Ride Smart: Avoid Avalanches by Planning Rides

Why avalanche education and preparedness is the most important snowmobiling investment you can make
snowmobile safety AIARE avalanche awareness and preparedness education session
The backcountry capabilities of today’s mountain sleds makes avalanche awareness paramount.
October is a great time of year for snowmobilers in the West. There’s a chill in the air, replacing those hot days of late summer and early fall, and the snowmobile events begin to populate the calendar.

■ Avalanche Awareness
That was the case this past October when the Utah Snowmobile Show hit my hometown of Sandy, Utah. I knew it would be a great opportunity to look at the latest releases from the big manufacturers, check out new clothing, gloves and helmets, and search for that newest must-have accessory.

Turns out the hottest topic, alongside snow bikes, was avalanche preparedness. A few of the Utah dealers at the show had recognized this need and, working with Adam Scott from The Motoman, scheduled avalanche awareness sessions that would take place in the days and weeks following the snow show.

I went into the avalanche awareness session feeling that I probably needed to know more about the subject, especially since I had just become the president of the Salt Lake Valley Snowmobile Club and would be planning rides and routes for riders with varying levels of skills and ambitions. Little did I know that I’d come out of the session with a passion for avalanche education and preparedness.
snowmobile safety AIARE avalanche awareness and preparedness education session
The event was led by Duncan Lee with the support of Jeremy Henke, both of whom have great experience as long-time backcountry riders and guides, and both of whom have lived through their share of avalanches. Duncan and Jeremy are heavily involved with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education(AIARE) and have a passion for teaching the motorized community about avalanche safety.

“I’ve been involved in dozens of avalanches, whether caused by myself, my group, or another group in the area,” Duncan said. “In about 2011, I wanted to provide riding clinics and guiding in the Lake Tahoe area, so I took my first level one (avalanche course). Back then, all you needed was avalanche awareness and you could apply for guiding permits. That really opened my eyes to seeing how little education the motorized community had.”

As Duncan took us through the three hours with a clear, concise and thought-provoking presentation, my reality became more and more clear: if I am going to ride in the backcountry, I will be involved in an avalanche – it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. In the 20 seasons that the American Avalanche Association (1998-2019) has been tracking snowmobile-related avalanches, there have been 169 accidents and 196 fatalities as of Jan. 14, 2019, including three this past season. And when it happens, what will I do?
snowmobile safety AIARE avalanche awareness and preparedness education session
So, I took Duncan’s advice. I got on the AIARE website to find out where I could get more education about avalanches. I quickly found a listing for AIARE Motorized Providers and honed in on one group: The Mountain Riding Lab in Jackson, Wyoming. What drew me was three questions on its website:
  1. Could you rescue someone in your group if they were caught in an avalanche?
  2. Does your group formulate a plan based on the avalanche forecast and know how to identify terrain to avoid?
  3. Are you confident that your terrain choices and travel techniques will keep you and your buddies out of harm’s way?
When I read those words, a painful realization hit me: I am a liability to myself and my crew. I couldn’t confidently answer yes to any of the questions. The closest I could get is that maybe I could rescue someone in my group. Maybe.

"Maybe" and "no" are the wrong answers. Those responses mean death.

So I got a new Mamut probe and shovel, a Barryvox S transceiver and a Highmark Spire protection airbag system vest. Then I loaded the trailer and pointed the truck north to take a Motorized AIARE Level 1 course. My goals were to overcome my own ignorance about the subject and share what I learned with the community.
snowmobile safety AIARE avalanche awareness and preparedness education session equipment
It’s not just about getting the right gear. You also need to be able to use that gear effectively in an emergency.
The Mountain Riding Lab is owned and operated by Will Mook and Mat Schebaum, a couple of experienced professional guides and skilled backcountry snowmobilers who have turned their attention to avalanche education for riders. After our last day of class, they talked about what influenced them to launch their company and why they are so passionate about the subject.

“We definitely sought out more training to simply be better snowmobile guides,” Matt explained. “But it was an article by Jake Urban, founder of Jackson Hole Outdoor Leadership Institute, that helped inspire us to seek the instructor path. 

