The winter of 2020-21 saw the highest number of avalanche fatalities in the U.S. in the last 70 years - with 37 total avalanche fatalities. Eleven of those fatalities were snowmobilers, and the lack of transceiver use and multiple burials were significant factors. BCA sled ambassador Mike Duffy reports.
By BCA sled ambassador Mike Duffy
In the last eleven years, U.S. average annual snowmobile avalanche fatalities have decreased by 50 percent. This decrease is a significant accomplishment, considering the growth in popularity of mountain riding and the capability of today's high-performance machines. This number could be significantly lower if more sledders wore transceivers and took advanced avalanche training.
Snowmobilers have been known as the user group with the most avalanche fatalities almost every winter. But contrary to that assumption, snowmobilers have only ranked first in U.S. avalanche fatalities in only 3 of the past 11 years.
Unfortunately, the winter of 2020-21 had the highest number of avalanche fatalities (all user groups combined) in the U.S. in the last 70 years - with 37 total avalanche fatalities. Both the winter of 2007-08 and the winter of 2009-2010 had 36 avalanche fatalities.In the last few years, snowmobiling without avalanche beacons has become a problem again. The lack of transceiver use and multiple people caught were significant factors contributing to avalanche fatalities in the winter of 20-21. (These issues are something that I thought we had corrected back in the early 2000s when many fatalities resulted from not having transceivers.) Regarding avalanche airbags, the 20-21 season saw a good deployment rate with airbags among snowmobilers, which hasn't been the case in past years. But terrain traps, trauma, and slow rescues were the problems in some accidents.
The bottom line with motorized users: transceiver use and advanced on-snow avalanche training make a difference in avalanche survival rates.
Below are 2020-21 winter season statistics on U.S. motorized accidents, continued problems we are seeing, and some suggested solutions for snowmobilers.
U.S. Avalanche Fatality Statistics 20-21:
Total U.S. avalanche fatalities: 37
- Snowmobile/motorized fatalities: 11 (30% of total)
- Skier fatalities: 18 (48% of total)
- Snowboarder fatalities: 4 (11% of total)
- Climber fatalities: 4 (11% of total)
Eleven motorized incidents resulted in 11 fatalities. By State: CA-1, CO-2, ID-3, MT-1, NV-1, WA-1, WY-2.
Average age of victims (all male): 45.8
Avalanche danger rating at the time of motorized fatality accident:
- Moderate-1 (9%)
- Considerable - 7 (64%)
- High - 1(9%)
- No forecast for area -1. (9%)
- N/A cornice fall - 1 (9%)
Most common type of avalanche problem in fatalities: Persistent slab: 91%
Number of accidents with "very experienced" riders: 6 (55%)
Number of accidents with multiple riders caught: 5 (45%)
Avalanche airbag stats:
- Number of victims who had airbags: 6 (55% of total)
- Number of airbag victims with deployed airbags: 5 (83%).
- Number of victims with deployed airbags with partial burial: 3. 60% (2 died from trauma).
- 45% of the victims had no transceiver or transceiver turned off.
- Transceiver off: 1 (9%)
- No transceiver: 4 (36%)
Continuing problems I'm seeing from researching motorized accidents.
Riders are having a hard time breaking habits and initiating change within their riding groups. Not changing routine sufficiently over the years when exposure has increased.
- Riders are substituting airbags for advanced avalanche education. An avalanche airbag will not enable you to survive every avalanche. Too many riders feel they just need an airbag to be safe. For an airbag to be effective, it is best used in conjunction with advanced training, good decisions, and trained riding partners.
- Riders do not understand persistent slab avalanches or how they are managed. Persistent slab avalanches are inherently dangerous, unpredictable, and large. They account for the most fatalities. You can't outsmart persistent slabs. Avoiding avalanche areas with a persistent slab problem is the only way to manage them.
- Remote triggers are likely. You don't have to be on the 30-45 degree part of the slope to trigger a slab avalanche. Watch run-out zones.
- Multiple riders being caught in avalanches delays rescue. If one rider becomes partially buried by an avalanche and has to dig himself out, it delays the rescue of others.
- Riders are not looking at consequences. Where will the avalanche take you? Trauma is a significant concern. Terrain traps compound the consequences of getting caught.
- Riders are not performing a complete transceiver check or not checking them at all. I recommend always performing a full function check, including checking the battery strength, search function, and whether each rider actually knows how to use their transceiver.
- Riders are choosing not to be educated. The education is out there. We are riding more capable machines, have better riding skills, and have increased our exposure to avalanches. Many riders' exposure far surpasses their avalanche training. Basic mistakes are being made that those with the knowledge understand and can easily avoid. It doesn't mean staying home; it means having the ability to select the right terrain for the avalanche problem(s) of the day.
- Riders are basing decisions on previous experience in the area. No two winters are the same, and neither is the stability. Previous experiences in the area are mostly irrelevant.
The Solution? Avalanche Education.
The most common factor in U.S. motorized avalanche accidents in the last five years has been the lack of advanced avalanche training. Every snowmobile rider should take a Level I avalanche course or greater. An introductory avalanche awareness class may eliminate some of the problems. A Level I course provides the essential hands-on training needed, including transceiver use, rescue scenarios, terrain analysis, route finding, stability analysis, learning how an experienced instructor views the avalanche problems/picks terrain, and much more. At least 60% of the 24-hour Level 1 course is spent on the snow.
Please don't stop your avalanche training at Level I. Last winter was a "Level II" winter, and you had to make good decisions and know what you were dealing with. Can get started with your avalanche for free with classes online at www.backcountryascender.com or from a snowmobile dealership.
- Check the avalanche forecast. Don't just look at the danger rating. Read through the entire forecast, including observations, and read the summary. A forecaster's job is to help guide you to the right terrain for conditions. Daily avalanche forecasts are well worth reading -- follow what they recommend.
- Eliminate terrain after checking the forecast. Communicate the plan with your riding group.
- Make decisions together. Work as a team and be accountable to each other.
- Ride with trained people. Make sure your riding partners are assets, not liabilities.
Avalanche Transceiver Training
Learning to use your transceiver is so simple, but a lack of basic transceiver knowledge remains a big problem in snowmobile incidents.
- Watch BCA's Transceiver Training Video series. BCA has an extensive series of snowmobile-specific transceiver training videos. Start with BCA's Intro to Avalanche Transceivers for Snowmobilers video,
- Do a trailhead transceiver check every ride. Before heading out, complete a full transceiver check and make sure everyone has avalanche gear, at minimum an avalanche transceiver, shovel, and probe. Check the charge and connections on your airbag pack. Watch BCA's Avalanche Transceiver Trailhead Test for Snowmobilers video showing how to do a transceiver check. Reminder: Riding by a beacon check station is not the complete way to check a transceiver. You don't know battery strength, whether riding partners are proficient with using their beacons, or if the transceiver is working correctly in the search mode.
- Always be observing and analyzing conditions. Forecast zones cover large areas, and snow conditions change within those areas. The forecast is only the starting point -- you need to know what is happening in real-time.
- Be proactive, not reactive, in preventing accidents.
- Ride with quality gear. Getting caught in an avalanche is the worst time to have a shovel fail. A $20 shovel was never intended for digging in avalanche debris or digging out a stuck snowmobile. The BCA A2-Ext shovel system with saw and D2-Ext shovel with hoe mode are specifically designed for snowmobilers.
I hope this was helpful!
BCA sled ambassador Mike Duffy is teaches motorized avalanche classes with his company Avalanche1.com professional avalanche education for mountain riders.