- Justin Wood
Where does the money go? 2021 sweepstakes benefits snow powersports community
Bringing the motorized snow sport community together to help each other get out, have fun and come home safely is what the Avalanche Alliance is all about.
“I think that’s the real impact,” said Mark Staples, director of the Utah Avalanche Center since 2015. “When we are working with the Avalanche Alliance and KLIM and the other manufacturers and athletes, it really helps us connect with those users and helps them trust us because we are working together and we’re putting out the same message.”
Staples, who grew up in Virginia, has been riding snowmobiles for 15 years and said it’s remarkable how the Avalanche Alliance is building trust and credibility in the community.
“Our number one asset is credibility,” Staples said. “We’re just one big family, and it’s really cool that everyone wants to work together to help folks get home to their families, go out and have fun and come home. It’s fun to be a part of that.”
Now in its fourth year, the Alliance is the industry’s first-ever effort to tackle the steady and significant increase in the number of snowmobilers and snow bikes hitting the powder every year. The 2021 Avalanche Alliance sweepstakes raised more than $119,365 with proceeds going to support motorized-focused projects and programs.
Grants from $3,000 to $20,000 were awarded to Avalanche Centers across the country to support the expansion of forecasting for motorized areas based on specific needs in each area, including:
Installing new weather and beacon check stations
Increasing service to traditionally motorized areas and expanding snowmobile operations
Creating daily avalanche forecasts for motorized users and centralizing reporting to crowd-source data
Enhancing snowmobile education and outreach through robust motorized ambassador programs
The scope of these projects, detailed below, will provide a positive long-lasting impact on the safety of the motorized community.
“We created the Avalanche Alliance to allow people to become more educated about avalanche safety training and why it’s necessary,” said John Summers, VP of marketing for KLIM. “We’ve all been affected by avalanche tragedies, and we want to educate our motorized community that there’s a need to be trained when it comes to avalanches and help get the word out about greater backcountry safety. Ultimately, our goal is to reduce avalanche deaths.”
With over 1.3 million registered snowmobiles in the US, 601,000 registered snowmobiles in Canada and hundreds of thousands of acres of rideable backcountry terrain, avalanche education provides users the tools to access more areas and ride safer.
The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), an Alliance partner, teaches users how to identify potential hazards in the backcountry and how to recognize avalanche terrain through a nationally-recognized avalanche education curriculum.
“The sweepstakes was a really amazing catalyst to bring the motorized community together and center those conversations around education and access because that’s what it comes down to, really,” said Vickie Hormuth, AIARE’s Executive Director. “It was really neat to be able to fund so many centers and so many different projects, and the neat thing about that is a $5,000 investment can reach thousands of users every year.”
Right now, AIARE is working on building the same capacity in the motorized world as it has in the non-motorized world – 100 US providers currently teach AIARE nonmotorized education and 13 teach motorized education.
“It was really great to be able to support the Avalanche Centers and to specifically focus on the need to expand the motorized forecasts so that we’re educating those folks so that they know what it takes to travel in the backcountry,” Hormuth added.
Grants were awarded to 10 US-based Avalanche Centers:
Bridgeport Avalanche Center, Bridgeport, Calif.
Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, Teton Village, Wyo
Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Boulder, Colo.
Flathead Avalanche Center, Hungry Horse, Mont.
Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, Bozeman, Mont.
Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center, Palmer, Alaska
Northwest Avalanche Center, Seattle, Wash.
Payette Avalanche Center, McCall, Idaho
Utah Avalanche Center, Salt Lake City, Utah
Wallowa Avalanche Center, Joseph, Ore.
$3,000 - Payette Avalanche Center
The Payette Avalanche Center converted its website over to payetteavalanche.org using the $3,000 sweepstakes grant, which Board Member Janna Allen said helped to centralize its avalanche forecast reporting with over two dozen other avalanche centers.
“It was a huge, huge help to be able to transfer the platform and allowed us to continue just really having one location, so no matter where folks are, whether they’re here or another forecast center, that they know to just remember one website,” Allen said of avalanche.org.
The website transition benefits motorized users in particular because forecasters can now monitor a broader area since much of the backcountry is not within a forecast zone.
“They might not know what our avalanche center is called here, and it all gets us talking the same language because if you're all doing it independently and on your own, we were talking different languages sometimes,” Allen added.
$5,000 - Utah Avalanche Center
The $5,000 grant for the Utah Avalanche Center was put directly into paying for field time in areas to produce avalanche forecasts for motorized users, said Director Mark Staples. This approach, the Trailhead Avalanche Awareness Program, meets motorized users at popular trailheads to provide direct education about how to use their rescue equipment and information about the current avalanche dangers, which reaches more people than in a scheduled class.
