Guiding Light

Last year Dan Gardiner wrote a story about the many potential dangers we encounter every time we venture out on a snowmobile ride. From avalanche’s to broken bones – even something as simple as a damaged machine can place the most cautious rider in a position of terrible peril. Snowmobiles provide us with access to a wide variety of wondrous back country locations but we must remember that this is a wilderness pursuit whose environment demands respect and a certain amount of preparedness in case things go awry.

There are many items a sledder should carry to ensure a safe trip but the best way to mitigate risk is by hiring a professional guide, recognizing a lead hand or by establishing some sort of buddy system among your riding group. The majority of non alcohol related snowmobile mishaps are caused when one rider or an entire group becomes disoriented and lose their way. An unplanned overnight is never fun and wasting time looking for a truant rider is nonproductive and frustrating for everyone. A properly planned outing and group maintenance will keep your riding companions together, maximize riding time and provide a safe and enjoyable riding experience.

Of course there are a number of factors which will dictate how you decide to approach this issue including; group size, riding ability, awareness of the riding area, rider experience and group familiarity. Perhaps the following list can assist you with these decisions:

1. Professional Guide: If you are riding in a new area or find yourself in a completely different part of the world I would highly recommend the services of a tour guide. Locals are especially familiar with an area’s unique features and are acute to the dangers which a visitor might encounter. A professional escort will be in tune with snow and avalanche conditions, can direct you to the best vistas and secret powder caches and will usually pack in lunches, extra fuel and whatever safety equipment is required. Make certain you are completely honest about your group’s ability and explain exactly what kind of experience you are looking for. It may cost a few extra dollars but this will seem like a pittance when compared to the money you’ve already invested in the trip and the value it will add to your experience.

2. Point man: When travelling with a reasonably sized group (less than 10 people) the lead rider assumes responsibility for everyman behind him. Granted this liability is shared with every rider who is accountable for the next sled in line.
a. Take a head count and know exactly how many people are in the group
b. Observe every riders ability and ride at a pace that is comfortable for the slowest rider (it’s important to pick your riding group carefully)
c. Stop at every intersection and wait for the entire group to catch up before proceeding
d. Stop at regular intervals to keep the group bunched, shoot the breeze and ensure that all sleds are working properly and that everyone is comfortable with the speed, terrain and climatic conditions
e. Stop and regroup before altering your course or before entering a particularly tangly chute, ascent, descent, etc. You want to make certain that everyone is capable of engaging the change in terrain especially if a return trip is not possible for all hands
f. Take the time to observe an especially picturesque moment, to allow the warriors in the group to play in a powder bowl or do some hill climbs, and to chat with other sledders who might offer riding suggestions or warnings about what lies ahead.
g. Observe the rules of the trail and any warning signs posted along the way. By setting a good example the lead rider will establish a standard that the group will follow.
h. Immediately point to any obstacles so that the rider behind can evade the same. For particularly dangerous situations bring the group to a halt and discuss the situation before proceeding.
i. Know and use your hand signals to communicate with approaching riders and all those who follow
j. Pull to one side at road crossings and assume the role of traffic cop – observing oncoming vehicles and directing riders to proceed or stop.
k. Reassure less experienced riders frequently. Advise them not to attempt anything they are uncomfortable with and use every opportunity to teach and explain the nuances of their sled. There is no shame in getting stuck as long as you are learning.

3. Buddy System: This is an especially effective approach when riding with a mix of riders who are less apt to stick together for an entire day. We use this approach when riding in especially tangly terrain and we want to weed out the weaker riders at the onset. When using the buddy system the entire group is divided into pairs and those two riders are only responsible for each other. In this way a riding pair can cut out and head home early or find terrain which is better suited to their ability. It also provides riders with the option to change their plans at any point during the trip – perhaps they weren’t aware of how much time is spent waiting when part of the group is filming, they may not have understood how tight the trees were going to be or how deep the snow might be in a particular area.

There are many synergies which can be realized when riding with a group (loading sleds, camaraderie, getting stuck) but the sum of the parts will only create a bigger hole if you can’t find a way to stick together!

Sweat your brains out!
-Andrew McCartht