The following editorial appeared in today's Anchorage Daily News:
The headlines pile up: "Avalanche kills snowmachiner," "Rescuers dig out 2nd body," "2 survive avalanche by inches."
And that's just for last week.
Earlier in the winter we learned about a snowmobiler who went into a crevasse and left behind a $9,000 machine. And about a man killed in a collision with another snowmachine. And about a man gruesomely impaled - run through completely by a tree branch thicker than a baseball bat - but who somehow survived. And, in an incident of exquisite pathos and pain, about two village teenagers who, disoriented in heavy weather, apparently ran their machines off the edge of the sea ice.
The casualty rate is too high. The common theme in all these accidents is operator error - driving too fast or in the wrong place or in the wrong direction or without proper equipment. It's time to ensure that everyone who operates a snowmobile in Alaska is at least educated about the dangers involved.
Given that snowmobiles are often operated by young people who think they're more or less invulnerable, it's impossible to eliminate operator error entirely. But somehow we've got to improve the odds, and education is the best bet.
Just as we provide driver training classes to educate young drivers about the hazards of operating an automobile, we should do the same before letting people jump on 90-mph sleds in remote and potentially dangerous terrain.
Some form of education and licensing should be mandatory if we're going to continue - as we must - spending public resources to search for and rescue snowmobilers who get in trouble.
The state, the snowmobile associations, the rescue authorities and the law enforcement community should come together to work out the details. The cost can be covered by some combination of registration fees, gas taxes, grants, voluntary contributions or individual assessments - and should be seen as an investment that'll pay off in reduced rescue costs and reduced human misery.
The curriculum is the easy part - at minimum, avalanche safety, mechanical and equipment needs, weather and cold-weather survival skills for backcountry travel. More difficult is the who and the how - getting enough training to enough people in enough locations statewide.
The state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation already operates a grants program supporting snowmachine safety programs and trails improvements. It also conducts a statewide boating safety education program that eventually will provide classes in every community. In these programs it works with volunteers, nonprofit organizations and advisory groups to create workable approaches. There is very likely a good marriage of experience and administrative capacity to bring to the project.
Most snowmobilers operate responsibly and cooperatively. They help each other on the trails, share equipment and directions, dig each other out when they get stuck and volunteer for search parties when someone goes missing. Generally they're good friends to have in the Alaska outback.
Ideally, the snowmobile community itself would lead the way to create education programs for the good of all. But if the snowmobilers themselves don't, others should.
These are fast and powerful machines, operated in hazardous conditions, by people who aren't always well enough prepared by training or emergency gear or plain old common sense to stay out of trouble. And when trouble comes, the dangers and costs of search and rescue are borne by others
Avalanches, collisions, falls, hypothermia, open water, overflow, running out of gas ...it's dangerous out there. The least we can do is provide - and require - some education about the risks.