Recent deaths highlight snowmobile safety concerns
On New Year’s Day, Jacob Kroeger and Gabriel Medina became the latest victims of deadly Colorado avalanches. Both of the men, who were visiting Walden from Iowa, were experienced riders. They were traveling among a group of 10 other experienced snowmobilers when they triggered an avalanche. An avalanche warning for northern Colorado had been issued on the day of the incident.The events on New Year’s Day in Walden serve as a reminder that snowmobile operation cannot be taken lightly.Avalanches are only part of the snowmobile safety picture. Many snowmobiles can travel as fast as cars, yet a license is not required to operate them. Instead, a snowmobile registration, obtainable through Colorado State Parks, is the only requirement for snowmobile use in the state.Even for children, proper training seems optional. Children under the age of 16 must hold a snowmobile safety certificate unless they are accompanied by an adult or someone over the age of 14 who holds a safety certificate, or if they are operating a snowmobile on private land.
The result is more young and inexperienced operators are finding themselves at the helm of machines that weigh up to 600 pounds and can travel upward of 80 miles per hour.”A new snowmobile costs 10 grand and people don’t need to know very much to get on it,” Summit Search and Rescue member Dan Burnett said. “This is very problematic because putting someone on a snowmobile that doesn’t know how to use it is a dicey situation. There’s a lot of skill involved.”Paul Connelly, who books snowmobile rentals in Frisco, said it’s often tough to detect novices.”We’d like to rent only to veterans but a lot of people lie,” Connelly said. “There is really no way to prove it one way or the other.”A lot of tourists think that snowmobiling is like going on a Six Flags ride,” Connelly said. “I have to explain to people that if they get stuck 30 miles out in the backcountry, they’re on their own, even if it’s 20 below.”
To known beginners, Connelly recommends taking a guided snowmobile tour. At Connelly’s shop, The Mountains, the price of a two-hour guided tour is about half the price of renting a snowmobile for a day.Brendan Fitch of Summit Cove has been snowmobiling recreationally for nearly five years. Fitch originally operated a snowmobile at work and then it became a leisure activity, he said.Fitch believes the extreme side of snowmobiling is appealing more to the younger generations. “The things that people are doing today are tenfold more extreme than what they were doing in the past,” he said. “People are jumping cliffs and cornices and trying back flips.”Fitch has seen the fatal devastation that an avalanche can muster first hand. “Unfortunately, I’ve experienced having to pull someone (that was dead) out of an avalanche,” he said. “It all hits close to home.”Fitch seems to have some concerns about the future of snowmobiling. “The sport is going through the roof,” he said. “It’s going to lead to more incidents.”
John Agnew, another Summit County Search and Rescue member, has helped plenty of snowmobilers in trouble. Agnew said he doesn’t mind the fact that an operator’s license is not required for snowmobiling use.”It’s just like using an ATV, dirt biking, skiing, boating or jet skiing – you don’t need a license,” Agnew said. “I guess it’s just part of the American freedoms.”Agnew stresses the importance of individual responsibility and common sense. “We don’t just rescue snowmobilers,” he said. “Deep snow posses more danger for everyone. Whatever it is, people just need to be adequately prepared.”