By Ian Haupt
The Mt. Baker area will have its own snowmobile-specific education outfit this season.
Elevated Backcountry offers beginner to advanced-level sled riders avalanche training and skills courses. Co-founder Jeff Hambelton, who brought the group together, started teaching avalanche courses at Mt. Baker Ski Area in 1999. He bought his first snowmobile in 2007. Since then, he said snowmobiling has gradually taken up all his mountain travel. He’s been teaching snowmobile-specific courses for nine seasons.
Hambelton said the Mt. Baker area lacks snowmobile education. In forming Elevated Backcountry, he said he saw an opportunity to provide a service to the Baker community
“We recognize that if you’re a skier or snowboarder there’s a dozen different ways to get avalanche education,” Hambelton said. “As a snowmobiler, that just doesn’t exist.”
Having formed around the beginning of last winter, this will be the company’s second full season.
While Elevated Backcountry will offer avalanche and skills courses this winter, Hambelton and co-founder Pat Kennedy said they do not plan to offer guiding, for two reasons. One is that the Mt. Baker area is small compared to other areas like B.C. and the Rocky Mountains that are more expansive. The other reason is that they want to equip riders with the necessary skills to lead their own adventures in the backcountry.
“We recognize that being out in the mountains is a self-directed adventure,” Hambelton said. “And we want to encourage that. It’s the skills behind that we are most motivated in pushing.”
Kennedy also said that there’s just not enough terrain to offer outstanding guided adventures, but plenty to run avalanche and skills courses.
Avalanche courses offered include a rescue course and American Institute for Avalanche Research Education (AIARE) level 1 and level 2 courses. The rescue course is one day and goes over gear and how to use it rescue scenarios. AIARE 1 are 24-hour courses with two-day in the field designed as an introduction to snowpack, understanding terrain and mitigating avalanche risk. AIARE 2 will advance that knowledge into developing leadership decision-making and more advanced rescue skills. The level 1 and 2 courses include about eight hours of online instruction and self-study.
Kennedy said snowmobile avalanche education varies from ski or snowboard education in two different areas: travel observations and rescue. Since snowmobiles can cover much more terrain in a day, Kennedy said decisions have to be much quicker than on foot.
“A lot of what is taught in travel observations for skiers and snowboarders is different than what you would teach somebody on a snowmobile,” he said. “Because they’ve got an engine running, they may be moving 50-60 mph over the snow.”
Similarly, Kennedy said the sled can be used as an efficient tool in rescue scenarios, which requires different training.
Hambelton added that the avalanche knowledge is still the same, but it’s about making it relevant while on a snowmobile. He said avalanche training and skills courses are available December through March.
Elevated Backcountry is made up of co-founders Hambelton, Pat Kennedy and Kelsey and Joey Fay. Hambelton is a 20-year avalanche instructor who has worked for multiple local backcountry companies and the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC). Kennedy similarly has taught courses for NWAC, Baker Mountain Guides and American Alpine Institute and been snowmobiling since the late ‘90s. Kelsey and Joey are professional snowboarders, both with over 15 years of snowmobile experience in the backcountry. Kelsey taught avalanche education in lower B.C. for five years before moving to Washington.
Kelsey and Joey turned to avalanche education when they lost a close friend in an avalanche accident in the Mt. Baker area three years ago. Most people who get into avalanche education and are passionate about it have a similar story to tell, Kennedy said.
Hambelton and Kelsey met through an AIARE instructor-training course that Hambelton was instructing and Kesley was taking. Hambelton and Kennedy have known each other for years. The three of them will be instructing the avalanche courses. Kelsey and Joey are married and met as pro snowmobilers. Joey, who is getting his instructor qualifications this season, will help instruct the skills courses.
Elevated Backcountry has two ranges of skills courses, distinguished for beginner and intermediate riders and advanced riders.
“When you’re just starting out with snowmobiling, it’s a super intimidating machine. It’s super powerful and feels unpredictable,” Hambelton said. “For the intermediate rider, it’s about opening up new terrain and being able to get beyond trail, and into deeper and more aggressive terrain.”
They have professional snowmobiler and longtime instructor Aaron Roesler coming out to Baker to teach some of the advanced skills courses on Presidents’ Day, February 20, 2023, weekend, Hambelton said.
He also said the terrain in the Baker area is difficult for beginner and intermediate riders. The south side of Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has terrain suited for beginners, Hambelton said. Due to low elevation, it can struggle to get enough snowpack.
Both Hambelton and Kennedy live in Maple Falls and said they often go up to B.C. to ride. They have also snowmobiled in Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming.
Hambelton said doing something in the avalanche education industry on your own is difficult, and Whatcom County doesn’t have snowmobile education available. He said the group came together through a collective mission.
“We came together as riders recognizing a common need in the community,” Hambelton said. “And have worked hard to establish a sustainable business.”
A sustainable business that could be around for years to come, he added. x