Snowmobile accident highlights backcountry danger
Snowmobiling enthusiasts have always found plenty of places to ride in the Truckee-Tahoe area, both on designated trails and in backcountry areas.
The growing popularity of the sport and the recent warm weather are sure to bring more riders hoping to get some late-season riding in to the Truckee area.
Last weekend, Truckee-resident Troy Taylor drowned after his sled broke through the ice at Boca Reservoir. The incident highlights safety considerations, especially as weather warms up and ice melts.
Being safe on a sled is not difficult, but it does take some planning. Below are a number of safety tips for snowmobilers, put together with the help of Thor Schjelderup, co-owner of Thin Air Motorsports in Truckee, and Cpl. Walt Jones of the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team.
No. 1, according to Schjelderup, is “When you go out for a ride, you always want to go with somebody. Don’t ride alone. You know, some people will go out for a quick little ride and that’s usually what will get you into trouble.”
“The old standby is that for every hour you ride, it’s a day’s hike out,” Schjelderup said.
The proposition of being hours or days away from your destination if something does go wrong brings Jones to his primary recommendation:
“No. 1, be prepared in case your machine breaks down and you have to spend the night outside,” he said.
Being prepared means having supplies such as food and water, warm clothing and a first aid kit on hand.
“I always ride with a survival kit that has enough supplies to last an overnight stay if I needed to – matches and a first aid kit,” Schjelderup said, adding that knowing some winter survival techniques such as how to start a fire and how to build a snow cave makes a lot of sense for snowmobiling enthusiasts.
In case you do get stuck in the backcountry while snowmobiling, Schjelderup emphasizes that staying put and allowing rescuers to find you is preferable to trying to walk out or find your way back.
“If you do get lost or stuck or you break down, don’t try to hike out,” he said. “Stay put and let rescuers come to you. You run the risk of getting further lost and making rescue more difficult. And you expend a lot of energy doing that.”
Especially helpful to rescuers is leaving a copy of your intended route with a spouse or someone else who would expect you back at a certain time.
Jones also said that sticking to established trails will greatly increase the likelihood of a quick rescue in the event that something goes wrong.
“We prefer that you stick to the established trails. It makes it immensely easier to find you if you stick to the trails,” Jones said.
Other tools that can be helpful in emergency situations include cell phones and GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers.
Schjelderup is a big advocate of two-way GPS systems that allow riders to see not only their own position, but the position of their partner as well. GPS receivers are becoming more popular as prices go down and the technology is more refined Schjelderup said.
Both Jones and Schjelderup recommended bringing a cell phone along as well, although Schjelderup noted that much of the backcountry area around Truckee gets very poor or no cell phone coverage whatsoever.
“Cell phones are kind of a sketchy thing because the coverage is terrible,” Schjelderup said. “Generally, the only time you’re going to get any cell phone coverage is if you get up on a mountain peak. I ride with mine just in case – maybe I’ll get lucky. But anywhere I ride in this area up here, coverage is very sporadic.”
Local hazards that snowmobilers should be aware of include the risk of avalanches after big storms and the unpredictable nature of frozen lakes and rivers.
While noting that avalanches aren’t as big a danger here as they are in places such as Colorado or British Columbia, Schjelderup does recommend that riders go out with an avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel just in case.
Avalanche danger in the Sierra is highest right after a storm, and usually the snow settles after a few days; however, groups of riders should always be prepared for the worst and should check on local conditions before heading out. The Weather Channel will post avalanche warnings on days when there is a risk, and more detailed information is available at the U.S. Forest Service’s Web site http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/tahoe/currentconditions/avalanche/index.html.
The recent warm temperatures make crossing frozen lakes and streams especially dangerous according to Jones, who recommends that snowmobilers avoid driving on any kind of ice at this time of the year.
“Riding on lakes, especially in our area here, is a pretty dangerous thing unless we’ve had a really good cold snap. A lot of people who are from the East, they drive their cars on the lakes because it’s so cold and it’s a common thing. The problem here is because we have so many sunny days, our lakes never really get solid consistently. They’re always fluctuating.”
Being safe while snowmobiling is mostly a matter of common sense, being aware of one’s surroundings and the changing weather, and being prepared to deal with the conditions one might face in the wilderness.
Jones offered one more piece of wishful advice, “If you’re planning on getting lost, please call us ahead of time.”