“Jake pointed out to the avalanche education community - his peers - that motorized users desperately needed the education, were underserved, and that the information had to come from within the snowmobile culture -it couldn’t come from skiers.”

“The places we ride are a harsh learning environment,” added Will. “One poorly made decision can lead to extreme consequences. By furthering your avalanche education, you can make good, calculated decisions so that you actually know when it’s a good day to just make pow turns in a meadow, or to spend it in steep terrain.”

The week before our course, Will and Matt had spent a few days continuing their own education with Duncan as well as other certified instructors, including Matt Entz, refreshing their knowledge of the AIARE curriculum. This “always learning” approach to avalanche education and safety is a constant message throughout the course and in AIARE materials. In fact, the AIARE Fieldbook states, “Practice avalanche rescue not just at the beginning of the season, but also throughout the season to keep your skills sharp.”
snowmobile safety avalanche awareness and preparedness BCA BC Link 2.0 radio mountain riders
The BC Link 2.0 from BCA is a next-generation radio made for mountain riders.
■ Scenic Safaris
Our class of five convened with Will and Matt on a Friday morning just before Christmas in Jackson. Their approach to this three-day “Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain” course is a combination of morning classroom sessions at a facility provided by Scenic Safaris followed by afternoons on the mountain near Togwotee for the first two days, with the third day all in the field.

Day one was initially daunting. I felt overwhelmed looking at the course guide, by the planning that Will and Matt described, and by the AIARE Backcountry Decision-Making Guide that we were given. All sorts of new terms, and I wondered if I would be able to absorb this information.

After about an hour, that feeling began to subside as the pair patiently took us through the curriculum. There’s a great mix of materials – video, data, and discussion points – that keep you engaged, and there’s plenty of coffee. Our first day on the mountain had us learning to run an actual rescue. We were taught to use our transceivers with practical applications. We were taught the right way to use our probes, starting at a mark and probing in an ever-enlarging clockwise circle. We learned how to shovel. Yes, there is a right way to do it to create the best chances for success. And we learned that the first 15 minutes after the event occurs determine if a buried rider will be saved or will die on the mountain.

Day two focused on understanding an avalanche forecast and how to translate that into a clear plan that can be easily communicated with your group. This is where the AIARE guide comes in, as we learned to plan a trip, conduct departure checks and record observations throughout the day, and the value of the debrief at the end of the ride.

There is so much avalanche data readily available through area forecasters, but the key is knowing where to find that information and how to apply it to your ride.

Our third day with The Mountain Riding Lab was a full day on the mountain. As students, we had to apply our newfound skills to create a trip plan, check the avalanche forecast, fill out the Decision-Making Guide, and conduct a departure check.

A key takeaway was that anyone can veto a plan for any reason, and creating the right environment within your riding group is crucial to a successful ride.
snowmobile safety mountain riding avalanche awareness and preparedness education
■ Confidence Building
Aaron Holten of Wyoming, who participated in the Lab’s course, said, “I feel more confident now that the decisions I’ll make going forward will be better than the ones I might have made in the past. I would like to practice what I have learned in this Level 1 course this year and keep building a more complete picture with a Level 2 course in the future.”

The AIARE Fieldbook summarizes this well: “Because the stakes can be so high, staying safe in the backcountry requires humility, methodical assessments, unbiased decision making, and a lifelong dedication to learning about avalanche terrain and the conditions that cause an unstable snowpack.”

Will also told me that “nowadays, anyone can get an amazing machine off the dealer floor, and with little practice can get into serious mountain terrain with just the squeeze of a throttle. You can never replace the value of experiential knowledge, but it needs to be coupled with formal education.”

Matt added, “There is no one and done avy class. As long as we’re riding in the mountains year after year, we should be continuing our education. Whether it’s the next level of courses, refreshers, or re-upping, it’s a constant cycle of learning and riding and applying.” 

Courses offered by AIARE-certified programs, like the Mountain Riding Lab, make up a three-part program called Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain. This three-part program is intended to be a part of your personal ongoing education to safely riding in the backcountry.

After completing a Level 1 course, for example, it is recommended that you spend at least one season applying what you have learned and honing your skills before moving on to a Level 2 certification.