“We have a long history of working with snowmobilers here in Utah, and our success has really come from that local, on-the-ground contact,” Staples said. “I hope that comes through in our forecasts. People read our forecasts and see our photos and videos - and know we’re one of them. They trust us. We put it to use being on snowmobiles, being out with the riders to assess the snow or to connect with them.”
$9,500 - Bridgeport Avalanche Center, Bridgeport, Calif.
With its $9,500 grant, the newly-formed Friends of Bridgeport Avalanche Center purchased a new weather station to have up-and-running in the Virginia Lakes area this winter.
“This was our first grant awarded to the Friends Group,” said Lead Forecaster, Joe Soccio. “So to have that support in the motorized community – just stoke all around. Everybody was really excited to have that first boost to help lift the Friends Group off the ground.”
The weather station will be the first station with an anemometer for collecting wind data, which will provide hourly updates for the avalanche forecasters and public at bridgeportavalanchecenter.org.
“It’s always been a part of our avalanche center for riders to be able to send in observations.” Soccio said, adding that the ability to send in observations to the website is being updated this year as well. “Just getting the nicest and newest website and making that an area to exchange information on mountain safety.”
$10,000 - Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center used the $10,000 grant to expand its snowmobile program and bring another sled to the San Juan Mountains, said Aaron Carlson, executive director of the Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
The additional sled provides avalanche forecasters more streamlined secure access to the backcountry terrain and closes field gaps in forecast zones where an increasing number of people recreate.
“We’re seeing a pretty dramatic increase in backcountry use across the board,” Carlson said, “So it’s really important from a field data perspective that we’re collecting as many observations as possible because those are in turn used to produce more accurate avalanche forecasts.”
The center continues to meet the increasing number of backcountry users accessing the mountains by building a community through its membership program collecting observations from the public, Carlson added: “There’s all these gaps in the data throughout the field and so the more observations we can get from the people recreating in the backcountry, the better off our forecasters are just to produce more accurate avalanche forecasts.”
$10,000 - Northwest Avalanche Center
For Charlotte Guard, Program Director of the Northwest Avalanche Center, $10,000 from the sweepstakes allowed the NWAC to purchase a snowmobile that provided forecasters consistent access to put out the first daily forecast in the East South Zone – historically a challenging data sparse zone of 1.2 million acres.
“It’s really an essential place to be put in on forecast because there’s so many motorized users that access that zone,” Guard said, “And we knew it was a real pain point for motorized users that we weren’t able to provide that forecast.”
The snowmobile was placed in Hood River for use in the East South Zone, including Ahtanum Meadows State Park, one of the largest motorized use areas in the state. Producing a daily forecast for this zone was a key objective of the organization’s three-year strategic plan, and an important step in responding to the needs of the motorized community.
Funds also supported efforts to better serve the motorized community by hiring a forecaster in the East South Zone, one of 10 forecast zones in the region. “People are really excited,” Guard added. “We have snowmobilers on our board who also interface a lot with the snowmobile community. People are really glad that they’re able to get a forecast in that zone.”
The center is in a stronger position to serve the motorized community in the 2022/2023 season by continuing to provide outreach and snowmobile-specific education programs, joining already-in-place snowmobile clubs in conversation about how they can incorporate the forecasts and other tools into their day.
“It’s really important that there is more focus and effort going toward the snowmobile community because we want to make sure that everyone is safe in the mountains,” She said.
$12,500 - Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center
The $12,500 grant worked out perfectly this year for Alaska’s Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center, according to Board Chair, Andy Dennis, allowing more snowmachine specific avalanche outreach and forecasting in the vibrant motorized community.
“Hatcher Pass had a historic avalanche cycle in which the road was closed for a couple of months due to avalanches and so to access a lot of the areas of Hatcher Pass, snow machine was the only way to do that,” Dennis said. “We had those extra funds for some more focused forecasting for snowmachining and just motivation to get out on the snow machines more. It couldn't have worked out better.”
The funds also allowed all staff and professional observers to participate in a professional snowmachine skills and rescue training course, which allowed HPAC to present a professional front to the public.
“It was amazing to have that opportunity and the push to get out more and make new connections with the community seeing us out there loading and unloading the trailer,” Dennis added. “That was huge because we were able to get a lot more public observations from some of the folks who may have been hesitant to add their experience. That was super useful and hopefully we can continue that.”
$12,500 - Wallowa Avalanche Center
For the Wallowa Avalanche Center, where more motorized users are accessing avalanche terrain in the mountains of Northeast Oregon than non-motorized, the $12,500 grant funded a variety of small projects, said Victor McNeil, Executive Director.
