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Making high marks

Snowmobiling now is No. 1 cause of death among avalanche victims

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2004

SPOKANE, Wash. Justin Frederickson was gunning his snowmobile up a 50-degree slope in the Sawtooth National Forest near Ketchum, Idaho, part of a competition with fellow riders to see who could ride his machine highest.

The competition would cost him his life, one more victim in the rising conflict between avalanches and snowmobilers.

Frederickson was midway up the slope on Feb. 28 when the snow beneath broke loose. The resulting 450-foot wide avalanche tore down the mountain with such force that pieces of the snowmobile were stuck into trees.

His companions located Frederickson, 29, in about 10 minutes under 6 feet of debris. But it took 25 minutes to dig his battered body out, and the Kimberly, Idaho, resident did not respond to CPR.

Frederickson was one of five victims in the United States so far this year of a relatively new sport called high-marking that is largely responsible for a spike in snowmobiler deaths since the 1990s, according to experts.

Only 36 snowmobilers died in avalanches from the winter of 1985 through the winter of 1997, largely because the lumbering machines were too heavy to travel up steep slopes. Backcountry skiers and climbers were the most common avalanche victims.

But at least 84 snowmobilers have died in avalanches in the past seven winters, many while high-marking on lighter, more powerful machines that are capable of climbing 50-degree slopes. Snowmobiling is now the No. 1 cause of death among avalanche victims, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

''There is a direct correlation between this technological advance and the number of fatalities among snowmobile riders,'' said Doug Abromeit of the U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho. ''It's a huge issue.''

It's also largely a Western issue, as no snowmobilers are known to have been killed by avalanche outside the West, Abromeit said.

In high-marking, riders gun their snowmobiles up a slope until they lose momentum. Then they jerk their machines over, leaving a line at their highest point, and race back down the slope.

The problem is that the weight of a machine and rider can instantly trigger an avalanche.

This year, five snowmobilers have died in avalanches. Last year it was 14, and in 2001-2002 it was 18.

Ed Klim of the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association said the industry does not agree that the more powerful snowmobiles are dangerous. But more education programs are needed to teach riders how to avoid avalanches, Klim said.

High marking is ''done every day, thousands of times'' without incident, Klim said.

Techniques that teach people how to avoid avalanches are as simple as noting areas where trees have been knocked over by previous slides, Klim said. ''You can tell where the avalanche chutes are.''

Abromeit agreed that education and not regulation, is the answer.

''A person has to recognize avalanche terrain and recognize when the snowpack is unstable,'' he said, and that should be as much a part of a snowmobiling day as fueling the machine.

Particularly dangerous are slopes greater than 35 degrees, on rainy or windy days. Only one person should be on a slope at a time, to keep the weight down and to leave potential rescuers should a slide occur, Abromeit said. Snowmobilers also should carry avalanche beacons, shovels and other rescue gear, he said.

Abromeit noted that more than half of avalanche deaths still involve nonmotorized activities, including skiers, snowboarders and climbers.

''A lot of people in the avalanche community point their fingers at snowmobile riders like they are more reckless than the rest of us are. But they are not,'' he said.

Even though this has not been a bad year for avalanche deaths, it has been tough on Washington state residents. Avalanches killed snowmobilers near Blewett Pass and Snoqualmie Pass this winter, and a Washington snowmobiler was killed in an avalanche near Sandpoint, Idaho.

And disaster was narrowly averted on the afternoon of Jan. 31, when up to 50 snowmobilers gathered on slopes near the Alpine Lakes Wilderness to high-mark on a 45-degree slope. They triggered an avalanche 1,000 feet across.

Most people at the bottom were able to start their machines and race out of the avalanche path before the slide struck. But two people were completely buried. Both were dug out and survived.



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