Trials and tribulations are bound to happen if you spend enough time in the backcountry. For one Revelstoke sledder, they have taken him from every backcountry mountain user’s nightmare to spreading avalanche awareness to motorized mountain users throughout Western Canada and soon, overseas.
Norway and Japan have recently opened their backcountry to snowmobilers, which is where longtime Revelstoke resident Jeremy Hanke and his company Soul Rides will be heading next winter to begin spreading safe backcountry practices on a global scale.
In 2004 Hanke was buried in an avalanche while sledding with friends. He had fallen asleep under the snow, tongue in the back of his throat, when his friends finally pulled him out.
Six years later, in an attempt to spread knowledge of safe backcountry use, he started the business Soul Rides and geared it toward the fastest growing group of mountain users — sledders.
Fast-forward seven years and Soul Rides is nearly fully booked this winter, with plans to begin avalanche education in Japan, Norway, as well as Sweden, which already has a strong snowmobiling contingent.
“With Japan just opening the backcountry to motorized use, and Norway as well, and Sweden with a strong snowmobiling culture, there is a lack of education in the area,” Hanke says. After teaming up with Swedish outerwear company TOBE [To Be], they discovered the need for education among sledders. “There is the opportunity to go over there and help shift a culture before fatalities increase.”
After 20 years in the backcountry Hanke says he has made a lot of mistakes, which have resulted in breaking his back twice, fracturing his skull, six close calls with avalanches, including being buried and also digging out a friend.
“When you and your friends have a high risk tolerance, even though you might have all the skills in the world, you can still make mistakes. We’ve had a lot of lessons learned over the years and this is just about trying to reiterate those lessons so other people don’t have to have those close calls.”
Operating out of Revelstoke with a lodge in Three Valley Gap, Soul Rides offers what Hanke calls ‘boutique’ avalanche safety courses specific to sledders and catered to small groups. Customized and mobile, he offers sledders a unique opportunity to learn about avalanche safety from virtually anywhere.
The groups stay together, either at his lodge or at holiday rentals wherever the course takes place. In the evenings they teach and have supper together, and in the days they ride. Most courses are the AST 1 course, as per Avalanche Canada, but Hanke refers to his as an AST 1.5 course.
“We only do avalanche skills training with two days in the field,” he says, which is an extra day in the field compared to most AST 1 courses. The groups remain small, and many of the students already have 100–200 days of riding under their belts.
He suggests the AST 1 curriculum isn’t sufficient for many of the people interested in his course. “You can’t speak to them the same way and give them the same content [as someone who is new to the backcountry]. They need more information and be taught how to apply it, because they are already using the backcountry at a high level.”
Soul Rides has grown to include four more educators, which Hanke requires to have a minimum of two years of mentoring with him before letting them teach. They include Chad Dezall, his lead educator, Brandon Wiesener, Kelsey Elliott and Brodie Evans.
“My instruction team needs to be high-quality snowmobilers, and highly educated in avalanche industry to instruct. So only the top-notch.”
In the same way that quality over quantity is applied in his instructors, Soul Rides uses the same mentality in its courses. Hanke believes his students have better retention in small groups, and encourages groups of friends to take the course together.
“To me avalanche safety is about riding with the right people, and we like to educate riding groups and how they ride together,” Hanke says. “If people have a group of six, we’ll train a group of six. If they have a group of 12 that they ride with all the time, then we’ll train a group of 12. We custom-build the avalanche education for the riding group.”
In previous years Soul Rides has had approximately 150 students a season, and this year Hanke expects it to grow to 200.
This emphasis on quality and Hanke’s willingness to share his story and his knowledge seems to be going a long way — all the way to Europe and Japan. With the help of his educators, Hanke expects to have 600–700 students per season within a couple years as Soul Rides brings what Hanke and his team has learned here in Revelstoke to new borders.
This article first appeared in the print edition of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.