Rocky Mountain sledders are finding new terrain to play on as improving snow-machine technology shows us more of the mountain each year, along with the primal drive of trying to out-do your buddy’s GoPro footage. Although back-country sports are insanely fun, tragic events like the recent avalanche fatality in Montana remind us that we all can get into a dangerous situation fairly quick. New adventures through high-risk avalanche country are requiring back-country travelers to look at the terrain a bit differently, whether on skis, snowboard or sled. Avalanche exposure combined with warmer temperatures create the perfect scenario for lethal slides that can end up fatal for those who take the risk.
Do These 5 Things to Increase Your Chances and Enjoy the Trip
1 – Wear a beacon, carry a shovel and pack a probe. Know how to use it and check each beacon prior to travel. Carry the beacon on your person and not in your backpack in case of separation in an accident.
2 – Don’t travel alone. Bring your crew so everyone is there to witness your wipeouts and help dig you out of a ditch or a slide.
3 – One rider on the slope at a time and don’t park at the bottom of avalanche chutes when someone is riding above. Always have a route picked out to safety in the event of slide.
4 – Check weather & avalanche hazards. The website fsavalanche.org is a great reference, however not a guarantee.
5 – Make a plan. Make sure everybody is present in the party before moving on to new terrain.
Watch this recent video of some back-country sledding by Tyler Carr
What if you get caught in an avalanche?
Heaven forbid you get caught in a slide, your chances of survival aren’t great… but there are a few things worth trying. What else are you gonna do in that moment anyway?
Once you’re in the slide, and if you don’t hit anything first, try “swimming” to the surface as you travel with the snow, allowing you to see something other than a whiteout. Believe it or not, this has been reported to work or aid avalanche victims by those who’ve survived. If you’re riding a sled, this “swimming” method could also be used to put distance between you and the machine. Trauma between impact of either human and sled or human and rock/tree/ice are both fatal to the rider. If you can put distance between you and the sled and “swim” away from them at the top of the snow column, you have a better chance.
If you’re buried after all of this, hopefully your friends find you fast. One way to help is by purchasing and wearing one of the newly designed airbags made for avalanche safety. Even where riders have been buried over their heads, the bags have helped other riders locate them almost immediately due to the bright color sticking out of the snow. Recent studies show 90% of all slide victims are buried alive once the slide is over. From here, the survivor has less than 30 minutes before he/she runs on of oxygen, at best.
As back-country travel becomes more popular and accessible, keeping these few tips in mind will increase your odds of enjoying each winter season, year after year.
Ryan Hudson guides adventure seeking individuals on snowmobiling trips for Green River & Bridger-Teton Outfitters in Daniel, Wyoming. Fly fishing in the warm season and sledding during the winter months, Ryan can tailor your trip from trail-riding to backcountry extreme, all while keeping your safety in mind.