Avalanche professionals seek to raise awareness among Alberta snowmobilers

Know before you go: A snapshot of a Mountain Information Network (MIN) post in Calgary on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. MIN reports allow backcountry users to share observations on specific avalanche terrain. (Photo by Pat Lemoine/The Press)

As more Albertans continue to venture into the province’s avalanche terrain each year, organizations like Avalanche Canada are faced with the increasing task of keeping recreationists safe – whether they travel on foot, skis, or motor vehicle.

While there were no Alberta snowmobile fatalities in avalanche terrain in 2021, snowmobilers and snow bikers did account for six of the twelve fatalities nationwide; and since 2012, 42 of Canada’s 104 avalanche fatalities have occurred on snowmobiles. Snowmobilers are generally at more risk due to their ability to travel long distances over varying avalanche terrain, as well as the fact that snowmobiles deliver approximately five times more energy to a snowpack than a skier.

“We meet with [snowmobilers] to find out what’s going on in the snowmobile industry,” said Alex Cooper, a communications associate for Avalanche Canada, “[and to find out] where we can apply our efforts to make sure that we’re reaching out and getting snowmobilers trained.”

Avalanche Canada utilizes several programs to target snowmobilers specifically, and according to their 2021 annual report, “make significant efforts to make and maintain connections throughout Western Canada, with a specific emphasis on reaching riders in Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

Avalanche Canada launched a dedicated snowmobile outreach program in 2011 and introduced a snowmobile mentorship program in 2020. They also collaborate with groups such as the Alberta Snowmobile Association (ASA) to provide information and training guidelines.

Courses are provided by Avalanche Canada and similar organizations throughout the winter season, with the most popular program being the Avalanche Skills Training (AST1) course. Out of the 15,029 students enrolled in courses in 2020-2021, only eight per cent were snowmobilers.

Shane Lavery, 31, has recently taken up the sport of backcountry snowmobiling after nearly ten years of ski touring.

“The safety protocols in general when it comes to snowmobilers, at least in my limited experience so far … it seems to be a lot more lax,” says Lavery.

On the differences between ski touring and snowmobiling, Lavery says it comes down to increased exposure and magnitude.

“[The] sheer amount of exposure versus a ski tourer or a snowshoer [means] you can get to ten times the amount of terrain in a fraction of the time,” said Lavery, “I think the propensity to actually cause larger events is definitely there when it comes to sledding in comparison to skiing or split-boarding.”

While avalanche awareness amongst snowmobilers remains a concern, awareness amongst all general practitioners has risen steadily throughout the years. One tool to measure this growth is the increase in Mountain Information Network (MIN) postings. MINs are a way to share avalanche observations and trip reports to both recreationists and professionals.

Since its inception in 2014, more than 13,000 reports have been uploaded to the database. Out of the 5,561 submitted MINs during the 2020-21 season, 476 were in Alberta — a 205 per cent increase from the previous year. For comparison, B.C. users logged 3,445 reports in the same time span, which was a 125 per cent increase from the previous year.

S(no)w limits: Shane Lavery speaks from his Jasper home on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. Lavery is an accomplished backcountry skier/snowboarder who has recently taken up snowmobiling. (Photo by Pat Lemoine/The Press)



About Pat Lemoine 8 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Pat Lemoine worked as a writer for The Press in 2022.