October 3rd, 2016

License to Thrill: Avalanches and the Solution

Why are we still seeing incidents involving under-informed and underequipped snowmobile avalanche victims? Is it time to regulate who can buy a mountain sled? We do it with trucks, we do it boats, we do it with guns, why shouldn’t we do it with sleds? None of us want this but it’s time to get serious about avalanche safety.

Mountain sleds have come a long way in every aspect from power to handling. It wasn’t that long ago that mountain sleds were cumbersome trail beasts, custom modified with Big bore kits, a tunnel extension and a longer track stuffed underneath. Today, anyone can walk into a dealership and pick up a mountain specific machine capable of climbing to the top of just about anything with ease. Relatively speaking, mountain sledding avalanche knowledge is not at the same level of understanding as the machines we ride. This unbalanced ratio catches the eye of media outlets that sensationalize tragedies and not so much the triumphs. This in turn, has created more pressure to formulate a plan that will help reduce avalanche related deaths in mountain sledding. Does the answer lie in regulating who can operate a snowmobile in the mountains through a licensing system that implements practical and written instruction? You need a drivers license to drive a car. You need a boat license to drive a boat and with the ATV registration program now in place in most provinces, the next logical step for the government is to create an ATV operator’s license.

What about firearms? There are a lot of parallels between firearms and snowmobiles: sitting idle or in the hands of someone competent, they are harmless, but when used irresponsibly or without instruction they can both be deadly. I’m sure there are a lot of folks out there that were taught how to shoot a gun by grandpa out on the farm when they were kids and are fully capable of safely handling one, but there needed to be a standardized test to ensure everyone is up to the same level of safety. Snowmobiling is also often something grandpa taught and supervised out on the farm; taking the grandkids out for rides out through the fields is how an obsession with sledding started for many. The cowboy approach to avalanches is not too many pages back in the history book and it probably wouldn’t hurt to top up the sledding knowledge ol’ grandad passes down with some current avalanche training by a certified instructor. Having to produce a piece of paper indicating you took a 2 day firearm safety course in order to purchase a firearm that you will have for the rest of your life, isn’t much of a hassle if it could potentially prevent a fatal accident. What if you were required to produce a piece of paper indicating that you participated in a 2 day avalanche course to purchase a new snowmobile?

The price of a current new snowmobile from the dealer is about $16,000; no one will notice an extra $300 to cover the cost of the course. Maybe it could be a partnership between the manufacturers, dealerships, and local avalanche course providers? A 2-day course to help keep you stay safer throughout a lifetime of sledding doesn’t seem like much.

A snowmobile licensing system carries a fair bit a baggage though: How will it be enforced? Who will enforce it? The new BC ORV registration system was enforced last winter by local Conservation Officers trolling parking lots and pulling people over in town, but consistently patrolling the backcountry just wasn’t feasible financially or time-wise. It might be easy to deal with all the popular areas like Quartz Creek, Boulder and Valemont, but what about Secret Creek and Hidden Valley? How regulated do we want the backcountry to be? Wouldn’t the idea of having the backcountry patrolled to enforce licenses and registrations completely remove the feeling of freedom that mountain sledding gives us? Why don’t we put up streetlights and four way stops out there while we’re at it?

The used snowmobile market goes under the radar just like buying a used gun privately; there are loop holes to bypass having to provide a valid sledding license to purchase one. Requiring a license to purchase a firearm works in some cases, but someone with poor intent certainly isn’t going to go through all the trouble of taking a safety course when they plan on using it to hold up a bank. The same would go for sledding, if your intent is to be reckless and took an avalanche course just to get a piece of paper to purchase a sled, then the system failed. Memorizing a textbook to pass a test is easy, applying the knowledge to make safe decisions in the backcountry will come from a conscious effort to do so.

There are many reasons why there should and shouldn’t be a license required to operate a snowmobile in the backcountry, and maybe a license isn’t the solution to reducing avalanche fatalities in the backcountry, but something needs to happen. We have information, we have knowledge, and we have motive, all the pieces of the puzzle are spinning around above us, we just need is to put them together. When you or someone you know pulls the trigger on the purchase of a brand new sled this year, take some extra time and evaluate whether or not you are competent to operate that machine in a manner that will not endanger you or your riding partners.


– Colin