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Snowmobiling’s coming of age

As the world changes, the sport is evolving with it

Five years ago, after the death of a Seattle sledder in the Pemberton backcountry, Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) manager Brad Sills didn’t mince words when discussing the strain snowmobiling was putting on the organization’s resources.

“Something is changing, whether it’s the technology or the demographic,” Sills said at the time, shortly after the 53-year-old man fell into a crevasse on the Appa Glacier near Pemberton (“Snowmobiling straining local rescue efforts: WSAR,” Pique Newsmagazine, March 24, 2016). “[Snowmobiling] has already replaced backcountry skiing as our No. 1 winter response.”

Sills relayed that, between 2004 and 2014, about one in five WSAR callouts was snowmobile-related.

However, speaking with Pique earlier this month, Sills has been impressed with what he’s seen from local snowmobile clubs as they have focused on boosting education, installing safety caches in the backcountry, and “promoting that sledders take care of themselves when they can.”

“There’s been a big improvement,” he says.

At a time when backcountry use is exploding thanks to COVID-19, with influxes of newer, less-experienced adventurers leading to record callout volume for nearby teams in Squamish and on the Sunshine Coast, any reduction is appreciated.

“It’s relatively new, but it has really matured, I think, in the last 10 years,” Sills says. “The safety programs being offered by the clubs have gone a long way to recognizing the need for better knowledge out there.”

In addition to boosting backcountry safety, local snowmobiling clubs have also emphasized responsible land use as a new generation of participants gets into the sport.

Changing demographics

Ryan Nadeau acknowledges the stereotypical image of a snowmobiling as a blue-collar sport, with roots in the prairie provinces.

While there are Sea to Sky snowmobilers who fit that mould, the Powder Mountain Snowmobile Club president also notes there are users who, like him, got into the sport as a means to expand their backcountry ski range but found they enjoyed the sport for its own sake and can appreciate the interests of both motorized and non-motorized users.  

Black Tusk Snowmobile Club is also bringing in the next generation of riders with growing numbers of younger riders and, specifically, women.

Hayley Auld, who sits on the club’s board of directors, has been involved for a decade, joining at age 16 after taking an avalanche safety course in order to expand her backcountry skiing reach. She’s made a point of bringing younger people out to help keep the club numbers healthy while also completing necessary physical work, such as stocking the club’s two cabins with firewood and cutting brush in the summertime.

“It’s getting people comfortable with the idea that these clubs run on volunteer time and the sooner that’s understood, the easier that is for everybody,” she says. “I encourage my peers to come out and volunteer because it has been instilled in me that we’re the future.”

Auld has noted the increasing numbers of women’s nights, while Black Tusk president Tony Cailes has observed more and more couples taking part in the sport.

“It’s becoming a couple thing where they come up to enjoy sunsets,” he says.

Nadeau’s interest in snowmobiling was piqued in 2009, after doing a heli-drop on Rainbow Mountain.

“We got clouded out on our morning drop,” he recalls. “We toured for about three hours and we were having lunch on Rainbow Peak.

“We hear this sound and we look over and there was some snow build on the top of Rainbow Peak. This was before they closed the access to that area. Some dude was up there, just brapping along and we had worked for three hours to get there and we’re exhausted.”

After that, he bought a snowmobile and started riding with friends who primarily did sled-access skiing.

Saving Sproatt

Concerned about access to Mount Sproatt, Nadeau joined Powder Mountain in 2010, first as a member of the executive team before rising through the ranks to president.

The Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP), updated by the province in 2008, zoned the 21 Mile Creek watershed as non-motorized.

Nadeau and others didn’t want to lose access to the greater Sproatt Mountain area without a fight.

“It was one of the first places I snowmobiled in Whistler and it really is a phenomenal spot,” he says.

While it was at times difficult to drive home the point to some of the community’s veterans that some compromise was necessary, he stressed that the club would dig in and hold its ground on specific key areas.

However, it was essentially an ultimatum from the province in late 2018 threatening to revoke sledders’ access to the broader area that compliance levels came down to an acceptable rate. The province and the club started with several initiatives, installing signs and a pole line. While there was some improvement, it wasn’t to the needed level, so Alistair McCrone, the Sea to Sky recreation officer with Recreation Sites and Trails BC, threatened closure at the start of the 2018-19 sledding season.

