POWELL — Adrenaline courses through the veins as the throttle inches forward and rooster-tails of powdery snow trail riders moving up the Beartooth Highway. Snow machines are the only way to make it to the top in the winter.
Excited snowmobilers en route to the High Lake Wilderness Study Area and surrounding wilderness are tempted to go fast.
But there’s a movement afoot to slow it down. Instead of hitting the throttle hard from the minute the snowmobiles are unloaded, educators from around the area are encouraging riders to look at snow conditions, get to know them and be ready if an avalanche is triggered.
“We want to change the culture of the snowmobile community. We want to get out in front of this stuff,” said Quint Gidley, avalanche educator with the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
Avalanche experts, including snow rangers from the Teton-Bridger National Forest and rescue teams with the Friends of Gallatin National Forest, came to Cody last week to share stories from the backcountry and information that will help keep those riding in avalanche zones alive. A recent rash of deaths from area avalanches gave educators a sense of urgency during the two-day training session.
Brennan Walpole, a 35-year-old father of three from Utah, was riding in Lincoln County when an avalanche was triggered on Dec. 29, according to the BridgerTeton Avalanche Center. Just a few days later, 40-year-old Weylon Wiedemann of Pine City, Minnesota, died on Jan. 2 when he triggered a slide on his snowmobile north of West Yellowstone. He was dug out of the snow within 15 minutes, but rescuers were unable to revive him.
Tim Metzler has taken the avalanche awareness level course before many times and he’ll do it again.
“If they offer the class, I’ll be here,” the Powell resident said.
He’s seen the importance of safety training. He’s watched a slab break free and the avalanche sweep away one of his friends. And Metzler has felt the panic of digging a lifeless body from out of the snow.
Ryan Berchtold was snowmobiling on New Year’s Day in 2009 through a creek bottom in Togwotee Pass when an avalanche buried him alive.
Thanks to Berchtold’s beacon, Josh Lovelady, Darren Thomas and Metzler were able to locate and dig him out in about 10 minutes. Berchtold wasn’t breathing. Lovelady performed CPR and revived him, but all too often, that’s not the case. Some forget to make a plan, don’t have the proper safety equipment and don’t take the time to look at avalanche forecasts or consider the conditions.
“He survived, thank the Lord. He was buried and if we had these new techniques, it would have saved us time,” Metzler said.
At first glance, those arriving early to the Friday classroom session wondered aloud if there would be enough participants to make the effort worthwhile. But by the time the class began, more than 30 showed up. All but a few made it for field training the following day, despite challenging driving conditions on snow-covered roads and steep grades.
The Cody Country Snowmobile Association responds with enthusiasm to invitations for training opportunities, said club president Dustin Rosencranse. The group of about 70 riders installs a warming shelter near Island Lake each winter and have been mobilizing members and encouraging others to join the group and attend the training sessions.
Like Wetzler, many of those attending the lessons at Mountain Valley Motorsports have been through the training before. Not all clubs are as successful in drawing a crowd.
“Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth,” said Gidley, the avalanche educator.
Attendees moved from station to station, learning how to use technology to find or be found, how to effectively search for avalanche victims and how to read the snow.
The Park County Search and Rescue team sent six members to the two-day avalanche awareness program for additional training. The all-volunteer squad, more than 30 strong, trains once a week in an effort to better respond to avalanche emergencies. The avalanche awareness training was an extracurricular opportunity for team members.
Jason Burkhardt, a fisheries biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Patrick Allen, a Park County doctor of internal medicine, and Park County Sheriff Scott Steward were among those volunteering to take the training.
“It’s an opportunity to give back to my community,” Burkhardt said.