In 2017, Brett Lambert, an experienced snowmobiler from Vernon, B.C., was riding off-trail through the Okanagan backcountry when his snowmobile got stuck in deep snow. With limited cell reception and a frozen radio, his calls for help went unanswered.
During an attempt to free himself, his snowmobile collided with a tree, breaking the right ski. He was forced to abandon it, leaving him stranded on the edge of a cliff.
Meanwhile, the police and Vernon Search and Rescue were called to the scene and began scouring the area after Lambert’s friends alerted his parents that he was missing.
Unfortunately, cases such as Lambert’s are not uncommon. In Ontario and B.C., where snowmobiling is a common pastime, incidents of missing or injured riders are a regular occurrence.
An Ontario Injury Data Report from 2018 documented 13,590 emergency room visits and 1,288 hospital visits related to ATVs, snowmobiles, and other off-road vehicles between 2014 and 2015.
As the sport’s popularity has grown, so too has the danger. Members of SAR teams across the country agree that the spike in snowmobile injuries is most often due to the technological advancements of the machines.
“A snowmobile can travel a long distance in a short time. We’ve had people run out of gas, mechanical breakdowns, get stuck in slush or go through the ice,” said Terry McLeod with Lake of the Woods Search and Rescue. “Trying to locate a missing or overdue snowmobile is tough as to where to start.”
Dwight Yochim, senior manager of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association, agrees.
“The change in technology allows virtually anyone to get into places where people never used to get to before,” he pointed out.
“People often aren’t paying attention to avalanche hazards and the risk that’s out there, and that’s often what’s causing the biggest issue.”
In B.C., snowmobilers have avalanches to contend with, while there is the potential for machines to break through the ice during mild Ontario winters.
“It’s often people thinking the ice is safe to go across, and it’s not,” said Cathy Gill, training coordinator of the Ontario Search and Rescue Volunteer Association.
“It’s been milder the last few years, so people really need to listen to the warnings, check the thickness of the ice, not go places that they’re unfamiliar with, and pay attention to the varying temperatures throughout the season.”
As winter approaches, SAR teams are encouraging people to download AdventureSmart. The app provides riders with safety tips to avoid snowmobile injuries, and it allows people to plan their trip. It is designed to raise awareness of the risks associated with outdoor recreational activities and encourages people to share the responsibility for their safety.
“We don’t want to discourage people from going out and enjoying the backcountry,” added Yochim. “We just want to make people know that there’s so much they can do to protect and help themselves in case they get injured or stuck.”
Although Lambert was missing for over 15 hours, he was prepared and had brought a saw with him. A tool that became handy when he collected firewood and started a fire.
“At this point, I was 100 per cent relying on Search and Rescue to find me,” he said.
Vernon SAR deployed a coordinated search of the area. In the early morning, a helicopter took off to aid in the search. Around 8 a.m., Lambert was spotted on the edge of a cliff, waving his hands over his head.
He was picked up and, because he had no major injuries, was taken home. His parents, grateful for his safe return have set up a fundraiser each year to raise money for their local chapter of SAR volunteers.
While Lambert was fortunate to return safely that morning, others aren’t as lucky. Every year the onset of snowmobile season is accompanied by reports of riders who crash into trees, rocks or fences, or fall through ice on streams, rivers or lakes. Snowmobile injuries and accidents, many resulting in deaths, have also become increasingly prevalent.
According to an April 2019 report from Public Health Ontario, due to the predictable and preventable nature of snowmobile injuries, it identified an opportunity for public health action, including mandatory helmet use and minimum age restrictions.
“The machines will almost give you a false sense of security because, even if you’re not familiar with where you’re going, your machine can get you there, and it can take you into areas that you’re maybe not as prepared for,” said Sandra Riches, executive director of BC AdventureSmart, citing the three Ts: trip planning, training and taking the essentials.
Riches also advises snowmobilers to check the weather in advance, tell someone the planned route, and travel in groups in the hopes education will help decrease the number and severity of search and rescue incidents.
Other AdventureSmart tips include bringing extra clothing, warm water in a thermos, food, no alcohol, a plastic tarp or anything that can be used to make a shelter, and supplies to make a fire. If SAR is needed, the trip planner will hopefully allow people to be found quicker.
“The purpose of AdventureSmart is to survive outside and to arrive alive,” she said.
“It will help make people more aware and make more informed decisions, mitigate risks and change people’s behaviour so they can be safe while they’re enjoying the outdoors this winter.”