Snowmobilers to get avalanche education 

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Snowmobilers from Pemberton to Brohm Ridge are to benefit from a new three-year program aimed at training them in avalanche safety — and saving lives.

The Mountain Snowmobile Education Project will be funded by a $679,000 federal grant to the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC), and will be used to specifically target snowmobilers and provide information on the risks of slides, said executive director Ian Tomm.

The program will have two stages: to gather information on B.C.'s snowmobiling community with the help of Simon Fraser University professor Pascal Haegeli, a specialist in avalanche science, and to teach backcountry users about avalanche risks.

"We want to get an understanding of who our mountain snowmobilers are, the decisions they make and how they use the backcountry, and we want to develop the best program for them," Tomm said.

Between 2008 and 2010, 31 snowmobilers were killed by avalanches in Canada, while 17 skiers died during the same time period. Out of the 7,000 British Columbians who receive avalanche survival and awareness training each year, currently 80 per cent are backcountry skiers and snowboarders and just 15 per cent are snowmobilers.

Tomm said he was grateful for the support of the Association of B.C. Snowmobile Clubs and the B.C. Snowmobile Federation.

A B.C. Coroner Service Death Review Panel came up with 15 recommendations for educating and protecting snowmobilers after two catastrophic slides, at Harvey Pass near Fernie in December 2008, where eight men died, and at Boulder Mountain near Revelstoke in March 2010, where two died after 200 snowmobilers and spectators gathered for an event and triggered a slide. The program grew out of this panel, Tomm said.

"These machines are remarkably powerful. You hold the throttle and you can get injected into danger very quickly," Tomm said.

Researchers have already been surveying snowmobilers in the Sea to Sky region. There will be considerable work carried out here, given the numbers of people from the corridor and the Lower Mainland who snowmobile in the coastal mountain backcountry. Next winter the CAC aims to offer more pre-season awareness, education and outreach in the corridor, he added.

Ray Mason, a member of the Pemberton Valley Snowmobile Club and owner of Totally Awesome Adventures, which takes visitors on guided snowmobile tours in the backcountry, welcomed the announcement.

Mason, who holds professional avalanche safety certifications, said he had been part of a rescue team when a snowmobiler injured his back on the Pemberton Icecap in December. He said that while he has never been caught in an avalanche he always makes sure he takes the proper equipment and a satellite phone when heading out.

"I think people are getting smarter out there. It's definitely going in the right direction. The number of people with all the equipment is increasing, but more people need to take avalanche skills training," he said.

It was essential, Mason added, for snowmobilers to take beacons, shovels and probes, and to know how to use them. He also recommended paying attention to avalanche bulletins for the Sea to Sky region and the South Coast Inland region.

"We get a lot of people entering the sport who have never been in the backcountry before, and it's quite different than Whistler where everything is controlled," Mason added.

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