By Lt. Col. Mike Blades, Montana Army National GuardDecember 18, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (December 18, 2017) - On a beautiful winter day, the Blades brothers set out for a snowmobiling trip at Island Park, Idaho. Although all three of us were experienced and seasoned snowmobilers, it had been awhile since my older brother and I had ridden. My younger brother owned his snowmobile and was more experienced, so he led the way through the trees on the winding, groomed trails.
As we went along the trail, I noticed how it began to narrow as the terrain became more challenging. My younger brother attempted to communicate via hand signals and calling out directions as we approached an opening. As we climbed the hill, I noticed my younger brother - who was ahead of us - had disappeared from sight.
Feeling confident in our snowmobiling skills, my older brother and I took on the challenge. However, the trees and terrain altered our perception of the trail's steepness. Unfortunately, we did not realize how steep the slope was until we were already committed.
We soon realized we had placed ourselves in a dangerous situation. My snowmobile tracks began to spin and I did not have the power or momentum to reach the top of the hill. Knowing my older brother was behind me, I veered to the right to turn around and go downhill. As I began my rapid descent, I quickly realized the trail's steepness was going to prevent me from stopping or controlling my snowmobile.
Racing down the slope toward a stand of pine trees, I only had two options. I could ride it out and attempt to avoid the trees, or I could bail off the rented snowmobile, for which I had luckily purchased full-coverage renter's insurance. Bailing off into the 3-foot-deep powder, I watched my snowmobile disappear into the pine trees and surrounding snow bank. As I lay in the snow regaining my composure, I realized this experience was not one I wanted to repeat.
This trip taught me that I am never too experienced to ignore safety. My brothers and I still tell the story of how our fun vacation could have turned tragic. During future trips, we made it a point to familiarize ourselves with our machines and the terrain and know our limits. We also made it a point to use standard snowmobiling hand signals.
Even though I survived my scare, snowmobiling accident statistics are alarming. According to University of Vermont research, thousands of snowmobile accidents occur every year, resulting in hundreds of injuries and deaths. Excessive speed, alcohol and natural obstacles are the leading causes of these accidents. While there are many resources for information on snowmobiling safety, I have found www.snowmobilers.org to be particularly useful. Here is some additional information to keep you safe on the snow:
• Wear a helmet and eye protection at all times. Goggles with colored lenses are indispensable on bright days. In addition, amber or yellow lenses are useful on dark days or late in the afternoon.
• Dress for the ride. The outside of your snowmobiling outfit should have a hood and be windproof and waterproof. Beneath that, dress in layers, making sure the clothing is not too tight. Thermal underwear will help insulate you from the cold. Protect your hands with snowmobiling gloves designed to allow your thumb and fingers to operate the controls. Wear rubber-bottom, leather-top boots or rubber-bottom, nylon-top boots to help keep your feet warm and improve traction. Woolen socks can help keep Jack Frost from nipping at your toes. Avoid loose clothing that could get caught on the snowmobile's moving parts.
• Do not let young or inexperienced riders operate snowmobiles without proper training and supervision.
• Do not use alcohol or other drugs when you ride.
• Learn your riding skills from an experienced rider or qualified trainer and practice them before going to the mountains.
• Always maintain a safe distance between riders. Following too close can lead to collisions and injuries.
• Ride with other snowmobilers and let someone who is not riding know where you're going and when you plan on returning.
• Before riding, review all local snowmobile laws and obey them.
• Check local weather conditions and dress appropriately.
• Know the terrain where you will be riding so you'll be aware of potential hazards.
• Always use the proper arm and hand signals when riding with others.
• Always ride safely and responsibly. Know your abilities and those of your snowmobile and don't exceed them.
• Make sure your equipment is in top working order before hitting the trails.
• Carry a map or a Global Positioning System receiver to help you navigate the trails. Mark your route on a map and provide it to someone you know.
• Frequently clear the ice and snow off your snowmobile so it will run properly and others can see your lights.
• If you're going into an area where avalanches are a potential threat, get the latest avalanche forecasts and bring the proper gear and equipment.
• Be prepared for anything and use common sense.
• Be considerate of others on the trail and keep to the right.
• Slow down when passing.
• Ride only where permitted.
• Leave gates as you found them.
• Yield right of way to animals and hikers.
• Carry out what you carry in.
• Wave and say "hello" as you pass.
• Report downed trees and trail maintenance to land managers.
• Always help those who look in need. One day, that may be you.
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