“Within three months, they had it fixed,” he says. “Kudos to the club. They were always very supportive, but they seemed to need a little bit more ammunition to convince their user group.

“I was being very forthright with them, and honest, when I said we might end up with a closure.”

The pole line was removed in the spring of 2019 and the club has continued to work on resources and tactics to keep sledders out of the restricted area, Nadeau says. That includes creating a map that can be loaded onto a cell phone or GPS without using data at powdermountainsnowmobiling.org/mobile/sproat/iWatershed.html, while also following up with those who access the watershed illegally.

“Everyone’s got their warning. The community has been advised on the policy where if you see someone going in there, tell them ‘this area is closed’ and offer to escort them out,” Nadeau says. “We’ve been talking people down and having a conversation with them, and even the most confrontational people we’ve found were just having a bad day.

“In the past, the worst offenders have actually donated money to the cause as a voluntary thing, not a fine, that was able to pay for more pamphlets that we hand out at the trailhead.”

The plan has worked, with less than 0.5 per cent of users not complying, a rate that impresses McCrone. He adds that he’s received fewer and fewer snowmobile-related complaints since the watershed issue was resolved.

“There’s been a change from 2012 or so, when we might have seen 50 or 60 users a day in the watershed on some weekends,” he says. “We’re shooting for what we call an acceptable level of infringement because we realize that we’ll never have perfection.

“When we talk about better-than-99-per-cent compliance, that’s certainly very acceptable … That level of compliance is not really heard of in any other issue I’m dealing with in the district.”

McCrone notes that while Rec Sites and Trails has had issues with individual snowmobilers over the years, the number of incidences is in line with other user groups.

When there is an issue, however, the nature of snowmobiling has the potential to create tension with other backcountry users.

“Snowmobiling is particularly contentious and it sticks out, not because it’s worse than the other user groups, but because the snowmobiler can travel so far and use so much of the land base so easily that they have a [disproportionate] impact than other users,” McCrone says. “It’s not that the people themselves are better or worse behaved. The type of recreation has more conflict because it has a larger impact, because it is motorized and fast and you can travel over lots of terrain.

“One or two guys can go into an area that’s closed and popular with skiers, spend half a day in there and there’s no fresh snow left to ski for anybody else.”

Easing the rescue burden

Even though snowmobiling’s relative demand on search-and-rescue resources is lightening somewhat, it’ll never be eliminated entirely.

“Some serious accidents happen out there and people need help, so we’re going to help them,” says Gavin Christie, a WSAR volunteer and Powder Mountain director at large. “With the amount of people going snowmobiling and the activity out there, it’s not really producing that much more than our backcountry skiers or our slackcountry skiers.”

Nadeau explains that though the bulk of sledders understand the risks, like in activity, there will always be some who act recklessly. Even so, there are situations where users find themselves in peril even when they’ve been riding responsibly.

“We are a significant part of search-and-rescue’s response calls,” Nadeau says. “There is a recognition in the community that the sport is dangerous and you need to be prepared, but there are people that don’t take it as seriously as they should.

“There are still accidents. People still hit trees. People still get lost. People still get injured.”

The vast amount of terrain snowmobiles have the potential to access can be problematic when compared to a self-propelled sport, particularly if users overestimate their abilities, Sills says. In addition to posing issues for SAR teams, it makes it especially crucial for snowmobilers to be well prepared.

“Snowmobiles can travel a huge distance in a day, so extra food and clothing is even more imperative,” he says. “Whereas we may be able to get to somebody that’s just outside the ski-area boundaries, it’s quite another thing to go to Overseer or some of the remote peaks way back in the Pemberton ice fields.

“Those riders tend to be in the upper echelon and are already doing that. The concern is that new people coming into the sport look at that and think, ‘That’s what I’m going to do, too’ but without that knowledge.”

Local clubs have been at the forefront of safety messaging for some time. Black Tusk Snowmobile Club president Tony Cailes notes that the club launched its own Alpine Learning Centre at the top of Brohm Ridge, which will mark is 20th anniversary next year.

Cailes says more than 1,300 students have gone through their AST-1 and AST-2 courses through the program. He notes that search-and-rescue crews from across the province also send team leaders to the centre.

“We’re high enough, in the government’s eyes, that we teach search and rescue their Level 2-Plus,” he says. “They send team leaders from all across the province to Brohm Ridge and they spend four days up there studying avalanches. It’s an amazing course, but due to the COVID crap this year, that course has been cancelled.”

