More snowmobilers die in avalanches than skiers this season
JACKSON, Wyo. – Thirteen of the 26 avalanche deaths record in North America this past winter season were snowmobilers, the first time since record keeping began in 1950 that the number of snowmobilers killed in slides exceeded the number of skier and snowboarder avalanche deaths.According to statistics provided by the Westside Avalanche Network, 11 of the 26 avalanche fatalities in the United States and Canada during the 2006-07 winter season were skiers. The other two were a climber and a snowshoer.During the 2005-06 winter, 12 out of 32 total fatalities were snowmobilers; there were only nine snowmobile deaths during the 2004-05 winter.Bob Comey, Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center forecaster, said the main factor in the rising percentage of snowmobiler deaths was larger, more powerful machines that allow riders to access more difficult terrain. At the same time, a rise in rider numbers is generally accompanied by an increase in riders who lack avalanche survival knowledge.”The terrain around the greater Yellowstone area is great for riding, and people are going for it,” Comey said. “Some are educated and prepared and some aren’t.”In addition, thin snow conditions prevalent in some areas this winter were a recipe for an unstable snowpack.Avalanche educator and forecaster Jill Fredston said that the majority of avalanches triggered by snowmobile riders occur when riders are “high marking,” or driving their machines up the slope to see how high they can go.”This is a classic year the West has had, because a lack of snow breeds anxious backcountry travelers,” she said. “The machines getting more powerful is really the essence of the issue. I think we have a long ways to go with the snowmobiling education, and there’s ways to build it into the industry, but the education is happening.”Fredston said that while she has dug the bodies of first-time riders out of avalanches, she dislikes the stereotype that snowmobilers are willfully reckless backcountry travelers.”I ignore the distinction between different user groups,” she said. “Twenty-five years ago we were training guides and climbers, and they caught up. Then it was backcountry skiers, while this is the new wave we’re trying to get caught up.”Comey noted that the season for destination snowmobilers is relatively short and peaks from mid-February to mid-March. A storm system creating instability right before a busy weekend during which novice riders flood into the mountains on powerful sleds can create a recipe for disaster.”Some riders are unbelievable and really prepared, but in our two fatalities the signs were there and they weren’t prepared,” Comey said.Fredston has written a brochure on avalanche safety that includes a section of safety tips directed at snowmobilers who practice high marking. One of the most important rules is to have only one rider on a slope at a time and know how to read the terrain, she said.Riding in smaller groups, turning toward the edge of a slope when high marking, riding with helmets fully strapped on and wearing transceivers can all help increase survival odds if a rider is caught, Fredston said.”The basic message is if you travel in avalanche country you have to make decisions on the mountain’s terms,” Fredston said. “You have to make the evaluation based on the terrain, snowpack and what the weather is doing.”
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