For the Star 

Snow and mountain safety for snowmachiners targeted by group

Avalanche Safety Center held special education event for motorized backcountry users


Photo courtesy Sarah Carter

Getting unstuck is one of many topics covered last week when the Alaska Avalanche Information Center Valdez offered a backcountry safety workshop designed specifically for snowmachine riders.

With today's snowmobiles getting lighter, faster and able to reach speeds exceeding 100 mph, riders are venturing further into the backcountry and higher up on the slopes.

Thompson Pass provides the perfect playground for riders from Valdez and around the world.

While this may be great for the town and for those wanting to explore new terrain, it also puts riders in dangerous terrain faster and further out into the mountains than ever before.

This season Alaska has already lost three people in what are believed to be avalanches in Hatcher Pass. To help offset this trend and ensure the same doesn't happen in Thompson Pass, instructors from the Alaska Avalanche Information Center Valdez offered a backcountry safety workshop this past weekend designed specifically for snowmachine riders.

Sully Sullivan, from Northroad Productions in Kenai, and Sarah Carter, Avalanche Lead Instructor for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education in Alaska, hosted the workshop that attracted more than a dozen riders.

"The course started on Friday evening with a multi-media classroom session, and then we followed up with a full-day workshop in Thompson Pass," explained Sullivan. "Students were taught skills that ranged from planning their adventure, preparing their pack and sled, selecting appropriate terrain for conditions, and a reminder to share observations to increase the available data for sharing."

Sullivan said that some of the most valuable lessons resulted from real situations that came up during the course.

"It was great to be with other instructors that were really experienced riders and 'snow professionals' so we were able to handle anything that happened. I just looked at every challenge as a great teaching opportunity," he said.

At one point one of the students got their sled stuck and the instructors used this opportunity to teach students the best way to get a sled unstuck with different towing techniques. In another instance, students were shown how to start their sleds when the starter cord breaks.

"Sure enough, at the end of the day, one of the students broke his pull cord and was thanking me," said Sullivan. "He said, 'if I hadn't been in this class, I would never have known you could do this and I would have been stuck.' So that was a great moment."

Overall feedback from students made it clear that they really liked the fact that this wasn't just an avalanche class.

"There was so much to this course that included information about backcountry travel and riding techniques so people can better understand why and how to use their sled more efficiently," Sullivan said. "Overall, it was an awesome program and something I'd like to see a lot more of in the future."

Sullivan said there was so much material to share than time allowed. In the future he's hoping to expand the course into a two-day format with classroom lessons in the morning and field practice each afternoon.

To learn more about backcountry safety courses and training opportunities, check out

Photo courtesy Sarah Carter

Taking a break from the hands on learning during the backcountry safety workshop for snowmachiners.


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