Snowmobilers top Wyoming avalanche fatality list


By Angus M. Thuermer Jr., WyoFile.com

TETON VILLAGE — Snowmobilers have outpaced backcountry skiers as the group most likely to see members killed by an avalanche in Wyoming, according to statistics from the state’s only avalanche center.

Avalanches have killed 32 snowmobilers in Wyoming throughout history compared to 26 backcountry skiers, formerly the largest group of victims, according to the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center at Teton Village. Two snowmobilers who died on Togwotee Pass this winter are among the victims documented by the National Forest avalanche laboratory that has compiled records that stretch back to 1877.

The numbers underscore a notion that has emerged over recent years — that skilled riders on modern, light, high-powered snowmobiles with long tracks and deep-snow paddles are venturing in higher numbers into more dangerous terrain, often without potentially life-saving avalanche training. Fewer riders have adequate education about, and understanding of avalanche dynamics compared to other user groups, like backcountry skiers, experts say.

The profile of the most vulnerable avalanche victims has changed over the decades said Bob Comey, head of the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center that operates under U.S. Forest Service auspices. Once comprised of workers, then climbers and then backcountry skiers, the most likely group of victims has shifted once again.

“Now snowmobilers are into it,” Comey said of travel into dangerous winter terrain. “That’s hugely significant.”

He made his comments two days after investigating a snowmobile-triggered avalanche on Togwotee Pass that asphyxiated 27 year-old Dale Walter Clyde Laedtke of New London, Wisconsin. It was the second time this winter Comey’s four-person lab investigated a snowmobile-involved avalanche fatality in the Togwotee Pass area and the second time this winter the deceased rider was from Wisconsin. In both instances, as is usually the case with avalanche fatalities, the victims triggered the slide themselves. This season avalanches have killed four snowmobilers in the center’s forecast areas in western Wyoming and small parts of southeast Idaho.

“If you look at the bigger picture of avalanches in the U.S. and Canada, certainly among us forecasters and educators, the concept that snowmobilers are a huge part of that has been going on for years,” Comey said. How one slices and dices the numbers, “it doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’re a lot.”

That put an onus on forecasters and educators. The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center began forecasting for the Jackson Hole Ski Area in the 1960s after it was developed on public land. The lab began sharing its information with backcountry users, including climbers in the Tetons and skiers on nearby Teton Pass.

With a snowmobiling boom, the center broadened its data collection. Beginning almost 20 years ago it expanded its network of remote wind and precipitation stations, self-contained data collection sites that are read daily from the lab in Teton Village.

Each station costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to install and the Wyoming Parks Trails Program has been instrumental in aiding the effort. The center now has nine weather stations serving primarily snowmobile country on Togwotee Pass and in the Southwest Trails/Greys River area of the Wyoming and Salt River Ranges, Comey said.

The center prepares three separate forecasts daily during the winter, two of them for areas mainly used by snowmobilers. They rate danger at low, middle and upper elevations each on a five-point scale. Thus, the center offers nine ratings daily, plus narrative descriptions for each of the three forecast zones. It updates forecasts each evening with a single overarching prediction.

“So, it’s important to continue to get support from the snowmobile community … including the manufacturers, to reach out and educate and give these people the resources to make the good decisions,” Comey said.

More people using better machines are an obvious part of the tragic equation said Adam McCool, owner of Jackson Hole Cycle and Saw and an expert skier and rider himself. There’s another variable that’s vexing, however.

“Out-of-staters,” he said. “The word needs to get out to those guys more than anybody. People from out of state for sure probably should be paying attention.”

Unfortunately, safety is not for sale in this pursuit. Laedtke, the most recent snowmobile victim on Togwotee Pass, rode while equipped with an avalanche airbag and transceiver. But the deployed airbag didn’t keep him on the surface in the heavy, churned-up snow that pressed him under. His companions found and uncovered him relatively quickly, within about five or 10 minutes, but not before he suffocated.

Riders with safety gear, including probe poles, transceivers and shovels, McCool said, may feel emboldened. “They think ‘I’ve got all the stuff that will save me,’” he said. “That’s the wrong way to look at it.”

Laedtke’s death after successfully inflating his airbag and being uncovered relatively quickly underscores a message, Comey said. “That says don’t get caught.”

Will Mook and business partner Matt Schebaum recognized the need about six years ago and launched the Mountain Riding Lab in Jackson Hole to instruct snowmobilers on avalanche awareness and rescue, among other things.

“We have been, unfortunately, taking the lead almost for the last decade,” among avalanche deaths, Mook said of snowmobilers. “The education hasn’t caught up to it yet.”

Working as snowmobile guides at Togwotee Mountain Lodge, the two wanted to step up. “There weren’t too many [avalanche] classes being offered in the country for snowmobilers,” Mook said. “We took some classes on skis.”

Given the cultural divide between motorized and non-motorized backcountry users and the stereotypes each group applies to the other, it’s easier for snowmobilers to accept instruction from one of their own than from an outsider, Mook and others say.

“You need to hear from your own crew,” said Cody Lockhart, chief advisor for Teton County Search and Rescue. Avalanche instructors “need a platform that translates to snowmobilers.”

