A central Interior heli-ski operator is calling on the province to immediately bring in controls over backcountry snowmobilers, saying the large number of deaths on the mountains this past season has hurt B.C.’s international reputation as a safe and desirable outdoor recreation destination. “It’s not a good image when, in the backcountry, so many people die. It’s not a good image for the province and the industry,” said Mike Wiegele of Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing in the North Thompson Valley.
Nineteen snowmobilers — all but one of them in B.C. — have died in avalanches in Canada this season, according to statistics provided by the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC). The number accounts for 75 percent of all national backcountry fatalities, which also includes a heli-skier, a mountaineer and four out-of-bounds skiers.
In several of the snowmobile-related incidents, slides were triggered as a result of highmarking—a deadly practice where riders push their machines as far up a steep slope as possible. Wiegele said his company has been called to help out in four rescue operations this winter, putting strain on both the business—which attracts about 1,500 mainly international skiers each year—and its employees. “We have to stop everything, stranding some of our skiers in the mountains to save snowmobilers from themselves,” he said. He said it’s long overdue for the province to license snowmobilers and regulate the sport, in the same way drivers on the roads are regulated. “The problem is that snowmobilers can go anywhere, any time, any day—day or night—any place.
It’s wild,” Wiegele said. “The [current] practices are for accidents, not for safety.” By contrast, he said, heli-ski operators and other backcountry professionals are heavily regulated. And while operators “don’t have a problem with that,” he said, there is growing sentiment that the rules are being applied unfairly. “When we first started our business, we had to go through miles of red tape and mountains of safety training … so why are snowmobilers exempt from that?” he asked.
Wiegele is not alone in the fight to regulate snowmobiling in B.C. Earlier this month, New Democrat Norm Macdonald, MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke, initiated a call for the government to improve snowmobile safety, adding that a non-partisan group of rural MLAs and a “grassroots coalition” of snowmobilers have been pushing the government to license snowmobiles. The move would make snowmobilers more accountable for their actions, Macdonald told The Sun at the time, adding, there is “no magic bullet” to avoid avalanche deaths as long as people snowmobile in the backcountry.
More education is needed, he said.
The CAC did its part to warn snowmobilers of the dangers of the sport, releasing a video of riders triggering—and barely escaping—an avalanche in the Monashee Mountains near Valemount.
Days later, on April 10, a 24-year-old Edmonton man died in the same area while highmarking with a friend. Phone calls to both the B.C. Liberal Party and representatives of the B.C. Snowmobile Federation were not returned last week.