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“Ryan Paggett looked up and saw dozens of tracks lining a mountain slope near Valemount, B.C., a snowmobile rider’s haven tucked just across the Alberta border in the Rocky Mountains.

The tracks went in arcs, each made by other riders who rode up the slope as high as they could before turning and speeding down the hill. Dubbed “high-marking,” it’s a snowy competition that affords respect to those who go higher and farther than everyone else.

Mr. Paggett, a 26-year-old oil worker who was snowmobiling at the slope last Saturday, took his turn. Riding a 2008 Arctic Cat M8 that he had tuned-up himself, he hit the hill head-on, accelerating up while friends watched and recorded.

It started well. He set a new high mark by passing the other tracks, but kept going. It was with victory in sight – metres from the top of the hill – that the snow pack broke, sparking an avalanche.

“I didn’t see it until I just turned around at the top, then I see the whole mountain give way underneath me. Then I got into it and kind of got onto the gas trying to keep on the top,” Mr. Paggett recalled last night. “I just remember trying to stay on top of the sled, givin’er a little bit. … It was surreal. It’s not something you actually expect to see.”

As he tried to power through the slide, he was swept away from view of onlookers for moments. Soon after, he shot out the bottom of the settling snow, unscathed. Blaine Jezowski, 39, who recorded the ordeal, can be heard on the video saying: “He made it. Holy shit, he made it.” Mr. Paggett – uninjured – says he’s still stunned.

“You get in the moment, and there were tracks in the hill from earlier. … you look at that and think ‘maybe I’ll take a run at it,’ ” said the Leduc, Alta., resident. “I’m counting my lucky stars. … That was totally irresponsible of me. I knew the danger. Making that climb was not the best decision of my life.”

Humbled by the event, he said he hopes his narrow escape – posted a day later on YouTube – serves as a cautionary tale.

“It was unbelievable,” said cameraman Blaine Jezowski, 39, who was riding with his friend and 13-year-old son nearby. “I said to my son: ‘Those guys shouldn’t be on that hill.’ ”

The Canadian Avalanche Centre said Mr. Paggett is an “incredibly fortunate rider.”

“[High-marking] is an activity that takes you into avalanche terrain, serious avalanche terrain,” said CAC operations manager John Kelly.

It’s a close call for a province that has already witnessed 23 avalanche fatalities this year, including 18 victims who were on snowmobiles – twice as many as any other year on record. One of them was in Valemount.

“Snowmobilers have taken over this year as the user group with the highest number of fatalities,” Mr. Kelly said. “We’re concerned.”

In Valemount, a town dependent on snowmobile tourism, Mayor Bob Smith said the riders ignored signs warning them to stay clear of the area. The weather was well above freezing that day – 10C in some areas – although the CAC said the avalanche risk was “variable.”

“It’s a shame, but it’s an extreme sport,” Mr. Smith said. “We can’t stop them all, I’m afraid. Unless we just didn’t let them sled, and that would be disastrous for the town.”

Mr. Paggett acknowledged that he nearly became B.C.’s latest avalanche victim, and doesn’t mind the video being posted.

“People have lost people out there a lot already, and [avalanche centre officials] just don’t want to see anybody hurt… Hopefully it will keep someone else off that hill,” he said, adding: “I’m still going to go [snowmobiling], but it’s definitely going to affect my decision-making process.””

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April 4, 2009 - Snowmobiler Survives Avalanche, 9.0 out of 10 based on 1 rating
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April 7, 2009

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