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S.T.O.P. - A "Situational Awareness" tool for sledders, by sledders.
S.T.O.P. With over 25 years of technical snowmobile riding and mountain travel experience, industry training advisor Doug Washer created S.T.O.P. to help sledders improve on their situational awareness skills and to make safety conscious decisions while traveling in the backcountry. This simple, effective, habit forming tool encourages sledders to make observations about critical safety factors throughout the day.
Sledders travel great distances through ever changing, unique terrain features, inconsistent snowpack and micro climates, often without stopping to observe the changes that have taken place.
S.T.O.P. encourages riders to take mental notes of the climactic and geographic features at all elevations including the valley, treeline, alpine and before entering new mountain zones or play areas. New zones include areas of past or suspecting avalanche activity, large open bowls, new aspects or areas of high consequence. These may include wind swept boulder fields, open creeks and steep gullies while considering elements such as temperature, sun and wind exposure.
Use S.T.O.P. as a simplified method of collecting information pertaining to your specific situation, decision making skills and to help manage yourself and your group while in the backcountry.
Free of Avalanches
STOP was designed to encourage the rider to stop more frequently and in key areas, free of avalanche hazards and in areas where specific observations can safely be made. Whether you’re entering new terrain features or play zones, or simply stopping to observe how thetemperatures and snow conditions are changing with elevation, it’s critical to keep a pulse on the mountain environment you are entering and how it’s changed from where you came. Be sure to look for all signs of past avalanche activity when choosing your 'STOP'.
Regroup & Communicate
Communicate the changes your group is experiencing and how these observations may affect your route selection. This aids in preventing individuals from riding into hazardous areas while potentially putting others at risk and ensuring the entire group is not corralled in areas prone to avalanche hazards. Verify all your group members have participated. Mountain hand signals are another beneficial mountain snowmobile communication tool.
Terrain features tell a great deal about the hazards you are about to encounter. Look for specific features that may cause you challenges. Plan to mitigate those hazards and plan for what may happen if you are not successful. This may include preparing your avalanche air bag for deployment and traveling through avalanche zones one at a time.
Look for specific areas that may be prone to triggering an avalanche and discuss these specific features with your group to make sure everyone avoids them. These areas may included exposed rocks, shallow snowpack areas etc. Identify the consequences should an avalanche be triggered. Even small avalanche areas above cliff bands can be catastrophic.
Note: Think about your group, the skill level of riders and the type of equipment being used. Do you have the skills, food, fuel to proceed and resources required for self rescue? Would you require outside resources in case of an emergency and are you equipped to contact them?
Assess the weather system at least three times a day. The morning forecast should help in considering destinations, mid morning observations should affirm your decision or cause you to reconsider. The mid afternoon observation should consider your progress and whether to carry on or turn back. On going micro weather observations through changing elevations and aspects should be viewed in connection with snowpack stability expectations. Basic observation include wind speed, temperature change, solar radiation, aspect and approaching storm systems.
Test the snowpack at various elevations and when entering new areas. Simple snow tests include the foot pen (penetration) test which helps to identify surface snow density (weight), depth and other characteristics. The Probe test is also highly beneficial. When used effectively, it will help identify unstable layers within the snowpack and areas of significant change. (IE: a thick, dense, windslab on a hard rain crust buried 40cm’s). These are quick, simple exercise in which to “see” the otherwise obscured layers buried below.
Note: Be mindful of daylight hours remaining when making critical route and destination decisions. Will a helicopter and rescue crew have time to get to you?
The planning phase consolidates the observations and converts them into an action plan. It identifies your next destination, the route, hazards, consequences, skills, resources and mitigating strategies. More over, it helps to determine if the conditions are ripe for sledding, or ripe for disaster.
Group decisions can be very difficult while snowmobiling given variations in skill, knowledge, equipment and the dispersed nature of mountain snowmobiling. From a group dynamic perspective, many decisions are made individually when snowmobiling, it’s simply the nature of the beast while wearing a helmet overtop an engine, traveling great distances in minutes, not hours. Sledders make many isolated decisions from one another other than when coming together for brief periods. It is therefore critical that we employ some basic ground rules when traveling as a group. STOP becomes the basis of what all riders should be considering and sharing while sledding through the mountains.
S.T.O.P. Is a simple, effective tool that employs safe backcountry travel techniques and applies your training and knowledge. It assists in critical thinking and risk management practices and assists in group management and consensus decision making. It is based on basic mountain weather and avalanche skills training which everyone should have. STOP is by no means a stand alone measure for guarding against injury or death. We hope you find this tool useful and share it with your fellow sledders.