Avalanche class targets snowmobilers
Box: A four-hour snowmobile specific avalanche course will be held from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 23 at the Summit County Senior Center in Frisco. The cost is $35 per person and space is limited to 40 people (a second class will be held in November to accommodate any overflow). The class is sponsored by Silverthorne Power Sports and Summit County Rescue Group. To sign up, call (970) 513-1119.SUMMIT COUNTY – Last February, a snowmobiler was buried and killed by an avalanche in the San Juan Mountains when his friend, also on a snowmobile, triggered a slide while highmarking a backcountry bowl. The victim didn’t see the avalanche above him and was swept off his sled by the cascading snow. It took rescuers three hours to find the victim’s body, which was buried four feet deep, as no one in the party was equipped with any avalanche rescue equipment.The victim was one of 10 snowmobilers killed in avalanches nationwide last year in one of the deadliest seasons on record for snowmobile riders, according to statistics kept by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.In the last 10 years, snowmobilers have led the pack for the number of avalanche fatalities categorized by activity. Between 1996 and 2006, 119 snowmobilers died in avalanches, compared with 47 deaths among backcountry skiers during the same time period, according to the CAIC.
One key factor in the changing statistics is advancements in technology, said Mike Duffy, a Level 1 and 2 avalanche instructor at Colorado Mountain College and an avid snowmobiler.Advanced terrain that couldn’t be reached with snowmobiles 10 years ago can now be accessed with today’s more powerful, four-stroke machines.”The sport has been taken to a whole new level and (riders) need to take their avalanche safety to a whole new level,” Duffy said.Duffy, who’s also a team leader for Vail Mountain Rescue Group and a graduate of the National Avalanche School, will head up the county’s first-ever snowmobile specific avalanche course next week.The four-hour class will concentrate on safety techniques geared toward snowmobilers’ and their unique situation on the slopes.For instance, riders wear large, insulated helmets, which makes communicating with other people in their group difficult. Duffy will focus on group dynamics, such as making sure only one rider crosses an avalanche path at a time.He’ll also teach slope cutting with a snowmobile for stability testing and talk about how to rescue effectively, evaluate terrain and avoid terrain traps.
Mike Stoveken, owner of Silverthorne Power Sports, which is sponsoring the class, has seen the popularity of snowmobiling grow exponentially since he opened his shop five years ago, and now sells more Yamahas than any other dealer in the region.”For us, it’s really important that people know what they’re doing out there, it can be dangerous,” Stoveken said.Of the 10 snowmobilers killed last year, only one was confirmed to be wearing an avalanche beacon when he was buried, according to CAIC reports.Stoveken, who used to offer avalanche safety gear by order only, but now stocks it in his shop, says that snowmobilers have historically been hesitant to bring the equipment into the backcountry.”It’s kind of a rebel group, per se and I think what happens is a lot of people just don’t think in that direction. They just go out see a neat hill or mountainside, want to go highmarking and they just go ride it,” Stoveken said.But, the perceived lack of preparedness isn’t particularly alarming to Duffy, who says that while backcountry skiers and snowboarders have embraced traditional avalanche gear, like beacons, probes and shovels, snowmobilers have latched on to other safety equipment.
For example, snowmobilers use the avalanche airbag more than any other group of backcountry travelers, Duffy said. The airbag, which has a 98 percent success rate in Europe, is designed to inflate when activated during a slide, buoying avalanche victims on top of the slide to avoid burial.Even so, Duffy says snowmobilers have been a tough group to crack in terms of avalanche education. But that starting to change. He now teaches courses all over the country that regularly draw 150 to 200 riders.”I’ve had many people take the class after they’ve been caught in an avalanche or someone they know has been killed,” he said. “It’s more reactive now and we’d like to proactive where people take the class before they go out.”Duffy recommends people take the course with because any hope of a live rescue depends on the riders an avalanche victim is with.Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-4629, or at email@example.com.
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