October 12th, 2012

CAC Heads Up Mountain Snowmobile Avalanche Incident Prevention Program

The Canadian Avalanche Centre is heading into a second year of a three-year initiative that has the goal of increasing avalanche safety and lowering avalanche incidents among mountain sledders.  The nearly 1million dollar project is funded by a grand from the National Search and Rescue Secretariat that the CAC successfully applied for and received in 2011.

The impetus for this program has come through a combination of public, media and political pressure totry and make a difference within the mountain sledding community in terms of avalanche safety.  The high profile accidents of 2008/09, when a total of 19 snowmobilers were killed in avalanches, motivated the BC Coroners Service to convene a Death Review Panel, which gathered a number of experts with the goal of creating a set of recommendations to avoid further tragedies.

One of the recommendations was to create a dialogue specifically for the mountain sledder community, as opposed to sharing the same avalanche information and advice already given to skiers and boarders. The Boulder Mountain accident of 2010, when at least 50 snowmobilers were involved in a single avalanche incident (2 perished), further solidified the push for government agencies to get involved and see programs created to assist the mountain sledding community deal with the risks inherent in their sport.

“The first step of the program is to conduct social science research to find out more about the attitudes and risk perceptions of the mountain sledding community,” says Ian Tomm, CAC Executive Director.  “We really want to know about their decision making processes and how aware of risk they are.  Understanding the audience is critical to developing an effective risk communication strategy, so that’s why good research is our first step.”

Many of us were among the 1,200 people who took a trailhead intercept survey in the parking lot of some popular sled zones last winter.  Some of those people further responded to the dialogue i initiated by taking and detailed online survey conducted in part with Simon Fraser University.  That survey will be live again this winter and there will be a link to it in the next issue of Mountain Sledder.

The information from these surveys will be used to create a variety of communications tools aimed at sledders.  The CAC has already launched some communication initiative with its Go Farther campaign.  “The CAC is a pro-backcountry organization,” says Tomm.  “We’re in no way trying to keep sledders out of the backcountry; in fact, it’s exactly the opposite.”  That’s why we chose the message ‘Go Farther.’  We want to help people go farther and higher, and learn how to handle avalanche terrain.  However, certain behaviours, like groups parking in runout zones, need to stop and that message need to hit home.”

The second objective of the Mountain Sledder Education project is the increase the knowledge base and skill level within the community. In addition to promoting recreational avalanche training, the CAC isalso funding select riders to take professional-level avalanche safety training. “Last winter we helped