Time seemed to stand still for Josh Bedard as he watched the snow start to move underneath and all around his 17-year-old son’s snowmobile.
For an agonizing stretch of moments, it seemed as if his son Ethan was about to be buried in an avalanche.
“I must admit, I have never had such a sinking feeling as when I watched it start to slide and bury him,” Josh told Cowboy State Daily. “There is nothing you can do other than wait for it to stop.”
Thankfully, the slide, which happened Tuesday in Wyoming’s Snow Range mountains, stopped before Ethan was buried.
Even Experts Caught By Surprise
Even if Ethan had been buried, Josh and several of the other people with them are expert-level sledders, trained in avalanche rescue and who have dealt with similar situations before.
Josh is a certified snowmobiling guide who has been traveling from his home in southeast Minnesota to sled in the Snowies for nearly 30 years. So, if things had gone from bad to worse, Ethan likely could have been pulled out in time.
Even so, given the group’s level of expertise, the fact that the slide caught them by surprise doesn’t bode well for current conditions in the Snowies, Josh said.
The mountains represent a premier snowmobiling destination that draw visitors from all over the country. That means they are soon to be buzzing with sledders, and many of them likely to be nowhere nearly as experienced, well-equipped and prepared as the Bedard party.
That’s what really worries Josh.
“It can happen to anybody at any time,” he said. “We know what to look for, and we’re constantly looking out for it, and it still happened to us.”
The Perfect Storm
Recent snowstorms brought a huge bounty for powder hounds in the Snowy Range. Up to 7 feet of fresh powder has been reported in places.
Road closures kept many snowmobilers away initially, but as travel conditions improve, a huge influx of sledders is expected.
The fresh powder was dumped on previous layers of snow that had partly melted, refrozen and crusted over, Josh said. That makes slides and avalanches more likely, even on slopes that aren’t too steep.
More snow is expected, and when the drifts start to set up and harden, the situation could become even more hazardous, Josh said.
“What I fear is that we haven’t seen the worst yet because the snow is still soft,” he said.
Lack Of Safety Gear
He also was discouraged by some of the things he saw in the Snowies this week.
“I was waiting for my group at a place we call ‘shithouse ridge,’ and I saw five people go by without avalanche beacons,” he said. “If three of those guys were buried, the other two would not be able to save them in any reasonable amount of time.”
Avalanche beacons are devices that trigger and start sending out a signal if somebody is buried in snow, helping rescuers find their exact location.
After an avalanche, the snow can “set up like concrete,” so rescuers must work quickly, and being able to zero in on a victim’s exact location is a huge advantage, he said.
Modern safety equipment also includes self-inflating air bags that can be carried in backpacks, Josh added. They’re activated by a ripcord, similar to a parachute.
Ideally, those air bags can pull a victim to the surface or, at the very least, can create an “air pocket” around somebody who is trapped in hardened snow, greatly increasing their chances of survival, he said.
Josh noted he’s seen precious few sledders equipped with air bags in the Snowies.
“People will spend $20,000 on a snowmobile, but they won’t spend another $500 on a beacon (or other safety gear),” he said.
Newer Sleds Go Farther
The capability of snowmobiles also has increased exponentially since he first came to the Snowies in 1994, Josh said. Newer machines can go much faster and farther into the mountains than the older ones could.
“Older sleds just couldn’t climb the way these new ones can,” he said. “The places I can get to now are just astounding. It’s baffled me how I can get to some of these places.”
Venturing farther, faster and into steeper country increases the risks of getting caught in avalanches, and some riders don’t show much training or good sense, Josh said.
“I’ll see these kids go charging up a slope in a group all at once, and cutting tracks everywhere,” he said. “When you come to a fresh slope, you need to go up one at a time.”
Have Fun, But Be Safe
It’s shaping up to be a banner year for sledding in the Snowies, and Josh is happy about that, but he hopes his story can serve as a cautionary tale and encourage people to be properly equipped and prepared.
“I really wish the Western states would implement some sort of fine for not having an avalanche beacon and use the money from tickets to fund local search and rescue,” he said.
“It’s great fun,” he said of the abundance of powder. “But people need to be aware, this stuff can kill you.”