Practice Avalanche Skills Regularly to Increase Survivability

March 14th, 2019

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/.