BOISE, Idaho — Already this winter, avalanches have taken a grim toll across the West, and are blamed for the deaths of 21 since the beginning of the season.
Sixteen of those deaths happened in just the last two weeks.
A Boise couple knows the dangers of avalanches all too well. They got caught in one on Tuesday while snowbiking near Idaho City
Fortunately, they were able to make it out safely thanks to some quick thinking and preparation.
Don Stanger and Leslie Atkinson take safety very seriously when snowbiking out in the backcountry.
So much so, they won't ride with other people who aren't as prepared as they are. They both love snowbiking for different reasons.
“Thrill of the throttle,” Stanger said. “I enjoy the quick acceleration and hard-carving turns and launches off of stuff that seem impossible.”
Atkinson loves it because she gets to get out into the backcountry.
“I describe it as heaven on earth because when you get up there you get to see Mother Nature in her beauty right out in the sun and it's untouched,” she said.
They got a chance to do that on Tuesday when they decided to go up to Boise County for an easy ride.
“Let’s just head for Pilots Peak and do a nice fun rip and enjoy the day in the sunshine while we can," Stanger said of their thinking that morning. “We call them bluebird days.”
That bluebird day was overshadowed by an avalanche on the peak.
“As I was motoring straight down the hill, I see the fluff start to pile up next to me on both sides, so I knew what was happening, so my instincts are to grab a handful of throttle and pour the coals to it,” Stanger said.
While Stanger was able to get away from the slide, his wife was not as fortunate.
“Some more [snow] starting breaking and slid my bike out from under me and then some big chunks knocked me off the bike and tumbled me down the hill,” Atkinson said.
She ended up buried under two feet of snow. Stanger was able to quickly find her, and they were able to get to safety because of all of their prep work leading up to the ride itself and the gear they had with them.
“We have a beacon that helps us locate each other, we have a saw to saw branches and a shovel to shovel the snow and we have a probe to probe for missing people, bikes,” Stanger said. “Throughout my entire life of snowmobiling and snowbiking, we have prepared ourselves for that inevitable moment by buying the gear.”
Another crucial piece of gear was an avalanche pack that deployed when Atkinson went under the snow.
“As I was tumbling down, I had to, there is a pull string on your avalanche pack, so I was able to pull it as I was tumbling and then it blows air into a bag around your head,” she said.
The pack kept the snow from gathering around her face and suffocating her.
“I can't knock it because it played a part in saving her life,” Stanger said. “She used it and it worked.”
The couple also had radios in their helmets that were key for communication.
“It was nice to be able to hear my wife's voice say 'I'm okay' when I was in partial panic mode,” Stanger said.
After getting her out of the snow, they used a GPS unit to find her bike, which was buried even deeper.
Then, it was time to go home. That was one of the hardest parts of their ride.
“Just because that avalanche went off doesn't mean that was all of them,” Atkinson said. “Stress levels was pretty high, and our bodies were tense, and I think we're feeling a little bit of that today.”
They credited all the gear they had with getting Atkinson out safely and getting them back down the mountain.
“We don’t go riding with people that don’t have a radio that can communicate with us," Stanger said. "They have to have a Trail Tech Voyager Pro (GPS), and they have to have an avalanche bag, a beacon and a probe and a shovel and a saw so they can help us get out. That’s what our job is as a fellow snowbiker or snowmobiler to have that gear so we can help someone else.”
The gear isn’t cheap, but Stanger and Atkinson say it’s worth it.
“The first thing you've got to do is budget for the safety gear, otherwise you probably shouldn't be out there,” Atkinson said.
The need to be prepared was seconded by Jack Simonds, a member of the Boise Snowmobile Club and a backcountry ambassador.
His tips for riders include being educated and making sure the people who are riding together are educated.
“If an avalanche happens, the lives of the people you are with are literally in your hands,” he said.
Riders should always check out the conditions and forecast provided by local avalanche centers. The Payette Avalanche Center and Sawtooth Avalanche Center monitor avalanche conditions across a large swath of Central and Southern Idaho.
Another tip is to never go out riding alone. Because if you get caught up in an avalanche, there is no one there with you to potentially help you get out.
Stanger told KTVB that when people get their gear then they should test it out and make sure they really know how to use it so they’re familiar with it when it is needed most.
The couple isn't afraid to go riding again, they said they could even go this weekend again but they're going to wait to see how they both feel.
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