Central Alberta snowmobilers die in avalanches

Central Albertans Andy Gebhardt, his son Jarrett Gebhardt and their friend Norbert Mueller died Saturday afternoon while high marking on their snowmobiles on Mt. Gerald near Golden, B.C. High marking involves driving a snowmobile as high as possible on a slope before coming down.

An avalanche buried them, as well as Mueller’s son Travis Mueller, the only one to survive.

All four are from the Donalda/Halkirk area and their deaths have shaken the small community, which lit candles in their memory on Family Day. RCMP said two of the four were climbing the mountain on their machines and the two others were watching from below when the avalanche occurred. Other snowmobilers came to their rescue but were unable to save the three that died. According to their families, all three were experienced snowmobilers and wore emergency locator beacons.

Jim Floyer, a public avalanche forecaster with the Canadian Avalanche Centre in Revelstoke, said while avalanche conditions are generally moderate right now “It’s important to localize the danger.

“Snow conditions and the steepness of slopes vary when it comes to triggering an avalanche and steep rocky slopes are the most dangerous. It’s up to the snowmobilers to recognize that those areas are not the places to go.”

He also advises that only one person at a time should expose him or herself on a slope and if others want to watch in a group they should not do it from the bottom of the slope.

Floyer also advises snowmobilers (and skiers) to wear avalanche transceivers, which send out signals to other nearby users.

“The season is not over by any means,” said Floyer, noting that avalanches are often more of a problem in March as snow warms up and melts during the day, but freezes again at night. Information on avalanche conditions, including the status of slopes in national and provincial parks is available on www.avalanche.ca.

Death by avalanche while snowmobiling is a major risk. So far this year six snowmobilers and three skiers have died in avalanches, including the three who died near Golden on Saturday. On average 14 people die every year in avalanches.

Snowmobiling is a tremendously popular sport in Alberta and a conservative estimate says there are 140,000 snowmobiles in use in the province. In North America it’s estimated there are four million riders and 200,000 snowmobiles are sold every year.