Heli-ski operator calls for stricter controls on snowmobilers

“I'm not against snowmobiling. I'm against unsafe practices" - Mike Wiegele

Mike Wiegele (l) and senior lead guide Bob Sayer show some of the procedures used in the guides' house at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing to control avalanche risk.

Mike Wiegele (l) and senior lead guide Bob Sayer show some of the procedures used in the guides' house at Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing to control avalanche risk.

Snowmobile commercial operators are not being held to the same standards for safety as the heli-ski industry and that is resulting in necessary deaths, according to Mike Wiegele.

“I’m not against snowmobiling. I’m against unsafe practices,” he said. “It’s not good business, if nothing else.”

The Blue River heli-ski operator was upset following the recent deaths of two snowmobilers northwest of Blue River in the North Blue River drainage.

Such incidents hurt not just the snowmobile industry, but all businesses that rely on winter tourism, he felt.

It isn’t just the commercial operators who are responsible.

“The provincial government, the regional district, the organizations and recreational clubs – anybody who promotes an activity that a person could get injured or killed has a duty to provide the highest international safety standards. That isn’t happening,” Wiegele said.

British Columbia has the weakest snowmobile regulations in Canada, he felt, and those regulations we do have are not enforced.

“They’re regulated back home, so they come here and do whatever they like,” he said.

The provincial government has negotiated land use areas, some designated for snowmobilers, others for hell-skiers, and still others reserved for wildlife.

The boundaries are clearly designated but are routinely violated by snowmobilers, according to Wiegele.

There is no one to police the boundaries and, if people are caught, they do not face significant penalties.

He contrasted that with the situation in at least one European country where, if a snowmobile goes where it is not allowed, the machine would be seized, there would be a fine to pay, plus possibly imprisonment.

Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing no longer participates in rescues of snowmobilers, he said.

One of the last rescues they went on involved a snowmobiler with a broken leg. Two helicopters were sent for safety. The rescue involved digging a long trench to make the evacuation through deep snow.

While they were working, other snowmobilers in the area did nothing to help. Some, in fact, were high-marking on the slope above the rescuers – a slope that the heli-ski guides had evaluated as unstable for avalanches at that time.

Wiegele contrasted the procedures used by the heli-ski industry to evaluate avalanche risk with those used by snowmobilers.

People heading out for a weekend of snowmobiling might or might not check the Avalanche Canada forecast for the particular region they are heading to. They might or might not dig a snow pit or do other tests to determine snow slope stability, and they might or might not have the skills and experience to interpret the results.

At Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing, the Avalanche Canada forecast is just the beginning of the process. Every morning this is combined with other data, including that from local weather stations to develop a complete weather forecast.

Using snow pit and other tests done every day by the guides all winter, snow stability forecasts are done, not just for the region, but broken down into individual mountains, and then by direction: north, south, east and west slopes. From that they develop forecasts for individual runs. They even break it down to sections of individual runs, for example, they might stay to one side of one particular section to avoid problems.

Researchers from various universities have worked with the ski guides for decades to refine and improve the system.

“Every winter we do at least 1,000 profiles,” he said. “We have substantial information for accuracy. We can use the stability rating to select suitable terrain so people don’t get killed.”

His heli-ski company has had the experience of waiting for the snow in a particular area to stabilize after a snowfall, then going in and finding that snowmobilers have been in there before them, tracking up the area and ruining it for their guests, Wiegele said.

“We have 240 people working for us in the winter,” he said. “These are well-paying, family-supporting jobs that are being put at risk.”

“British Columbia has the best quality of snow worldwide,” Wiegele said. “Snowmobiling creates noise, affects wildlife and kills people. That’s not a good image.”

When asked for a comment, Fred Button, president of the BC Snowmobile Federation said, “There are a number of different user groups doing great things, very safely in the back country, all snow sports stakeholders have a responsibility to educate and create awareness of the dangers.”

See also the article from the Revelstoke Review.