Two new check stations in the Snowy Range allow backcountry recreationists to make sure their avalanche beacons are working properly.
Snowy Range Snowmobile Club, in partnership with the Wyoming State Trails Program and Medicine Bow National Forest, installed the check stations on the U Trail near the Green Rock Trailhead on the Laramie Ranger District, and on the CE Trail near the Chain’s End parking area in the Brush Creek/Hayden Ranger District.
The check stations are large yellow and red signs along the side of the trail with embedded electronic equipment.
To use the station, a person wearing an avalanche beacon simply approaches the sign, making sure no other beacons are in the vicinity. A processing unit analyzes the signal being transmitted from the beacon. A blue box on the sign chimes and lights up in green to indicate that everything looks good or in red if there’s a problem with the beacon.
“If the signal strength is weak or it’s not transmitting on the right frequency, it will clearly flash a red ‘X,’ and then the rider can inspect their beacon,” said Matt Burkhart, public lands access coordinator for the Snowy Range Snowmobile Club. “It gives an indication before they go out that this piece of safety gear is not functioning properly.”
The aim of the check stations is two-fold, Burkhart said. First, they allows snowmobilers, skiers, snowshoers and others heading into the back country to make sure their equipment is working in case of an emergency.
Secondly, they’re a visible reminder to those not wearing safety equipment that they are heading into avalanche territory and should consider using recommended gear.
“Maybe if somebody is on the edge about whether they want to purchase an avalanche beacon — whether they think they need it — hopefully the sign itself puts some food for thought in folks’ minds. If this sign is here, maybe there is a need for avalanche safety equipment,” he said.
Club members had seen similar signs at popular snowmobile trailheads in Colorado and decided they wanted to bring the technology to the Snowy Range. They also took a cue from a national avalanche safety campaign called “Are You Beeping?” that encourages recreationists to make sure their equipment is functioning.
“We set that out as one of our top priorities for the snowmobile club this year, to make that happen,” Club President Keith Tupper said.
Burkhart said the check stations are the first of their kind in Wyoming, and they’re aimed at all recreationists, not just snowmobilers.
“We encourage everybody not only to get the gear but also the training, making sure the group you’re riding or recreating with is comfortable with the safety equipment and knows how to use it in the event that a rescue is needed,” he said.
According to Bob Howell, patrol director for the Medicine Bow Nordic Ski Patrol, snowpack in the region has the potential of having a layer of weak, shallow snow at its base called a depth hoar, which can persist throughout the winter.
Backcountry travelers are advised to carry an avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe and shovel.
They should also check current conditions and the weather forecast before they travel.
If one member of a group is buried in the snow, other members can locate him or her by using their transceivers to pick up a signal from that person’s beacon.
According to Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center, almost 30 people have been killed by avalanches in Wyoming since 2010, including two people in 2018.
Snowmobilers and backcountry skiers are by far the most likely to be killed by an avalanche.
The center lists five people killed by avalanches in the Snowy Range since 1975. The most recent fatality was a snowmobiler in 2008.
Burkhart said many members of the local snowmobile community have encountered an avalanche, and they’re a regular occurrence in the high country.
“There’s quite a few of us that are very passionate about having this resource and educating people,” he said.
The club partnered with snowmobile dealers in Laramie, Saratoga, Cheyenne, Casper and Fort Collins, Colorado, to help fund the project. Brian Lundstedt, founder of Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness, assembled the signs. The beacon-checking technology cost $1,500 for each sign.
The signs were installed in cooperation with the Wyoming State Trails Program, which has a permit with the U.S. Forest Service to groom snowmobile trails and install signs. The club will maintain the signs.
Burkhart said the club hopes to install signs at more trailheads in the future.
“It’s a public service to anyone who recreates up there,” he said.
The Snowy Range Snowmobile Club works to advocate for the snowmobile community, promote responsible public lands access and provide education and public service.