“It’s been super useful,” he said. “We’ve done a pretty good job of spreading the love out and working on some of these little projects.”
Establishing a Motorized Ambassador team of 10 men and women to spread the world about the importance of avalanche education in the local community and helping to subsidize their AIARE courses.
Purchasing five avalanche beacons, shoves and probes for companion rescue courses and AIARE courses
Helping subsidize three beacon training parks in the popular snowmobile areas of Northeast Oregon
McNeil said the funds are making a big difference at the small nonprofit avalanche center.
“We’ve really been trying our hardest to reach out to the motorized community in regard to forecasting. Most of us here are also skiers but we want to make it known that our forecasters are going to popular riding areas and we’re trying to get those folks more tuned up,” he added. “This amount of money makes a huge difference for us, and it allows us to continue to expand and hopefully save more lives in the end and educate more people.”
$12,500 - Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center
A $12,500 grant for the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center provided professional avalanche education courses for mountain riders and created a user-friendly framework for backcountry riders in Southeast Idaho to share their field observations on a web-based forum.
Doing a lot with a little is kind of what this is all about, said Robert Comey, retired Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center Director who initiated the application for funding.
“We’ve come to the realization that there’s never going to be avalanche centers everywhere, and people are riding in lots of places, so what can we do?” Comey said. “If you’re out riding and you see something or have a close call, you can put it on a forum and just crowd-source information.”
“It’s a start,” Comey said. “I think this is going to come a long way in the next two seasons.”
Education is important in building awareness about the avalanche forecast, how to use an avalanche forecast and how to make an avalanche observation. “Everyone out has to be their own avalanche forecaster,” Comey said.
“If you're in an area with a daily forecast, you get the daily forecast and you look at it, but that’s general for a lot of terrain and the conditions vary hugely over short distances,” Comey said. “So, you have to take that and take what you know and what you’ve learned. It doesn’t matter whether you have a center or not, you have to be your own forecaster.”
Comey thanked everyone who participated in the raffle sweepstakes and the industry for stepping up and recognizing what’s going on and making real efforts that are paying off: “This is a long-term commitment, and I think this is a really good step.”
$20,000 - Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center
Getting a new weather station set up on Whitefish Mountain in Northwest Montana is going to be a game changer and up the ante of information and safety in a heavily-used zone, said Emily Struss, director of development for the nonprofit Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center.
“The timing was so perfect,” Struss said. “We’ve been wanting to put a weather station here for a while now. It just gave us the leverage that we needed to make it happen.”
With the nearest weather data over 20 miles from the predominantly motorized Upper Whitefish River drainage area, the most popular section of the corridor, the new weather station is the first major project in this corridor to improve the accuracy of forecasts with real-time snowfall and wind data.
“They are just so thrilled to get a more accurate picture for that zone that we’re in,” she added. “Our community gets so excited about this - we are a snow-centered community. We know the importance of this data and people are really starting to be keyed into the importance of the avalanche center.”
Together with the Flathead Avalanche Center, the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center provides real-time information to prevent the loss of life, limb or property due to avalanches while also giving recreationalists the skills and education they need to know better.
“Human-powered avalanche safety is a little different than motorized avalanche safety and education – your approach is different and there’s just other considerations, and so it’s cool that we’re breaking them apart and giving it its own curriculum too and treating motorized as its own thing.”
The public and other ancillary groups can tap into the daily forecast information via flatheadavalanche.org.
$24,365 - Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (GNFAC)
Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, said the $24,365 grant created a launch pad that took the Island Park-based center to an entirely different level.
“It allowed us to commit and to say yes,” he said. “We were able to get down there and make condition-based videos, giving riders down there daily forecast and weather information. It’s the most accurate they've ever gotten now because of those field days that we’re able to put in and we’re going to be able to do even more next year.”
Two weather stations will also be installed – one on the summit of Sawtell Peak, which will monitor temperature and wind, and another 1,000 feet lower that will measure snow depth and snowfall.
“That's going to be a big deal for us to be able to get good temperature and wind as well as good snowfall at a little higher elevation than what we’re getting right now, and all of this will be public,” Chabot said. “Anyone going riding will be able to see what the winds have been doing, how much has it snowed, has there been any avalanches and are the avalanche guys worried or not.”
The funds also helped to establish a footprint that resulted in community buy-in.
“Everyone has been incredibly receptive,” Chabot added. “We want to recreate outside and we want to be safe. We don't want tragedy happening no matter what our business is. We want to be safe out there. And that's what we do - we help people come and recreate, and we want to give you the information so you can make choices when you’re in the backcountry.”