Report urges greater avalanche awareness

A British Columbia Coroners Service review panel has issued a report that calls for greater avalanche awareness within the snowmobiling community, following the deaths of 19 snowmobilers last winter.

VANCOUVER — A British Columbia Coroners Service review panel has issued a report that calls for greater avalanche awareness within the snowmobiling community, following the deaths of 19 snowmobilers last winter.

The review panel found that many of the victims underestimated avalanche risks and pointed to an increase in snowmobile use and advances in snowmobile technology that have allowed riders to access more complex and potentially dangerous terrain than ever before.

“While recognizing that large numbers of snowmobilers managed to recreate safely in the backcountry, the panel also acknowledged that there was a growing gap in the level of avalanche awareness, preparedness and the patterns of backcountry use during elevated risk conditions,” Tom Pawlowski, review panel chair, said in the report.

“Modern snowmobile technology allows riders to access more terrain than ever before. This almost unimpeded and rapid access to vast, often complex terrain creates a requirement for intricate decision-making, comparable to that exercised by professional mountain guides in helicopter-accessed ski operations.”

The 16-member panel, comprised of snowmobile, avalanche and tourism experts, recommended that B.C. develop an avalanche awareness program and distribute safety materials when riders register their vehicles.

“One of the challenges to effective dissemination of avalanche safety information has been in ensuring that the information reaches all participants in the activity of snowmobiling. Registration of vehicles provides an opportunity for widespread distribution of safety material,” Pawlowski wrote.

The panel made 15 recommendations in all, including calls for an increase in avalanche forecasts and the development of an avalanche terrain classification system for popular snowmobiling areas.

The panel reports its findings to the province’s chief coroner, who in turn may bring them to the attention of the proper public authorities.

The winter of 2008-09 was a particularly devastating one on B.C. slopes.

Twenty-four avalanche-related deaths were recorded in all, with the five remaining cases involving skiing or snowboarding.

The 19 snowmobile deaths were the result of 11 separate avalanches.

One incident, in Sparwood, B.C., claimed eight lives alone.

The panel’s recommendations are directed to organizations such as B.C.’s Provincial Emergency Program, the Canadian Avalanche Centre and snowmobile associations.

Al Hodgson, president of the Association of British Columbia Snowmobile Clubs, served on the panel and said its critical that snowmobilers be warned of the hazards they might face.

While the backcountry ski community has prepared its outdoor enthusiasts for potential dangers, Hodgson said the same isn’t true for snowmobilers.

“The backcountry ski community did a good job many years ago of focusing attention on avalanche safety, where the recreational snowmobile community . . . should have put more emphasis on it way back when but it didn’t happen,” Hodgson said in an interview.

Hodgson said he cringed during each and every weekend last season, hoping no fatalities would be recorded, and called the season “a disaster.”

He said snowmobilers appear to be treading more carefully this season, but worried that people might have short memories.

“That’s why education is key. Terrain awareness is the biggest issue with snowmobilers, the ability to assess the terrain that you’ve just moved into,” he said, also stressing the importance of practising on your machine.

“You’re just one storm system away from a disaster.”

In a letter to the chief coroner’s office, B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed said he supports calls for increased avalanche awareness, as well as new signage that warns of avalanche risks.

“I will ask senior Ministry staff to work directly with key organizations and partners identified in the Death Review Panel recommendations to ensure that strategies are implemented in an effective, timely and coordinated manner,” Heed wrote.