Snowmobilers top avalanche fatalities | VailDaily.com
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Snowmobilers top avalanche fatalities

Dan Kelly
Special to the Daily In 2002-03, 14 snowmobliers lost their lives in avalanches.
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During the winter of 2002-03, 14 Snowmobilers lost their lives in avalanches.

That same winter, five backcountry skiers were killed by slides in America. Three backcountry snowboarders were killed.

In the winters since 1985, 116 Snowmobilers have died in avalanches, including Darin Heitman, who died March 10 in Summit County. The next highest number of avalanche fatalities was 41. That dubious honor belongs to out-of-bounds skiers.

Part of the reason snowmobilers top the list seems to be the rapid increase in snowmobile technology over the past 10 years. Today’s high-end sleds have tracks 166 inches long. Longer tracks increase dramatically the snow flotation abilities of a snowmobile.

Combined with powerful engines, the new machines are strong enough to propel a rider deep into danger-laden territory in very little time.

“The technological advancements that they’ve been making will actually take people where most of them shouldn’t be with just a twist of a thumb,” said Jim Nicholas, a mechanic at Altitude Motorsports in Breckenridge. “It used to take an extremely skilled rider a day to get into the open bowls.”

“Without the proper backcountry knowledge, you can get yourselves in a load of trouble,” he said.

Nicholas said most newcomers to the sport don’t have the requisite training, knowledge or survival gear to travel safely in the backcountry. Luckily, these newcomers stick to the established trails instead of venturing into dangerous locations.

In contrast, most customers that buy sleds at Altitude are local skiers and snowboarders that Nicholas said are better equipped for backcountry travel. “They’re usually better prepared,” he said. “That just comes from living in a place where you’re going to see the effects.”

But the more prepared riders are often the ones that get caught in avalanches. Seasoned riders want to find more exciting and challenging terrain.

One of the activities that advanced riders tend to engage in is called “high-marking.” Highmarking is the process of riding a sled as far as possible up the side of a slope before gravity, friction and engine limits conspire to necessitate turning around.

High-marking can dislodge the base of a loose layer of snow, causing a slide to occur higher up the hill. When that happens, all the rider can do is outrun the avalanche.

“It’s riding straight into the lion’s den,” Nicholas said. “That’s what the rush is: You cheat death one more time.”

Industry phenomenon

Snowmobile manufacturers print advertising literature that entices potential consumers to “conquer the mountain” and peddle products with names like “Highmark.”

Donavon Facey, owner of XTreme Performance Center in Erie, said the snowmobile industry as a whole isn’t dealing adequately with the problem of avalanches.

“They’re definitely aware of it,” he said. “Whether you can say that they’re jumping up and down, yelling and screaming about avalanches, that would be a stretch. I don’t think you’d be out of line to say that the snowmobile community as a whole could do a better job of being more cognizant of avalanches.”

In fairness, some snowmobile companies, including Bombadier, which manufactures Ski-Doo sleds, have begun including avalanche equipment with the machines. Ski-Doo offers a model that features an integrated compartment with an emergency shovel and avalanche probe.

But an avalanche safety pamphlet issued by the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, in conjunction with avalanche centers across the country, doesn’t put much stock in carrying equipment on the sleds themselves.

“If the tools you need to save your friend are on your buried sled, your friend may die,” it reads. The pamphlet recommends carrying a transmitting avalanche beacon, a shovel and a probe in a small pack.

Though snowmobile manufacturers bear some of the responsibility for safety, Nicholas said part of the problem is with retailers.

“I think retailers should be more aware of their customers,” he said. “We have the advantage because we ride the same mountains our customers will be riding, so we know what they’ll encounter.”

He has several motivations for keeping his customers informed of avalanche danger, Nicholas said.

“If my guys die on the hill, I’m going to lose a friend and lose a customer,” he said. Nicholas, who has lost five friends to avalanches, knows just how that feels.

“It affected me personally and I don’t want it to ever affect me personally again,” he said.

Dealers adjust

Some local dealers are taking steps to prepare their customers for unstable backcountry conditions. Altitude, for example, invites its customers to an avalanche-awareness seminar and provides discounts on avalanche gear at the time of purchase.

“We do our best here by offering our backcountry seminar,” Nicholas said. “We offer it for free and we give away pizza so we can get more people in here.”

Mike Stoveken, owner of Silverthorne Power Sports, sponsors a weekly snowmobile report on High Country Radio.

“We usually do safety tips at least once a month or twice a month, remind people to take cell phones, probes and avalanche beacons,” said Stoveken. “That’s something that we do to just kind of let people know they need to start thinking about that stuff.”

XTreme Performance Center takes a slightly different tactic.

“We do not attempt to give people a five or 10 minute discussion on avalanche stuff,” Facey said. “My experience with it has been that it’s a fairly complex subject, so we try not to trivialize it.”

Facey said his shop supports the Mile High Snowmobile Club, which offers training.

Guided tours a safer bet

By Dan Kelly

Summit County Correspondent

SUMMIT COUNTY – If the prospect of getting swept away or buried in an avalanche bothers you, a guided snowmobile tour may be the ticket.

Rock Mountain to;uring companies say they can show the sights and keep you safe at the same time.

“We’re out here as guides to make sure that people have a good, safe time,” said Young, who has spent six years as a guide at White Mountain Tours in Summit County. “This is our backyard. For the most part, we know the bad spots.”

The guides at White Mountain are extremely aware of snow conditions and adjust their routes daily to avoid trouble spots, Young said.

“Being a guide is about knowing the risks, knowing the conditions and being able to take a group out there and have a good time,” he said. “A lot of what we do is avoiding areas that make us nervous or are terrain traps.”

The guides determine snow conditions by digging snow pits to test strength and avalanche potential. Young said they dig pits every two days or more frequently as the conditions dictate. The guides also check the daily forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and keep their own records of evolving conditions in the area.

“We don’t take people into areas that are inherently dangerous,” he said. “We let everybody see mountains without becoming part of them.”

Young has been a member of the Summit County Rescue group for three years and is an emergency medical technician. He is certified, as are all guides at White Mountain, in CPR and first aid. They receive a week of guide and avalanche training prior to ever leading a group. Outside avalanche training is encouraged and the company pays for expenses incurred.

Asked how his company dealt with avalanche dangers, Good Times Adventures guide Eric Elder had a simple answer.

“That’s easy,” he said. “We don’t go there.”

Elder said his operation sticks to designated trails. “We groom our trails on a nightly basis with a snowcat and all day long with a small groomer,” he said. “We’re very aware of our trail conditions and they are the same trails that we’ve ridden on day in and day out for 12 years.”

Though some companies offer un-guided rentals – allowing the customer to take the sled into the backcountry on their own – most have guidelines as to where their customers may travel.

“Our unguided rentals are confined to the Turquoise Lake area,” said Stacy Petty, owner of Alpine Snowmobiles. “It’s actually pretty flat trails. We really cater to the beginner riders.”


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