Mountain Safety
June 8th, 2019
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The Coming of Age of Mountain Sledding

In 2003, Jeremy Hanke looked over his shoulder to see a hungry wall of snow barrelling down the mountain straight toward him.

Through his peripheral vision—as he tried to outrun it on his sled—he saw his two most trusted riding buddies swallowed by the size 3 avalanche before he was engulfed himself. As he lay entombed in avalanche debris, slowly losing hope of rescue, his thoughts weren’t of himself—they were of all those he would leave behind.

After he was dug out and brought back to life, several years would pass before he was able to wrap his head around the experience enough to channel the trauma into Soul Rides, one of the few sled-specific avalanche education operations in existence at the time he founded it in 2010.

It was one of the early signs of the coming of age of mountain sledding.

In the mid-70s, the pursuit of untouched powder sparked an increase in the number of heli-skiing avalanche fatalities. Since then, both the heli-ski industry and the community of backcountry skiers have undergone something of a maturation, resulting in a stabilization of the number ski- and snowboard-related fatalities each year.

However, the rise in the popularity of mountain sledding decades later led to a parallel spike in the number of sledder avalanche fatalities. More than half of all avalanche fatalities each year since the late 2000s, on average, have been snowmobilers.

 

Coming of Age Graph

 

Today, mountain snowmobiling is undergoing a similar maturation; a coming of age like the sport has never seen. From mind-blowing leaps in sled technology which have vastly increased capability and spurred increased participation; to the birth of the first-ever motorized guide association to meet demand for qualified big mountain guides; and to the last grisly piece of the puzzle, an increased fatality rate that echoes those same hard lessons that hammered backcountry skiing decades ago.

A Deadly Winter

The winter of 2008-09 was infamously deadly, and the weight of it would drive everything that followed. 26 people died in avalanches that season. 19 were sledders, and nearly half of them were killed in a single day: the notorious Harvey Pass accident that claimed the lives of eight snowmobilers from Sparwood, BC. Two successive avalanches buried the entire group of 11, and only three survived, forced to walk out of the mountains without all of those with whom they had ventured in.

The magnitude of Harvey Pass and the shocking number of snowmobiling fatalities over that winter spurred the BC Coroner’s Office to strike a Death Review Panel the next fall, a tool used on rare occasions to explore a pattern with a specific trend of fatalities.

The report came out in January of 2010, and its recommendations provided Avalanche Canada with a road map for this growing issue. Avalanche Canada received a three-year federal grant to begin sled-specific avalanche outreach and develop online educational tools.

Coming of Age Avalanche

Just months later, the massive Turbo Hill accident on Boulder Mountain sent new shock waves through the community. A sledder triggered an avalanche on the slope which buried ranks of onlookers below, including children. No one knows the exact number of people involved, but estimates range from 32 to more than 100. Amazingly, only two died, thanks to a number of well-trained sledders on scene and an all-out rescue response from every search and rescue team and heli-ski operation in the Columbia Valley.

It was the second major event in just two years, another nightmarish sign in the crossroads at which mountain sledding had arrived. In the years between 2007 and 2017, 63 sledders died in avalanche accidents in Canada, and 88 in the US between 2008 and 2017.

Mountain Sleds Become More Proficient

But it was more than just a gap in avalanche education that put sledders at risk; over the same era—from the early 2000s until now—sled technology has evolved so exponentially that riders today can literally cover the same amount of terrain in a day that a heli-ski operation might—but without the same thousands of hours of training in managing big mountain environments and avalanche risk that heli-ski guides are required to possess.

Dusty Veideman remembers when it took three days and quite a bit of skill just to summit Boulder Mountain with the sleds of the early ‘70s. A legend in the Revelstoke snowmobile community, many say that Veideman discovered that mountain, along with other Revelstoke giants. Over the course of the next few decades, he and his riding crew innovated modifications to their sleds to match their drive for exploration, adding paddles to tracks and plastic to the bottom of skis—upgrades that the snowmobile manufacturers caught onto quickly.

“That led you into dangerous territory,” recalls Veideman.“And I knew exactly how dangerous it was with my avalanche training.”As the Columbia River Basin snowpack professional for BC Hydro, he had a depth of avalanche knowledge that few came close to matching at that time—and he might have been one of the first to recognize that modern technology allows unprepared riders to push farther and deeper into high hazard situations with the ultimate consequences.

Coming of Age Avalanche

“Engine technology has vastly changed over the last decade,” confirms Gerry Dusessoy, a BRP employee for 33 years. “There’s more for boondocking and driving in and among the trees, and track technology has led to people going higher. Now, you can park on the side of a hill and be confident that you can take off anytime.”

A Coming of Age

But there’s a positive side to all this, the bright Yang to the dark Yin that’s driving this coming of age. In the professional arena, stakeholders from commercial guiding operations in BC, professionals at the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) and members of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) are working together to curtail a renegade culture and bring new legitimacy to big mountain snowmobile guiding.

On the recreational side, there’s been something of a revolution in avalanche education to help equip snowmobilers with knowledge to match the capability of the machines. Over the last ten years, the number of snowmobile avalanche skills training (AST) course instructors has shot up from six to 31—a 416% increase. Last winter 1,119 snowmobilers were trained in AST courses, a number that has more than doubled from the 460 or so sledders trained in the winter of 2008-09.

In the years since his own burial and the success of Soul Rides, Hanke started up the Skadi Foundation in 2015 in an attempt to minimize risk in avalanche terrain for recreational motorized users. Skadi works from within the avalanche industry to incorporate sled-specific messaging. Over this coming winter, Skadi will continue to share the safety message with riders throughout North America in an effort to draw sledding communities together.

It’s the phoenix rising from the ashes of all those hard lessons; an era in which mountains are still summited and powder still shredded, but riders come home and no one has to make the longest walk out of the mountains alone.

 

– Cassidy