Snowmobilers Warm Up To Avalanche Safety Practices

Snowmobilers Warm Up To Avalanche Safety Practices

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News Specialist John Hollenhorst reporting

Snowmobilers are facing up to a new reality. When avalanches happen, they are the likely victims.

Experts say they need to get smarter, and better prepared.

"All you have to do is look at the statistics on paper. Snowmobilers are the key group to get killed now," says Curt Smith of Pleasant View.

"There's just a lot of friends that we know, that we had, that have died," says Shane Walton of Mountain Green.

There's finally a pretty good blanket of snow in the higher mountains, so this weekend is likely to bring out large numbers of snowmobilers.

And avalanche danger in some places is high.

Here's something that should cause a snowmobiler to stop and think before he cranks the throttle and heads into steep terrain.

A few years ago, avalanche deaths of those riding on snowmobiles were rare.

Last winter, avalanches killed 35 in the United States. More than half were on snowmobiles.

It used to be mainly cross-country skiers who got into trouble in the back-country -- sometimes big trouble -- getting swallowed up by one of nature's most frightening phenomena.

But more and more, it's snowmobilers. New, powerful machines put them in harm's way, and they sometimes wind up fleeing for their lives.

Craig Gordon is a government avalanche forecaster. His job is to help people stay alive. This year for the first time, he's doing forecasts in the Uinta Mountains.

"The technology is way out here, and the avalanche-knowledged still have trouble catching up with technology," Gordon says.

He says he's forecasting in the Uintas this year because of all the snowmobile traffic. "This area gets a tremendous amount of traffic."

Some snowmobilers learned lessons the hard way.

"We've had quite a few friends get killed," Smith says.

After more than 30 years of snowmobiling, Shane Walton finally started carrying avalanche gear a couple of years ago and learning how to use it.

"Our third year that we've really got into it and decided that our lives are a little bit more important. Coming home's more important than having a good day," Walton says.

The basic equipment: extendable poles to find buried victims, radio transmitter beacons to locate them, and extendable shovels to dig them out.

Curt Smith has started teaching classes to his friends.

"I wanted them to live, and more importantly, I wanted them to find me," Smith says.

The cross-country skiing community has spent decades developing the lore of avalanches and learning to stay alive. The snowmobiling community is just starting to catch up.

"We're getting dumber as riders. We want to go higher. Our machines are letting us go higher," Smith says.

But responsible riders are letting the tough lessons sink in, playing it safe and learning what they need to know.

"Five or six years ago we were going places that we think back now and go, 'What? Why are we doing that? There's no way!'"

The state offers free classes to snowmobilers. And there's a lot of safety information available. Follow the links above for more information.

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