Snowmobilers top avalanche fatalities
During the winter of 2002-2003, five backcountry skiers were killed by avalanches in America. Three backcountry snowboarders were killed.
That same winter, 14 snowmobiliers lost their lives to slides. In the winters since 1985, 116 snowmobiliers have died, including Darin Heitman, who died last week in Summit County. The next highest number of avalanche fatalities was 41. That dubious honor belongs to out-of-bounds skiers.
In fact, the number of snowmobile fatalities over the past six years dwarf those of other backcountry enthusiasts. Why are snowmobiliers so much more likely to die in avalanches?
Part of the reason seems to be the rapid increase in snowmobile technology over the past ten years.
Today’s high-end sleds have tracks as long as 166 inches, studded with huge lugs. Longer tracks increase dramatically the snow flotation abilities of a snowmobile.
Combined with extremely powerful engines, the new machines are powerful 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, and 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. Less experienced riders tend to stay on established snowmobile trails, while seasoned ones want to find more exciting and challenging terrain.
“With that training and knowledge, you feel invulnerable,” said Nicholas.
That feeling of invulnerability can lead some riders to look for more and more dangerous terrain to “conquer.” This places them directly in harm’s way.
“Most natural disasters come looking for you, you don’t go looking for them,” said Nicholas.
One of the activities that advanced riders tend to engage in is called “highmarking.” 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 necessate turning around.
Highmarking is “probably one of the most unsafe things you can do on a snowmobile,” said Nicholas. “It’s also one of the most fun.”
Highmarking 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 try to outrun the avalanche.
“It’s riding straight into the lion’s den,” said Nicholas. “That’s what the rush is: you cheat death one more time.”
That’s what Darin Heitman was trying to do on March 10. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it. Heitman was the first avalanche fatality in 2004 in Summit County.
Dealers address problems
Some local dealers are taking steps to prepare their customers for the backcountry conditions they might encounter on their new sleds.
Altitude, for example, invites its customers to an avalanche-awareness seminar and provides discounts on avalanche gear at the time of purchace.
“We do our best here by offering our backcountry seminar,” said Nicholas. “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 (100.7FM).
“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 in Erie takes a slightly different tack to inform customers of potential dangers.
“We do not attempt to give people a five or 10 minute discussion on avalanche stuff,” said XTreme owner Donavon Facey. “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.
Snomobile manufacturers print advertising literature that entices potential consumers to “conquer the mountain” and peddle products with names like “Highmark.”
Facey indicated that 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.” 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.”
Nicholas said he has several motivations for keeping his customers informed of avalanche danger.
“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.”
Most likely though, he said, it will.
Dan Kelley can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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