Know how to use your AVY gear

Our Tech Experts steer you in the right direction!
Winter ‘17-18 saw a 266% increase in snowmobile avalanche fatalities in the United States. I predicted this due to the trend of every other year being a higher fatality year in the states for the previous eight years. Avalanche fatalities and education are very reactionary. After a year with higher fatalities, riders are more cautious and focused the next winter, but then it appears they forget. It is important to remember that avalanches are condition dependent. No two years have the same avalanche conditions and your experience in an area means very little in the future prediction of avalanches.

One disturbing problem with winter ‘17-18 was the number of riders killed who had airbags. Airbags have grown significantly in popularity and helped reduce fatalities; the problem is that many are foregoing avalanche education and simply buying an airbag. Sorry, but that is not a formula for success and is shown by the statistics from last winter.

Riders aren’t deploying their airbags!
■ How to improve chances of surviving
Practice reaching for the trigger handle – muscle memory is a real thing! Think of reaching before you climb, have an escape route, have radio communication and someone watching as you climb – the buddy system is key – and having a visual on your partner can be a matter of life or death.

Most importantly, learn more about avalanches and analyze the terrain you ride so you know where a triggered avalanche would take you. Some are not survivable.
There are nine different types of avalanches and some are much more likely to kill you. Just because there are tracks on the hill does not mean it’s stable, it just means someone has not hit the weak spot. Moderate danger doesn’t mean it is safe. In many cases it means that the avalanches are harder to trigger, but if triggered, it could be a massive avalanche. We avoid slopes more because of the type of avalanche and consequences, rather than the danger rating. Danger rating means very little if you do not understand the avalanche problem(s) you are dealing with.
■ Implementing training
Trauma was the leading cause of death. If you get taken into trees, rocks, over cliffs and into gullies, it compounds the effects of the avalanche. In an avalanche that destroys a snowmobile, snaps trees, it cannot be expected that a person can survive. Airbags meet a standard that does not encompass trauma.

Training is essential. Equally important is implementing that training. Awareness courses give you a heads-up and eliminate basic mistakes. Avoiding accidents is all about being smart and having the knowledge. On-snow courses give you the hands-on training necessary to evaluate terrain, perform rescues and analyze stability. Many riders’ perceived skills do not match their actual skills, which unfortunately is not realized until an accident. Your training has to meet your avalanche exposure. New sleds, riding skills and steeper terrain require significantly more avalanche training. Don’t rely on an airbag alone to save you. It’s a formula for disaster.
■ What sort of classes should I take?
I’m all for classroom sessions to get started and to refresh your mindset and knowledge each winter. It is also a great way to meet other serious riders. Look for quality instruction through American Avalanche Association instructors. However, the quality of instruction varies tremendously with some course providers. Make sure your instructor has extensive experience teaching and real-world experience where they had to be professionally responsible for others. You don’t want that person who stumbles through a class that they only teach twice a year.

Take an awareness class and follow that with an eight-hour certified Avalanche Rescue class (prerequisite for level two) or a 24-hour level one and then a level two class. We are riding in avalanche terrain that takes extensive knowledge to make good decisions. Don’t just wing it and hope for the best. I would rather meet you in class than on a rescue.

For continued success, you have to know and understand the avalanche conditions and which terrain is appropriate. You don’t want to fear avalanches, but have the knowledge for the situation and make the right decisions for that day. I pick the appropriate terrain for the conditions, observe, verify the stability with my own tests and ride with trained people. No advanced training and gear, you’re not going with me!
Mike Duffy
Mike Duffy is an American Avalanche Association certified instructor, teaches classes for beginners to pros nationwide and has been instrumental in developing sled-specific rescue techniques and the newest avalanche gear. He can be found on Facebook and Instagram.
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