Four Points of Snowmobile Safety to mitigate avalanche danger

December 1, 2021

Certified avalanche instructor and BCA sled ambassador Mike Duffy’s breakdown on how snowmobilers can stay safe and prepared in the backcountry.

BCA ambassador, longtime snowmobiler, and American Avalanche Association certified instructor Mike Duffy has spent the last few decades working to spread the word of avalanche safety for snowmobilers. During his time spent educating mountain riders, Duffy began to notice trends shift in snowmobile avalanche fatalities. Avalanche tragedies originally born from a lack of proper gear among snowmobilers began to occur more frequently as a result of a lack of proper education. 

When educating backcountry skiers, you find many people are new to it and you have a clean slate. With snowmobilers though, many people have been snowmobiling for 20, 30, or 40 years—they started as kids. It’s hard to break their habits. They have a transceiver, but they don’t do transceiver checks. Changing habits is challenging and that’s what Mike Duffy is working to do with his Avalanche1 classes geared specifically towards motorized users. That’s why he’s come up with four points of safety performance in his curriculum for avalanche safety that he offers at his Avalanche1 avy school for mountain riders. 

Point One: Check the forecast.

It still amazes me how many people don’t check the forecast. Too many people make the mistake of just looking at the danger rating. Instead, I want to encourage people to read through the avy forecast and know what avalanche problems you’re dealing with. The problem is that when people look at the overall danger rating, they’re like, “Oh, today is moderate, we’re good to go.” But someone who’s well-trained looks at the danger rating and they don’t care if it’s moderate as much as they care to see if there is a persistent weak layer or a deep persistent slab. You can still trigger an avalanche that can kill someone if there’s a moderate danger rating. So many of the people who do not have a higher level of education look at the forecast and think, “It’s moderate danger, that means moderate-sized avalanches.” But that’s not true.

With a persistent weak layer—a deep persistent slab—it may be harder to trigger, so that is why the danger rating has dropped to moderate, but moderate instability can still produce a huge avalanche.

One of the big problems is that people aren’t understanding persistent weak layers. Once you understand that, it changes the whole thinking process because the only way to fully manage a persistent weak layer is to stay off the slope. They’re very unpredictable avalanches, they’re inherently dangerous and the stability varies tremendously across the slope. Tracks on the slope mean nothing as far as stability is concerned. And to understand that in a forecast takes a higher level of training.

Point Two: Check the weather. 

Is the weather contributing to the avalanche danger on that day? Is the danger increasing because of more snow, rain, wind moving snow, temperature, etc.? The other thing with weather is visibility. As snowmobilers, we ride at elevation many times and if you can’t see what’s above you, you’re missing the clues. If you’re going up above timberline and you can’t see recent avalanches, you can’t see where the cornices are, with the way the wind is blowing, recent activity, you’re going to run into some big problems—you’re missing the visible clues you need to alter your riding according to the danger.

Point Three: Eliminate areas to ride based on the current forecast and weather.

Take things off your plate based on the avalanche problems/weather for the day. This is what the heli industry does. They have runs that are green—they’re good to go. They have runs that are closed. They also have runs on standby, because they need more information about stability. As recreationists, we need to do the same. We need to take areas with dangerous unpredictable avalanche problems off our plate. We also need to make sure we communicate that to the group and agree on that decision. It needs to be open communication with all group members. 

Point Four: Do a gear check - radios and beacons.

You don't just walk up to someone with your transceiver to see if they’re transmitting. BCA did a video on the best process to check both transmit and search mode. So many people don’t do it. When we’re switching our transceivers over to transmit, everyone needs to note what their battery strength is. Then everyone needs to switch to search mode. That way we know that everyone knows how to switch to search. Then one person switches back to transmit and everyone walks away to figure out the effective range of their transceiver. They then turn around and head back towards and past the person transmitting.

The benefit of this process is that you know if you have any electrical devices on that may be interfering with the range of the transceiver and you also get to practice with your transceiver. Then everyone switches back to transmit and the person who was transmitting while the others were searching goes down the trail and switches to search. Everyone drives by that person and that person gives them the OK signal if they are transmitting. That way you’ve checked every single transceiver in both modes. So many people get sloppy with this. In snowmobiling, we’re trying to figure out the accident trends. As you know, 70% of fatalities are from asphyxiation, 30% are from trauma and, a couple of years ago, we had almost 50% from trauma and we were thinking, “Well, we’re eliminating the asphyxiation fatalities because people are getting better at rescue.” But in the last few years in the motorized market, the lack of having a transceiver or not having a transceiver turned on is the number one factor in avalanche fatalities. It was like we jumped back to 1996 when the problem was that people didn’t have transceivers.

Back then, most snowmobilers didn’t have avalanche gear and there was a big push to get motorized recreators using avalanche gear, and they did. Then we realized that many riders didn’t know how to use the gear, so then we were teaching people how to use the gear properly. Fatalities started to drop. Now, most of the fatalities are due to operator error, not having a transceiver, or not having it turned on.

Radio checks go the same way. Turn them on and check, does everyone have a full battery? Sync with your riding group on a preset channel, can you hear each other AOK? If you hear chatter from another group, static or noise, switch to another common channel.

Final words from Mike Duffy

I’ve snowmobiled and skied since I was a little kid in New Hampshire and so I got level 1 and 2 avalanche training and then I was with the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, a volunteer rescue group out of Eagle County Colo. There was a winter in the early-mid 90s where there were two avalanche fatalities within two weeks, and I knew both people. At that time, avalanche education was pretty expensive—it was $400 back then for a level 1 class, so myself and three other guys from Vail Mountain Rescue said, “We’re going to offer a class for around $65 because we’d rather spend our time educating people than retrieving their bodies.” That’s how I got started. I think our first class was in 1994, and by 1996 it got really popular and the local college picked up the class.

But at one point, being a motorized user, I noticed that all education was geared toward skiers and snowboarders. I’d been trained as a heli guide and I was looking at the curriculum and I was thinking, “This is wrong. A lot of the subject matter can be applied to snowmobilers, but snowmobilers operate differently.” So I came up with a curriculum for snowmobilers and I went nationwide with it in 2006.