Terrain Traps and Trauma: U.S. Snowmobile Avalanche Fatalities 2017/18

By BCA Sled Ambassador Mike Duffy

Did you know that for the last eight years, every other year has been a high fatality year for snowmobile avalanche deaths? The truth is that the 17/18 winter season was indeed a bad one for snowmobile avalanche fatalities in the U.S., and the eight-year trend forecasted this. Riders are very reactionary to accidents, then soon forget and go back to bad habits. Technology, training and good decisions led to many saves in 16/17, but fewer this season. Some riders have been relying on technology for a save, instead of knowledgeable decisions. It’s much easier to “wing it” or continue as usual and hope for the best than it is to take the time to get the education, practice new skills and change riding habits. Many areas that are known for snowmobile avalanche fatalities had very few this season, most likely due to low snow, but many were due to smart decisions. But other areas such as Washington, had more fatalities than normal.

We can learn from these facts about tragic avalanche deaths to reduce accidents and the suffering of all involved.

TOTAL US AVALANCHE FATALITIES 2017/18:

    1. U.S. Avalanche fatalities: 25
    2. U.S. Snowbike fatalities: 1
    3. U.S. Snowmobile avalanche fatalities: 11

Breakdown of U.S. Snowmobile Avalanche Fatalities 2017/18:

  • 44% of the total US avalanche fatalities were snowmobiles, the the user group with most deaths
  • 36% of the snowmobilers killed did not have a transceiver (2), a transceiver turned on (1) or a functioning transceiver due to 0% battery strength (1).
  • 45 % of the snowmobilers died from trauma. The average is approximately 30%.
  • 64 % of the snowmobilers killed had airbags.
  • 43% of those killed with airbags did not deploy the airbag.
  • 57% of those killed with airbags died from trauma.
  • 36% of the snowmobile fatalities were from Washington State.

If we had the instability of this past winter ten years ago, we probably would have set a record ten years ago for snowmobile avalanche fatalities. But fortunately, in many areas, properly equipped riders, successful rescues, and good decisions kept the fatality rate in check.

WHAT CAN WE DO TO REDUCE SNOWMOBILE AVALANCHE FATALITIES?

  1. Take your education to a higher level. The area with highest snowmobile avalanche fatalities last year, Washington State, has a low percentage of riders who have current higher level training (24-hour Level I course).
  2. Use and practice with transceivers and do transceiver checks daily.
  3. Analyze terrain: do not have multiple riders on the slope or in the runout area (40% of victims). Remember, an airbag doesn’t work as well if you’re caught at the bottom of a slide initiated by others.
  4. Alter your riding according to the danger.

Why are we seeing riders with avalanche airbags killed?

  1. Riders are counting on avalanche airbag technology instead of avalanche education/good decisions.
  2. A higher percentage of riders now have airbags.
  3. Riders sometimes aren’t deploying their airbags.
  4. Riders aren’t recognizing terrain traps they are in–or that they could be taken into from an avalanche.

Avalanche airbags are more popular now, yet this past season’s avalanche fatalities indicate riders did not always deploy and that trauma was the most significant factor in airbag fatalities.

How can you be more effective with an avalanche airbag?
For higher effectiveness, an airbag must be  used in conjunction with training, avalanche gear (transceiver, shovel, probe) and avalanche trained riding partners.

  1. Check the airbag pack every time you ride. Make sure trigger handle is out at the beginning of the day and practice reaching for it.
  2. Use the leg strap. It keeps the pack on the body.
  3. Consider the consequences. Many avalanches are not survivable. Where will the avalanche take you? It is extremely hard to survive being taken into trees, rocks and off cliffs. Is all the mass of the avalanche above you? Where are you parked?
  4. Check the forecast and alter your riding accordingly.
  5. Use progression of terrain and stability tests to verify instability. See what’s happening in lower consequence terrain and remember  that stability tests are to confirm instability, not to negate it. Avalanche forecasting is a difficult job and conditions can vary within a forecast zone. The forecast is the starting point and you need to gain more information throughout the day. Some days it is best to stick to low angle terrain.
  6. Advanced education is essential for the sleds we are riding and our riding skills. These are very preventable fatalities. In many cases, the instability and mistakes made are very obvious to riders with level I and II training. These are the classes with extensive time spent on the snow. Your entire group needs the training.
  7. Speak up, don’t just follow. You can voice your opinion by hitting the brakes or getting out of an area. Radio ahead that you don’t feel this is a good terrain decision.
  8. Ride like a professional. A true professional has both riding skill and professional level avalanche training. Many well known riders do not.

For more information, visit avalanche.org.


Mike Duffy is Director and Lead instructor at Avalanche1. He travels annually across the country presenting sled-specific avalanche safety training at snowmobile dealer and club locations.