The death of a snowmobiler on Dec. 22 above Horse Creek Road in the Wyoming Range was a tragic reminder that avalanche danger is always present for people recreating in the backcountry during winter. But there are steps people can take to be more avalanche aware and safe while they are out snowmobiling, skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing.
Bob Comey, director of the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center, shared these steps with the Sublette Examiner.
People can take avalanche awareness classes through agencies like the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center. Comey and his team frequently travel to communities around the region to offer hands-on avalanche safety courses to local winter recreation groups.
Other agencies like TipTop Search and Rescue in Pinedale and the American Avalanche Institute offer courses, Comey said. The American Avalanche Institute provides a list of regional classes on its website, https://www.americanavalancheinstitute.com.
There are also books available and online resources if people want to educate themselves, Comey said. He suggested “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper as a good beginner book. The website avalanche.org also offers a lot of educational material.
The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center offers detailed morning and evening forecasts on avalanche conditions in the mountains around Sublette and Teton counties on the Internet. Comey said that anyone planning to head to the backcountry needs to check the avalanche forecasts to understand the conditions that exist on the day they plan to head out.
The avalanche forecasts are posted on the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center’s website at https://www.jhavalanche.org under “Forecasts.”
Comey stressed that the avalanche rescue gear should be on a person at all times, not stowed away in a snowmobile. This way, if a snowmobile flips in an avalanche, the rescue gear is still on hand.
Rescue beacons allow group members to locate a companion in an avalanche. The avalanche probes are used to safely poke in the snow for the victim before the shovel is used to remove snow.
Rescue needs to happen right away, Comey said. If the victim is in a group, they can be rescued quickly in what Comey called a “companion rescue” versus waiting for an “organized rescue” that may take valuable time for authorities to organize.
Comey encouraged groups to travel across avalanche-prone terrain one at a time. With only one person in the danger zone, the others will remain safe if an avalanche is triggered and can quickly come to the rescue.
Snowmobiles pose an added risk because of their weight, Comey said. Snowmobiles can get stuck or bogged down on an avalanche-prone ridge and the natural tendency is for the other snowmobilers to drive up and help.
But Comey cautioned snowmobilers that the weight of two machines on the slope will increase the risk of triggering an avalanche. Other snowmobilers should “hang back” and watch from a safe distance until the situation is resolved or wait for help, Comey said. That way, the others will be ready to rescue the snowmobiler trapped on the ridge if an avalanche is triggered.