To learn more about where you can take these classes in your area, visit the AIAIRE website at avtraining.org.

Bob Stockwell is the president of a Utah snowmobile club and an avid rider.

Adam Andersen Avalanche Project family Summer three children snowmobiling safety
Adam and Summer Andersen are pictured with their three children.
Adam Andersen Avalanche Project Summer awareness snowmobiling safety
Summer Andersen keeps herself busy posting signs and finding volunteers to help spread the word!
Adam Andersen Avalanche Project Summer volunteers snowmobile safety
The Adam Andersen Avalanche Project was established last year to honor avalanche victim Adam Andersen, a vivacious, fun-loving friend, son, brother, husband, and father of our three young children. The loss of Adam has left a large imprint in the hearts of many.

Adam was snowmobiling in the Mount Jefferson area of Island Park, Idaho, with two friends on Jan. 10, 2018. Neither Adam nor the others in his group were equipped with proper safety gear and were not aware of the avalanche conditions that day.

Adam was caught and fully buried while cutting up a steep gully. His friends and volunteers searched frantically for hours, but with no success. Fremont County Search and Rescue was forced to postpone the search until the next day in an effort to keep others safe. The next morning, Adam’s body was located within five minutes, less than 10 feet from his snowmobile and only 18 inches below the snow’s surface.

■ Mountain riders need to know
Sadly, in the 2017-2018 season there were 25 reported avalanche fatalities in the United States; 12 (including Adam) were snowmobilers.

As snowmobiling continues to grow in popularity, and many begin to explore the new challenge of snow biking, it is imperative that the riding community becomes more aware. The “it won’t happen to me” mindset is dangerous to those who lack avalanche education. The high cost of safety gear also may deter riders from purchasing it. The Project was started to help change these things and cut the number of fatalities.

Avalanche safety gear -- including airbag, probe, shovel, and beacon -- is now available to rent for free at High Mountain Adventures in Island Park, Idaho, and at Action Motor Sports in Idaho Falls, Idaho, through the Project. It also has provided avalanche warning signs that are now posted at every trailhead in Island Park and has helped host two avalanche awareness events along with Action Motorsports.

The Project continues to make progress raising snowmobiler awareness, and it is something I hope to continue to do for many years. It may seem odd to see a 32-year-old single mother who is not even an avid snowmobiler working to raise avalanche safety awareness. However, this work is key to me. It is something I feel that I must do, something I feel compelled to continue to do. This is my calling, my mission, because Adam Andersen was my best friend, my partner, the father of my children and my loving husband of eight years.

January 10, 2018, a Wednesday that may have been ordinary to most, was life-altering for me. My life became the aftermath of an avalanche; splintered wood everywhere, debris, dirt displaced, trees pulverized. I found myself alone, seemingly abandoned with a newborn baby girl, a toddler with lifelong disabilities, and a six-year-old boy asking where daddy was. I stood alone in the home Adam and I created together, the home where we ran his business, had a dog, wrestled our boys, celebrated birthdays and Christmas. In one sweeping wave of solid snow, it was all wiped away.

My path into widowhood has been far from easy, but throughout this harrowing journey I have chosen to channel my grief into something I hope will prevent another family from being hit the way mine was.

■ Don’t be scared, be prepared
The objective of the Adam Andersen Avalanche Project is not to scare riders or deter anyone from adventures in the backcountry. It’s about understanding an avalanche forecast, appreciating Mother Nature, and being vigilant with learning how to properly use safety gear. The objective is to bring every rider home each night to their families.

Our next awareness event and fundraiser is Oct. 19 at Action Motorsports in Idaho Falls. It is my hope to see the Project continue to post warning signs at trailheads throughout Idaho, encouraging riders to check the forecast for that day and check their safety gear. 
- Summer Andersen

Want to get involved with the Adam Andersen Avalanche Project? You can make donations at adamandersen.org, and follow the group on Facebook.

Want to leave a comment?
Only registered members of AmSnow.com are allowed to leave comments. Registration is FREE and only takes a couple minutes.

Login or Register now.
Sign up for our free newsletter
By signing up you may also receive reader surveys and occasional special offers. We do not sell, rent or trade our email lists. View our Privacy Policy.