You’ve likely heard of the many benefits snowcats can have for landowners, ski lodges, and other personal and business use, but one of the most important jobs a snowcat can and does regularly do is serve emergency and rescue services. Snowcats are at home in the backcountry and are essential for a successful rescue in the mountains.
What Does a Snowcat Do?
Snowcats are used for a variety of purposes. Most people are familiar with their responsibilities at resorts and ski areas. At a ski area, a snowcat’s main job is to groom the trails every night for the skiers and snowboarders to enjoy the next morning. In addition to grooming the trails, operators use the snowcats to ensure that the snow base is even, and to build terrain parks and their features. The snowcat is also utilized by parking crews to help them ensure parking lots are clear for customers and by ski patrol teams for avalanche mitigation purposes.
Snowcats at Ski Resorts
Some resorts and ski areas may offer Snowcat tours, where passengers explore the mountain from the warmth of the snowcat cab, and “cat skiing,” where skiers and snowboards are driven to more remote locations within resort boundaries in order to gain access to untouched powder. In certain areas of the United States, some companies offer exclusive fully-guided snowcat access to private land.
Snowcats have a lot more uses than just keeping the trails groomed at a ski resort, however. Some individuals own snowcats for their private land, or just for their own private use. In Colorado, you are able to take your private snowcat on most trails that snowmobiles are permitted on national forest land. USDA Forest Service (2022). Winter Recreation Around Crested Butte. Winter Recreation – USDA Forest Service. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from … Continue reading There are communities of people who enjoy taking their snowcats out on the weekend, just like you would a snowmobile.
Snowcats for Military and Research
Snowcats are also used in military operations in order to traverse land and get into areas with limited access. Some organizations use the snowcat’s ability to get to remote areas for scientific research. They have been used in the polar and arctic areas to help transport scientists and their samples across the snow and ice in freezing weather.
Because of their excellent handling despite their large size, and ability to traverse the backcountry with ease, search and rescue operation teams also utilize the accessibility options the snowcat has to offer.
How Are Snowcats Used For Rescue and Emergency Services?
From Vermont’s White Mountains to the Colorado Rockies, backcountry Search and Rescue emergency service teams utilize snowcats in their efforts. Snowcats can be found as a part of search and rescue teams in areas that you might not even consider, like South Dakota Murat, M. (2022). Men rescued in Black Hills after four hours in subzero temperatures. KNBN NewsCenter1. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from … Continue reading or Michigan. Marquette County Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Division (2021). SPECIAL OPERATIONS DIVISION. Marquette County, MI. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from … Continue reading Snowcats may not be the fastest vehicles, but they are able to handle smoothly over uneven, snowy terrain and allow rescue teams to get where they need to go.
In the mountains outside of Los Angeles, California, the San Bernardino County Fire Department has a fleet of snowcats placed strategically throughout the rugged, high-altitude San Bernardino Mountains. The San Bernardino Fire Department has used snowcats to reach stranded drivers, and the snowcats have been used in the successful rescue of hundreds of individuals while part of the department. The San Bernardino assistant fire chief considered the vehicles to be “lifesaving” pieces of equipment. McClintock, M., (2022). New “Snowcat” Placed in Service at Fire Station 14 in Wrightwood. San Bernardino County Fire Protection District Press Release. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from … Continue reading
In Northstar, CA, the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue (TNSAR) team utilizes their Pistenbully 100 snowcat to save lives when helicopters can’t be flown into the backcountry. Their snowcats are an essential part of their search and rescue operations and have been modified to have an extra cab in order for patients to be attended to while the snowcat makes its way back to civilization.
In Colorado, the National Guard and several counties include snowcats as part of their emergency vehicle fleets. Clear Creek County, located on the I-70 corridor, is where many weekend warriors spend hours sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic eagerly waiting to make it over the continental divide to the Summit County ski areas.
Unfortunately, because of the high rise in elevation on this stretch of such a busy interstate, it is a hotbed for winter accidents and pile ups. Many drivers know this, and will try to avoid traffic by driving on frontage roads or back roads instead of on the interstate. However, when these drivers do encounter an accident or breakdown, conditions make it hard to reach them.
As part of their Alpine Rescue operations team, Clear Creek County utilizes snowcats in order to help find individuals who may become stranded during the Winter months. Snowcats aren’t typically used on the interstate, but are incredibly useful when having to rescue drivers stuck on back roads.
Why Are Snowcats Such a Great Tool For Emergency and Rescue?
When thinking of search and rescue in the backcountry, most people immediately think of helicopter rescue. However, helicopter use is incredibly limited, and can be very dangerous based on the weather conditions at the time. According to the Mountain Rescue Association, there are very specific rules regarding when a helicopter can and cannot be involved in a rescue scenario.
For example, when operating at night, pilots of smaller helicopters have to have a minimum of three miles of visibility, a 2,000-foot horizontal distance from clouds, a 500-foot minimum below clouds, and a 1,000-foot minimum above clouds. For National Guard pilots, the visibility minimum is decreased to one mile, and they must have a visual of the ground at all times. Shimanski, C., & Haviland Mize, C. (2019). Helicopters in Search and Rescue: Basic Level. Mountain Rescue Association Publication. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from … Continue reading
Unlike helicopters, Snowcats don’t have any weather or visibility limitations. Because of their incredibly bright headlights and lighting systems, snowcats can maneuver through heavy blizzards in order to reach individuals in need of emergency services. Inside the cabin, many snowcats are equipped with GPS technology and computer mapping software that gives the operator a visual of where the cat is, even if they’re completely blinded by current conditions.
Even when helicopters might need to land because of forceful winds, snowcats are able to continue working. The cat itself can withstand forceful winds, and the closed cab will protect the operator from being affected by the strong winds and low temperatures.
When it comes to personnel capacity, even smaller snowcats have a heavier weight limit and can carry more passengers than certain helicopter models used by emergency services. Snowcats can hold much more cargo and equipment, making the expedition to the backcountry safer for both the rescuers and the rescued.
When using a snowcat, there’s always the option to add on customizable features as well. In the case of the San Bernardino Fire Department, having the ability to add on space can allow emergency services teams to be able to outfit the snowcat with more life-saving medical equipment. Teams can begin to start working on their patients right away as they safely navigate their way out of the wilderness and to a medical facility.
Leasing vs Purchasing a Snowcat
When it comes to acquiring a snowcat, choosing whether to purchase or lease can be a difficult decision. Like helicopters, emergency services can lease a snowcat for the season. If purchasing a snowcat outright isn’t in the budget, leasing a snowcat for a season can cost a fraction of the price.
|USDA Forest Service (2022). Winter Recreation Around Crested Butte. Winter Recreation – USDA Forest Service. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5397030.pdf
|Murat, M. (2022). Men rescued in Black Hills after four hours in subzero temperatures. KNBN NewsCenter1. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.newscenter1.tv/men-rescued-in-black-hills-after-four-hours-in-subzero-temperatures/
|Marquette County Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Division (2021). SPECIAL OPERATIONS DIVISION. Marquette County, MI. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.co.marquette.mi.us/departments/sheriff_s_office/special_operations.php
|McClintock, M., (2022). New “Snowcat” Placed in Service at Fire Station 14 in Wrightwood. San Bernardino County Fire Protection District Press Release. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://sbcfire.org/20220106-snowcat14/#:~:text=San%20Bernardino%20County%20Fire%20deploys,and%20transport%20them%20to%20safety.
|Shimanski, C., & Haviland Mize, C. (2019). Helicopters in Search and Rescue: Basic Level. Mountain Rescue Association Publication. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://mra.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Helicopters_Basic.pdf