Meanwhile, the Powder Mountain club is also taking steps towards creating a safer backcountry environment. One recent initiative was installing what Nadeau calls a “lunar lander” modular shelter structure near Ring Mountain. The two three-by-three-metre pieces were installed in mid-October, with a shipping container base and an insulated shelter on top.

“It’s all custom fabricated, built in our parking lot, and we went out and installed it in a day,” he says.

The impetus was an occasion last winter when roughly 20 snowmobilers were stranded after the weather turned on a bluebird day and they took shelter for the night in a culvert.

Nadeau says the structure will be a step up for those who find themselves in need.

“You wouldn’t want to camp there on purpose. It’s not the vibe for a party spot,” he says. “But if you have a mechanical [issue] or the weather rolls in, you can have at least 10 people in there and have a warm evening without worrying about losing toes.”

As well, Christie notes that there are five safety caches in the backcountry with plans for two more.

“There’s a full-package first aid kit in there so when people do have incidents, they’ve got some good first aid stuff to take care of the person until SAR can get there,” he says.

While general backcountry advice applies to snowmobilers as well as all other users, Christie has some specific recommendations for equipment.

“If you have a $10,000 snowmobile, you can afford an InReach [Garmin satellite communicator] to have two-way satellite communication,” he says. “That’s a required thing people should have out in the backcountry, especially if they don’t really know where they are.

“From a SAR perspective, it’s awesome to get actual GPS locations for one, and second, to be able to communicate and get a much better picture of what’s going on on the ground.”

As well, Christie reiterates that being prepared and, particularly, being practised, is key. As an instructor, he will often run exercises during training where he’ll surreptitiously hide his transceiver and then start the five-minute drill.

“I come back and I say, ‘All right, clock starts now. There’s an avalanche over this way,’” he says. “Inevitably, people will run over there with their transceivers, get really close to it and start kicking snow. They’ve forgotten their shovels and then they have to go back to their packs … and then time runs out.”

As well, Christie stresses that riders should keep visual tabs on one another rather than relying exclusively on radios.

Increased agility

Though snowmobile technology itself is improving, Christie notes that machines are sticking mostly to similar terrain.

However, an emerging difficulty comes with snow bikes, which rely on added agility and their sleeker sizes to weave through thickly treed areas and reach new locales.

“When they get into tighter trees, it’s a place that a snowmobile is just not going to fit,” he says. “With that agility and manoeuvrability, they’re getting into some more interesting places where we haven’t seen tracks before.”

Christie adds that a snow bike can ride along a sidehill easily, whereas it’s an advanced manoeuvre to tackle similar terrain on a snowmobile.

Last month, two experienced snow bikers, including Squamish Lillooet Regional District project coordinator Graham Haywood, were killed after being caught in an avalanche in the Goat Peak area (“Two snow-bikers dead following Pemberton Pemberton avalanche,” Pique Newsmagazine, Dec. 29, 2020).

Sills says that learning what is and isn’t safe sometimes comes with a cost, and the Sea to Sky can be an unforgiving teacher.

“Snow-biking is in its formative years and there’s going to be a learning curve there as to the terrain that’s safe to ride in,” he says. “Snow bikes will go just about anywhere and while people, when they first get them, want to take them just about everywhere, and I think that community is going to have to define their own boundaries.”

Issues on the horizon

Though there has been increased cooperation on the land-use front, there are still ongoing discussions between motorized and self-propelled user groups and the province regarding whether motorized or non-motorized designations or boundaries should be changed in the Land and Resource Management Plan in numerous areas in the Sea to Sky.

The local users, headed by Nadeau, and the province, represented by McCrone, would not elaborate on the details of the discussions, saying only that there is finally progress being made after years of inertia.

“It wouldn’t be productive to talk about these discussions, which are very much in the beginning stage,” McCrone says. “We’ll get farther along in the process and then we’ll share more information.”

Closer to Squamish, meanwhile, Cailes is concerned about the planned Garibaldi at Squamish resort, which would jeopardize access to Brohm Ridge.

“Brohm is the beginner area, so it’s one of the safest places you can actually ride a snowmobile just for the controllable avalanche exposure,” he says. “You don’t have to get into that deep snow. You don’t have to go anywhere, whereas in those other drainages, you’re kind of exposed.”