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BC Coroner’s service panel blames snowmobilers’ deaths on underestimating backcountry conditions

Sunday, January 31st, 2010 | 1:51 pm

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By Kathy Michaels

Snowmobilers need to be more aware of avalanche risks, says the B.C. Coroner’s Service in a report about the 19 snowmobiler deaths last winter.

In the document which was released today, the 16-member panel found snowmobilers had underestimated avalanche risks when faced with complex terrain and difficult snow conditions.

It also said snowmobile use has increased in recent years; modern machines allow riders to access more complex and vast terrain than ever before; and, there is a growing gap between snowmobilers and backcountry skiers in their respective levels of avalanche awareness and preparedness.

According to Rick Given, president of the Kelowna Snowmobile Club, local sledders are lucky to face low avalanche risks in area hills, but even with ideal conditions at play, more education is needed.

“The BC snowmobile federation did a provincewide information campaign last year and avalanche awareness is something we talk about at every one of our six general meetings,” he said, adding he touches on the subject in his club newsletters two or three times yearly.

But the problem is that the message is being spread on a very limited budget.

“There’s no money to educate snowmobilers,” he said. “It’s not an industry that’s as cash fluid as skiing.”

Ski trails are marked clearly, but the nature of snowmobiling puts its users further into the wilderness where there are no signs and, he said, there’s oftentimes no avalanche alert reporting.

That said, Given explained that “last year was the worst in snowmobiling history” and in the case of last year’s Fernie backcountry avalanche, a lack of education shouldn’t be blamed.

The eight Sparwood men that died that day were familiar on methods to deal with the conditions presented to them, they were just running on human instinct.

“What happened to them was that the guys were riding and the avalanche occurred, and two or three sledders were buried,” said Given of what he’s learned of the tragedy since.

“The other sledders went to dig out their friends—because you don’t have much time once you are buried — and another one hit.  Unfortunately, in emergency, panic-mode, these guys didn’t assess the situation.”

That said, those who were digging out their friends were equipped with what was needed to conduct a rescue, but everything happened too fast.

The B.C. Coroner’s Service received 24 reports of avalanche deaths during the 2008-2009 winter. Nineteen involved recreational snowmobilers and five involved skiers and snowboarders.

BC Coroner's service panel blames snowmobilers' deaths on underestimating backcountry conditions5.054

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