal layers (faceted, sugary snow) forming near the ground. The weak layers often take long periods of time to heal, sometimes all winter.
And while these zones see their fair share of avalanches each winter, because of their geographic location, don’t often see big storms producing dense, heavy, wind-driven snow like we saw this winter. We all know this has been an unusual winter. And in the avalanche business… unusual weather produces unusual avalanches.
This winters snowpack structure was tricky (strong snow overlaying weak snow), and deep, dangerous avalanches could be triggered from a distance or even low on the slope in the flats. With this setup we don’t even need to be on steep terrain in order to trigger a dangerous slide, we just need to be connected to it. Triggering avalanches low on the slope is especially dangerous for sledders, because once we kick the legs out from the snowpack, we’re right in the crosshairs of a deep, dangerous slide.
In each of the avalanche accidents (three snowmobilers, one skier), the groups lacked a full complement of avalanche rescue gear. Remember- it’s critical to carry all the gear because the beacon leads to the probe, which leads to the shovel, which leads to my partner. If I’m missing one piece of gear, I’m missing a critical component to help rescue my buried partner.
You can clearly see, each piece of equipment is reliant on one another to perform a successful rescue. Even more important than having the gear is knowing how to use it.
Modern technology makes rescue equipment more user-friendly each season and the list of excuses to not carry the equipment and get the training to use it is dwindling. Not only do we carry the rescue equipment to stack the odds of survival if we become buried, but we also have a responsibility to our riding partners to offer the confidence in our ability to carry out an avalanche rescue. One of the best feelings as a backcountry rider is being solid in your ability, as well as your partners’ abilities to perform a rescue. Get the gear, get the training and ride with partners who chose to do the same.
Relying on an outside rescue. In everyday life, if we have an emergency, a fire for instance, we pick up the phone and have the fire department responding in no more than five minutes. Unfortunately, an emergency in the mountains cannot always be addressed in the same manner. Response times are much longer for a search and rescue party to reach the scene of an incident than it does the fire department to get to the burning house. In an avalanche event where someone is buried and only has fifteen minutes to be dug out, we are our partners best chance of survival.
When buried in an avalanche event, if not part of the 25% of victims that die from trauma taking the ride, and dug out by our partners within the first fifteen minutes we have a 90% chance of survival. After fifteen minutes has passed our odds of survival are greatly reduced to about 30%.
What are the takeaways from these statistics? That we need to be prepared for our own rescue and are responsible for our own safety and well-being when traveling in avalanche terrain and the backcountry. In typical avalanche incident where a person is caught, even if lucky enough to get them out in 15 minutes, it is very likely that they sustained trauma throughout the ride.
Maybe that trauma was only a sprained ankle, but now you are unable to ride out of the drainage because it is too painful to work the sled. A small injury can quickly turn into an environmental emergency where you find yourself stuck in the woods for the night – things could turn ugly if ill-prepared.
And finally… the most important thing-
We all want to come home safely to our families at the end of the day, and avalanche avoidance is key. Please join me in helping to spread the avalanche gospel. Inform your riding buddies to check their local avalanche forecast. Remember…. the Utah Avalanche Center issues statewide daily avalanche advisories at utahavalanchecenter.org