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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Snowmobilers are urged to be prepared for emergencies by packing a small kit of safety essentials.

HUNTSVILLE — The snow is light, deep and freshly fallen, and the slope untracked and irresistible to snowmobilers ... first one, then another and another.

Each time the tracks reach higher and higher until ...

A weak spot, a crack, a sudden whumphing noise and an avalanche breaks loose.

That's how they start — weak snow, steep slope and a snowmobiler, or even a cross country skier, snowboarder or snowshoer, pushing the limit.

How it ends depends on how well prepared the individual is and luck. One in four avalanche victims die from trauma and not from being buried.

The latest statistics nationally show that snowmobilers now top the list of those caught and killed in avalanches. Here in Utah, snowboarders venturing into avalanche-prone areas top the list, followed by snowshoers and snowmobilers.

On average, four deaths a year are a result of avalanches. In 2004-05 there were eight. This winter there have been two snowmobile fatalities and one close call.

But with heavier than normal snowfall so far this winter, the threat is there.

Craig Gordon, avalanche forecaster/educator with the Utah Avalanche Center, said "knowing" is the key to survival.

Roughly 90 percent of all avalanche accidents are caused by the victim or someone in his or her group.

That may not be the case in movies or commercials, but in real life "we are the ones who start the avalanches that kill us," said Gordon. "And the more we know the safer we will be when we go into the backcountry."

Knowing means being prepared. Standard winter equipment should be a shovel, probing pole and an avalanche transmitting beacon.

The two snowmobilers killed in December were not wearing a beacon. The snowmobiler who survived was wearing a beacon.

As Gordon pointed out, however, it is far better to simply avoid an avalanche. This means knowing where to ride and what not to do.

Slope steepness is the key factor when looking for avalanche terrain. And many of Utah's popular riding areas have steep mountain slopes.

Riders should never "high line" above another rider, and they should have only one rider at a time on an uphill climb. If there are three riders and all three are caught in an avalanche, who's there to initiate a rescue?

One thing that has increased avalanche danger is that snowmobilers have greater access to a lot more terrain. That's because new machines are faster, lighter and can travel in snow conditions that would bog down older machines.

There are also groomed trail systems that can take riders and machines into some of the most remote and scenic riding country in the state.

The Utah Division of Parks and Recreation operates a fleet of groomers that smooth more than 1,200 miles of trails in Utah.

The most popular of these areas is the Monte Cristo trailhead 17 miles north of Huntsville.

It is the busiest riding area in Utah, said Roland Bringhurst, area manager for the DPR.

"We'll have anywhere from 650 to 1,000 sleds here on a Saturday or holiday. The week between Christmas and New Year's we had more than 3,000 machines," he said.

"People like the area because there's a lot of places to ride, and the terrain is pretty stable. There are only two areas where an avalanche is possible.

"Also, we're pretty close to the Wasatch Front, so it's a convenient area to ride. It's also a fun area, and we typically get good snow."

The state grooms a 61-mile loop out of the Monte Cristo station, with a couple of feeder legs. This section also links up with the Hardware Ranch complex with nearly 150 miles of groomed trails, which then connects into the Idaho trail system, which opens up hundreds of miles of riding opportunities.

Because of its popularity and the need to remove snow for a large parking area, the Monte Cristo trailhead is the only fee access area in Utah. A season permit is $50 and a day pass is $5.

All of the money collected, said Ann Evans, off-highway vehicle education specialist with the DPR, goes back into maintenance and snow removal at that trailhead.

Because of the riding popularity, this, too, is an area where some of the problems associated with snowmobiling show up.

The biggest problem Bringhurst sees is faulty equipment.

"People need to make sure of their equipment before they leave the trailhead, and even better, before they leave home. They need to make sure it's in top condition," he said.

"They also need to know their limits. And with the new machines today, they shouldn't be riding a machine that is beyond their limits."

Another issue is helmets. Everyone should wear one, but those below the age of 18 are required to wear a helmet. Only those helmets approved for automotive use are acceptable.

Snowmobiling has become more popular in Utah. In the mid-1980s there were just over 10,000 registered machines. Last year, there were 28,718 registered snowmobiles, which is a 1.7 percent increase over 2005 figures.

And with more machines on the trails and riders looking for challenging slopes to climb, the chances of an avalanche breaking loose increase, which is all the more reason people need to be smart about where they ride and to make sure they are prepared.

When there is a storm coming, or immediately after a storm, anyone headed into the backcountry should call the Utah Avalanche Center, which is the best source for avalanche conditions. The number is 888-999-4019.

There are five warning levels — low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme. Backcountry travelers should use caution when the warning is considerable or higher.

There are seven avalanche areas in Utah, each with a staff of avalanche forecasters who are out in the field daily reporting on current conditions. Those centers are Logan, western Uinta, Ogden, Salt Lake City, Provo, Manti-Skyline and Moab.

Along with a detailed advisory, the centers also offer educational information and weather forecasts.

The Web site is www.utahavalanchecenter.com.

The DPR also has 17 trail maps identifying groomed trails in Utah. The maps are free. For information call 800-648-7433.

E-mail: [email protected]