Comey agreed. “You can’t have a skier show up and teach snowmobilers,” he said. “You’ve got to have a snowmobiler.” Mook piled on. “I think it’s important Matt and I are both die-hard snowmobilers,” he said.

He and Schebaum earned instructor credentials from the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and implement American Avalanche Association guidelines into their curriculum. This year they gave 19 courses, averaging six students each. Instruction typically spans several days and involves both field and classroom work.

“It’s a separate curriculum from a ski class,” Mook said Saturday. “The way a snowmobile uses country is different from the way a skier uses it. Today I rode 50 miles of backcountry. A big day for a skier is much less than that.”

Wyoming riders in and around the Tetons are more knowledgeable about avalanches than others, Mook said, and Mountain Riding Lab is now trying to school snowmobilers in the Idaho Falls and Rexburg areas. There’s hope that other visitors are paying heed, he said.

“Our last course we’re wrapping up right now has five students from Wisconsin,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of midwest students in our classes — probably 50-50, if not more.”

The last three snowmobile avalanche victims likely didn’t understand the forces at work in Wyoming’s avalanches Lockhart said. “How do you reach the Wisconsin [rider] who comes to Jackson for a week … and gets in this terrain?” he asked. “They’re relatively strong. They just don’t know how to apply their skills to the mountainous terrain, know what places are good to be in.

“How do we catch them before they come here,” he asked. “We need to advertise in Wisconsin snow shops.”

This year a nonprofit is starting to do that, he said, pointing to the relatively new Backcountry Zero campaign to reduce fatalities in the Teton region all year around. “We’ve taken it regionally,” Lockhart said, by using professional snowmobilers modeling safety gear together.

“That was kind of our push this year,” Lockhart said. Members of the rescue group, a mostly volunteer organization run under the auspices of the county sheriff, said “let’s start with the pro guys who have these large audiences.”

Backcountry Zero launched a river safety campaign in 2018 to address a spate of drownings “and last year we had zero, which was great,” said Stephanie Thomas, executive director of the Teton County Search and Rescue Foundation, the nonprofit that supports the SAR team.

In the snowmobile arena, Backcountry Zero took advantage of brand loyalty, loyalty frequently exhibited by riders who wear clothing displaying a manufacturer’s color themes. The campaign’s concept proposed that “it doesn’t matter who you ride for, we all dress for success,” Thomas said.

Snowmobile photographer Todd Williams donated his talents to shoot pro riders Dan Adams, a Polaris team rider, Jay Mentaberry, a Ski-Doo-er and Rob Kincade who rides Arctic Cat, together wearing and toting all their safety gear.

Backcountry Zero started a social-media campaign and spreads the safety message to regional snow machine shops, at snowmobile conventions and club meets. “We’re bringing peoples’ attention to the fact this is a rising problem and we’re concerned and sad and trying to do what we can,” Thomas said.

“If you don’t even know you need to take a class, it’s not something you think about,” she said. “It’s probably harder at this moment to break into that snowmobile culture. You need the right messengers, instructors. I think there’s quite a bit of opportunity.”

The center recorded Wyoming’s first snowmobile avalanche fatality after a slide Feb. 9, 1985, killed Dennis Jeperson, a Forest Service employee who was on a weekend recreational excursion in the Snowy Range west of Laramie. By that date, avalanches had killed eight backcountry skiers in Wyoming, according to statistics from the avalanche center.

But snowmobilers were then just starting to probe the backcountry and by the 1990s, the number that avalanches killed began to grow.

Through 2000, snowmobilers didn’t stand out as a particularly vulnerable group in the center’s statistics. In the 1990s, for example, five snowmobilers died in avalanches compared to four backcountry skiers. By 1999 avalanches across Wyoming had killed twice as many backcountry skiers — 12 — as snowmobilers.

But in the 2000s, the rate of avalanche deaths among snowmobilers in Wyoming skyrocketed. Avalanches killed 14 sled riders between 2000 and 2009, including two unsettling incidents, each of which claimed three riders.

The grim tally marked a nearly 300 percent increase over the previous 10 years.

Now, in the decade of the 2010s, 10 snowmobilers have died in avalanches in Wyoming. The count has nine more months to run.

Backcountry ski deaths due to avalanches have also increased over the decades, but more modestly. In the 2000s, when 14 snowmobilers died, avalanches claimed only six backcountry skiers. So far in this decade seven skiers have lost their lives to slides.

The cumulative total of Wyoming snowmobiler avalanche deaths surpassed that of backcountry skiers in 2016 with the death of Levi Hammond in the Big Horn Range, according to an analysis by WyoFile. That brought snowmobiler deaths to 27, one more than the backcountry skier total. Since Hammond’s death, five more riders have died in Wyoming avalanches, but no more backcountry skiers have been killed.

“There’s a number of things superimposed on these statistics,” Comey cautioned. For one, the category for backcountry skiers does not include snowboarders. Add them to the skier list and the total of non-motorized backcountry “sliders and gliders” increases to 30 deaths, two shy of the overall snowmobile statistic.

