Individuals hold blame for snowmobile tragedy

  • Friday, March 19, 2010 6:43pm
  • Life

I have a terrific idea. Let’s take extremely powerful snowmobiles to the backcountry of a very steep mountain and ignore week after week of incessant avalanche warnings to go high-marking.

Each sled head will rev up the expensive engine to an ear-rocking noise level, do a Weekend Warrior gut check, decide that turning back would be too embarrassing and ride the adrenaline up insanely steep slopes to leave marks as high up the mountain as possible.

Once back down, let’s combine bragging with beer. Besides, what are the odds that we’d trigger an avalanche?

What were the odds last Saturday during the weekend’s Big Iron Shoot-Out near Revelstoke, B.C.? Ask the two snowmobilers who were high marking and weakening the snowpack just before the avalanche began.

Inquire about the odds after dozens of people, including children, were buried and tossed in a terrain trap, a natural concave part of the avalanche’s runout below the high-markers.

Picture a child tossed about like a rag doll and think about the odds. Two men died — not the high-markers — and 30 were injured, four seriously. The destruction left behind two widows and four fatherless children.

The blame game began before the last of the mangled snowmobiles had been removed.

One widow asked why the event went on in the face of the avalanche warnings (good question) but she also could have asked why individuals attended in the face of the high-risk nature of the event.

Let’s blame the snowmobile-related manufacturers whose icons were on an Internet poster that touted the event as “approved by all sled heads.”

Let’s blame the Web site while we’re at it.

Let’s blame the local volunteer snowmobilers who were, as usual, collecting the fee for access to the Boulder Mountain trail system, money used for trail maintenance. The blame game has already caught them in the net.

Let’s blame the government for not having stricter regulations about who can do what on public land during high risk times, even though we say we want less government.

Let’s blame Revelstoke, even though the event was outside its jurisdiction.

But let’s not look too closely at individual choices or lack of avalanche knowledge when information is a few clicks away.

A spokesman for the B.C. Snowmobile Federation recently insisted that education was the best way to stop risky behavior, more regulation was unnecessary, and, by the way, we really appreciate the rescue efforts.

That would be the valiant rescue efforts that were buried under an avalanche of finger-pointing.

Some have attributed the relatively low number of dead and injured to a miracle. Save your blessings for the rescuers who quickly reached the site and tirelessly saved lives. Without them, it could have been so much worse.

Avalanches don’t happen without warning. Warnings are based on science and experience. When people are in an avalanche-risky area, it’s almost always the people who trigger the avalanche, often when they’re pushing the limits.

When in or near a snowmobiling event, remember the conflicts of interest and the thread of money, and understand that you need to be the final arbitrator of safety issues.

Events such as Big Iron create a money flow from participants to organizers, corporations, sponsors, hotels and restaurants. It is unlikely that the first choice is to cancel an event.

Individuals must gather information and decide about actions, whether it’s an activity such as high-marking, or a selection of location to watch.

Your actions have consequences.

Ask the high-markers.

Ask the widows and fatherless children.

Ask the attorneys.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or

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