Brad Sills thought he had seen it all in 35-plus years volunteering with Whistler Search and Rescue, but this past weekend brought something entirely new and bizarre — simultaneous distress calls from two separate but identical accidents caused by clueless cliff-jumping snowmobilers landing on other sledders.
"They were friends snowmobiling on separate machines," said Sills. "In both instances one rider ended up getting run over by their buddy who followed too close behind."
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"In the first instance it was just a dislocated shoulder which dis-enabled the person from either driving or riding as a passenger," he said. "The second one was a significant crush injury with huge trauma. He had to be airlifted out of the Whistler clinic to Vancouver."
Estimates put one of the jumps at close to 20 metres high. Sills couldn't comment on whether impairment was a factor in either Darwin award-worthy accident, but says it's not unheard of.
"You start to understand the strain that it puts on a volunteer," he stated.
Higher accident rate
Distressed snowmobilers are a growth sector for Whistler Search and Rescue accounting for over 50 per cent of winter call outs five year running. Not only do snowmobile accidents outnumber every other winter activity combined, the percentage of accidents-per-participant is unusually high.
"There seems to be a higher accident rate [for snowmobilers] than other user groups such as back country skiers," said Sills. "The number of participants isn' t nearly as high yet the accident rate is higher."
Snowmobiling is booming and there's nothing to stop anyone with enough money to buy a sled from riding off into B.C.'s back country. The machines have become lighter, more powerful and easier to operate, and there's no licensing or educational requirement, just the B.C mandatory off-road vehicle registration requirement, which isn't regularly enforced.
Going into complex alpine terrain
"You can buy one of these snowmobiles and in 20 minutes you can find yourself in terrain that say, 30 years ago, people wouldn't have entered without the assistance of a certified mountain guide," said Sills. "[Snowmobilers] are going into complex alpine terrain fraught with crevasses, avalanche danger, hidden creek beds, fast moving water, all sorts of dangers.
"So now we have motor vehicles running around huge distances away from emergency assistance. Ambulances can't reach them, police can't reach them, firemen can't reach them. And we're having significant trauma that search and rescue groups are struggling to cope with because, in any other setting, these would be handled by advanced life paramedics."
Complicating matters is that B.C. is a snowmobiling destination, drawing huge numbers of tourists who lack knowledge of terrain and conditions, something that may have been a factor in the recent death of a Seattle snowmobiler near Pemberton.
"We're seeing people travelling from out of province to these great venues for snowmobiling with absolutely no base knowledge of what the terrain is like," said Sills. "This recent fatality was in an area that local snowmobilers were well versed in, but somebody visiting from somewhere else would just see this large white field and zip along."
Education, not enforcement
Sills believes it's time for snowmobilng to be included in the Adventure Smart outdoor education program as a way of increasing awareness, and thinks some of the recently announced $10-million dollars SAR funding could help pay for it.
It's an idea the B.C. Snowmobiling Association could get behind, although director Penny Cartwright says she'd also like to see more back country safety taught in schools.
"My magic wand wish is exactly what he's talking about but pushing it into high schools across B.C. as an elective," she said. "A course that teaches back country safety across the board, that has a snowmobile aspect along with hiking and all your back country knowledge."
Cartwright believes education, not enforcement, is the way to make snowmobiling safer, although it's unlikely education campaigns will reach everyone, especially that segment of sledders liable to crush their own friends.
"The weekend warriors out re-enacting what they've seen on T.V. — what are you thinking?" said Cartwright. "It's one at a time on a slope or jump always. That's just common sense."