Avalanche centers count lift-aided skiers — including those that venture beyond designated ski area boundaries —  separately from backcountry recreationists.

Avalanches have killed an additional seven snowmobilers in the last 20 years in a small part of southeast Idaho covered by the avalanche lab’s forecasts.

Bottom line; 37 snowmobilers in the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center’s forecast area have died in avalanches. Thirty two of those riders died in Wyoming.

Snowmobilers are the largest single category of recreationists killed in avalanches in Wyoming, even when backcountry skiers and snowboarders are combined. In the last two decades, avalanches killed 24 snowmobilers in Wyoming, another seven in nearby Idaho. During the same period, slides claimed 18 backcountry skiers and snowboarders.

An explosion at the Centennial Mine set off an avalanche that claimed Wyoming’s first avalanche victim on Jan. 23, 1877. “It has pleased our Most Worshipful Supreme Grand Master to call Brother Thomas Hodgson very unexpectedly and suddenly from his labors on earth,” the Freemason’s Lodge in Holland, Michigan wrote in its minutes that year about its lost member.

Avalanches caused two other mining-associated deaths in 1902 at the Ferris-Haggarty Mine tramway in the Sierra Madre west of Encampment. In 1907, an avalanche overwhelmed several buildings in the mountain mining settlement of Kirwin southeast of Meeteetse, killing three occupants.

Thus began what forecaster Comey called “really interesting trends.”

Before and through the 1940s victims were largely workers, Comey said. They were ranchers, miners, mail carriers. One victim was a soldier in Yellowstone National Park, another a tie hack on Union Pass.

“In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, it goes from people that are outdoors actively working to people who are recreating,” Comey said of the victims. “Looking at the trends, climbers are a big part, then backcountry skiers … then snowmobilers.”

Technology has played a key role along the way. For skiers to reach backcountry avalanche terrain in the 1970s, they had to have advanced skills and special gear — separate from what most skiers used at resorts.

“Now people can go into a shop and get really buffed out with nice alpine-touring gear,” Comey said. “They can get into the backcountry with [resort] downhill skills almost immediately.”

“There’s a learning curve for any sport,” Comey said. That was true with backcountry skiers, for example, who burst into the backcountry en masse in the 1980s and ’90s but who today are generally aware of and educated about avalanche dangers.

“A big element” in both snowmobiling and backcountry skiing is steep avalanche-prone terrain that makes the sports challenging and fun, Comey said.

Wyoming’s mountains include slopes in complex topography that hold dangers that aren’t obvious to the untrained eye, he said. Educators call such places “terrain with consequences.” They include hanging snowfields above cliffs, couloirs or gullies that concentrate snow and keep it moving, and trees that can traumatize a victim.

Backcountry users need to wonder how big, deep and violent an avalanche might be, Comey said. “What are the consequences going to look like?” he asked.

When visiting trailheads at Togwotee Pass, “it’s encouraging to see groups that have air bags, are on the slope one at a time,” Comey said. “Snowmobilers as a community have realized that avalanche education is essential. A lot of them are checking out our forecast. They’re half of our target audience.”

After an avalanche claimed Wyoming’s first snowmobiler in 1985, experts pondered the circumstances leading to the tragedy. “This accident raises the question: What is an acceptable risk,” authors Nick Logan and Dale Atkins wrote in The Snowy Torrents (1980-’86). “It’s a question that all individuals and groups venturing into avalanche terrain must answer. Sadly, a wrong answer can result in painful lesson learned.”

After the Centennial Mine blast set off the avalanche that called Hodgson to his maker in 1877, his Freemason lodge recognized him as a worthy soul. “While with us in our pilgrimage here below, [he] always was known as a good and true Brother, and respected by all who came in contact with him, whether in or out of the Lodge…” Freemason minutes read.

Even in the stilted, formal language of yesteryear, humanity surfaces. So it is today, Comey said, as when he gathered with partners of the most recent avalanche victim Laedtke.

“I met all his mates and they’re really great people and just out trying to have fun,” Comey said. “It affects them for the rest of their lives, I’m sure. These people [killed by avalanches] are husbands and fathers.”

Laedtke was a journeyman millwright, a member of First Congressional United Church of Christ, and was survived by two brothers and his parents, his obituary said. “Dale’s sense of adventure was greater than most,” the Post Crescent in Appleton, Wisconsin read. “He didn’t worry about how long it would take to get there or even how he would get there. He strove for the adventure that was to be enjoyed.”

This season’s other Wisconsin victim, Cody Christopherson, played on his high school football team, married his high school sweetheart, Brittany, and worked alongside his dad Larry as asphalt plant foreman, the Lacrosse Tribune reported. The 29-year-old “put a smile on the face of everyone he was around with his goofy personality, infectious smile and prankster tactics,” his obituary read.

Such remembrances tug at heartstrings. Christopherson left behind dogs BooBoo and Rocky. Laedtke’s obituary remembered his two dogs Junior and Jager.

The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center doesn’t keep track of one significant statistic — the number of persons who make the right choices. “We have to give credit to the thousands of people out there making good decisions and coming home,” Comey said.

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy

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