Springtime Riding Missions: Snowmobile Safety and Snowpack Advice

March 30, 2022

"Oh, it's spring. Cool. The snowpack's all settled out, right?" But that's a dangerous mindset. Many people still get caught in avalanches in the springtime. BCA sled ambassador Jeremy Mercier reports on how to best plan and prepare.

When BCA ambassador Jeremy Mercier heads out on his sled, he believes that preparedness and planning are critical to snowmobile safety, no matter the season. To hear more about his ideas on backcountry travel as the weather starts to warm, BCA caught up with Mercier to learn how he tackles safety and snowpack while adventuring on springtime sledding missions.

BCA: Do you change what you bring along with you in the backcountry for spring riding missions?

Jeremy Mercier: I mean, for spring riding, I treat it the same as mid-winter riding. I might have one less base layer, but you never know what's gonna happen up on that mountain, right? So you always want to be prepared if something bad happens. You want to have all the same layers you would have in January as you would in April.

As far as snowpack goes, I live in Colorado, one of the most dangerous snowpacks in the world. And so in the springtime, everyone's like, "oh, the snowpack is getting safe; it's starting to bond." But really, it doesn't happen here until like mid-April. It takes a couple of good cycles for it to really consolidate and get bolted to the mountain. So it's that time of year when you want to go. Your mind's like, "Man, I'd like to ride some big terrain. Let's go!" But you gotta use your education to make the right decision.

BCA: How does that change, let's say, in late April when the snowpack actually consolidates?

Mercier: When the snowpack becomes safer is dependent on the weather. It takes some nights of above freezing up at alpine, and then it needs to freeze all together again. And so that window changes every year. Last year in late March, we were able to ride some bigger terrain. This year, it's a little slower, we've had a really cold winter, so it's slowly getting there. And when it does happen that we have safe snowpack conditions, we still treat it the same as if it was mid-winter. If we go out with a group of sledders, we have four people watching from a good island of safety, and that rider will make the climb. We're still keeping an eye on them if something were to happen. We treat the backcountry in the spring the same way we do in the middle of the winter. The difference is that we get to go on some of those slopes in the springtime.

BCA: Do you have any springtime objectives on your list for this year?

Mercier: Oh, for sure. We roll by terrain all winter long that we know we can't touch just because of the snow and the persistent slab, especially this year. So we mentally mark all the places we want to go once the snowpack does allow, and this year there's some stuff up in the Never Summer Range that we're pretty excited to go hit once the snowpack allows but mainly all in Colorado. I'm definitely gonna try and make it down to Silverton in the spring and ride some of the stuff in the San Juans.

BCA: For somebody looking to tackle bigger objectives this spring, what advice would you give them?

Mercier: I would tell that person to be very, very educated in avalanche safety. It's huge. I've been taking avalanche education for 25 years, and I still learn something new every year. I think being up on your education is huge. Don't just rely on just the avalanche forecast. You need to go out there, do your homework, and assess a snowpack on your own. Because the forecast can change dramatically. When you ride into the backcountry 80 miles (or wherever), the forecast can change from one aspect to another and one bowl to another.

I think the biggest thing is that people have it in their mind, "Oh, it's spring. Cool. The snowpack's all settled out." But that's a dangerous mindset for 'em, right? Many people still get caught in avalanches in the springtime. So you need to keep an eye on the avalanche forecast and do your homework. That's probably the biggest thing I put out there.

BCA: Do you bring an avalanche bag with you when you travel, and if so, do you still bring it in the spring?

Mercier: Oh, I wear a Float avalanche airbag every day of the year. It doesn't matter if it's in the fall, even if we're just like riding logging roads, 'cause you never know what's above you and what can come down on you. So we always have our safety gear, beacon, avalanche probe, shovel, airbag, radios. We're always doing beacon checks in the morning or asking about each other's battery life. We do the same protocols, no matter the conditions.

About Jeremy Mercier

BCA sled ambassador Jeremy Mercier, a framer in the warmer months, takes the winter to focus on teaching people what he has learned about backcountry travel and avalanche safety. Mercier offers riding clinics and avalanche classes through his Mercier Mountain Riding School, based in Tabernash Colo. which he founded in 2021. His goal is to spread the word about how to have fun and ride safely in the Colorado backcountry.