In every day life mistakes are made. No person is the epitome of perfection. Like all people, Snowmobilers are human and make mistakes. This is a fact. Most go out with the intention of making wise choices but mistakes happen.
There is a tremendous amount of shame in the snowmobile world especially when it comes to back country safety mistakes. Disorientation, lack of preparedness, lack of communication and terrain management mistakes top the list.
The most publicized snowmobile mistake is without a doubt a human triggered avalanche. There is always a mistake present when an avy is human caused.. When avalanches are triggered without fatality, riders often hide the event so as not to appear like one of “those” riders. I was no different.
Early one Sunday morning a few years back our group of four headed out into the back country. It is interesting to note that each one of us had a sense of foreboding the night before. Conditions we knew were sketchy so wise choices were a must. That sense of foreboding was amplified about an hour into the ride. This was an exploratory adventure with no set course. We had to make choices every step of the way, but found ourselves at a pivot point on our journey.
We were deep into the British Columbia back country. In order for us to continue we had to drop into a basin with many possible starting points to choose from. We actually had a discussion and chose what we thought was the chute of least consequence. For me as a back country rider I’d much rather go up, than down. The concentration needed to not slam on your brakes when descending at a high rate of speed is almost unfathomable in some situations. It seems counter intuitive to not use breaks but use the throttle to allow the motor to slow the machine down. If you were to grab a handful of brake, the machine and rider would most certainly fishtail sideways causing an uncontrolled roll usually resulting in injury and severe damage to the sled. Gentle revving of the throttle, and when the opportunity presents itself scooping new snow with the skis is a safe way to execute a steep and quick descent. Once the drop opens up powder carves are a euphoric way to further slow the machine down while grabbing a face full of freshies. A snowmobilers dream!
As we discussed options with the group I knew without a doubt I didn’t want to be the last rider down. My husband was in this situation a few weeks before and found himself cartwheeling down the icy luge run with his sled. The first rider down has fresh snow to help slow momentum while the last rider down has skinny snow that has been packed into ice amplifying the degree of difficulty. I offered to go go first, but the moment I spoke up I felt a huge pang in my gut and in my heart. Spidey senses were tingling. It was decided that I would not be the first down, but second. My husband literally stood in front of me and said, “there is no way in HELL you are dropping first”. Knowing he was right I happily complied. He also wasn’t feeling sure of the snowpack stability or what would be encountered on the way down. Flat light added another variable to this drop. The first man down was a skilled, educated and seasoned rider. I was slated to be second with my husband being the last man down. He was one of the strongest riders in the group and offered to take one for the team.
The first rider started down, but in a matter of seconds the chute broke and the avalanche was rolling. “Watch him!!!!” Someone yelled. This was the scenario that plagued the deepest places in my soul. Watching a close friend devoured by an avalanche, while being helpless in that moment to do anything but watch for him.
Luckily he rode the avalanche out and was able to ride out of the slide path. It was about a class two slide possibly a class three with the capability of taking a life but we were lucky. This incident did not have an injury or fatality. To this day I’m honestly not sure if I would have had the skill or the composure to ride that slide out like he did, and I know I never ever want to find out.
Through radio contact, we developed a plan of action. The rest of us did not drop as there were adjacent slopes ready to rip and hang fire still present. We decided upon a rally point, and met up with the rider involved about an hour after the incident. We all were shaken and humbled by the power of natures fury.
What if he had died in that avalanche? Would I have explained to his wife the mistakes we had made? Would I explain that all of us knew the situation was potentially unsafe with huge consequences yet we still continued forth? Would I explain that we made poor terrain choices and were unable to bring her husband home alive? Would we sugar coat it and use a phrase like, “at least he died doing what he loved”? Would we be able to face her? Would we embrace her? Would we tell the truth? Would we share this event with others so the same mistakes could perhaps be avoided?
I felt such shame after this incident. I’m supposed to be a leader in the community, how could I do something so stupid. There is a simple answer. I am human and humans do make mistakes. The beauty is we can learn from each other and learn from our mistakes, which I have. We all have.
If we lose the shame stigma and reach out to others humbly when we screw up we could actually save a life. If we do not minimize the potential consequences of poor choices, and choose to say it like it is, we could save a life.
When riders reach out after making a mistake, there always will be those who want to use our mistakes as fuel against our sport. “Those stupid snowmobilers should be banned from the back country”. How often after an avalanche fatality do you hear a reference to Darwinism? It really isn’t hard to understand why people may try to keep their poor choices a secret, but at some point we have to focus on what truly matters. Lives, lives matter.
If you make a mistake be a person of honor and share that mistake with other riders so that they may learn and hopefully not repeat it. If you have triggered a slide without injury or fatality utilize the Mountain Information Network found at http://www.avalanche.ca to report and log your incident and snowpack information. The MIN and other reporting resources help give others a deeper understanding of snow pack conditions allowing them to make safer and more informed decisions.
Be a rider of integrity and truth. While you may feel shame and perhaps ridicule when sharing your poor choices, you can help create a safer and stronger snowmobile community by doing so.