Elk Valley Snow Shepherds (EVSS) is a snowmobile guiding and avalanche safety training business owned by Justin Boehm and his wife Nicole Matei. They have been operating in the Elk Valley for a few seasons and have garnered quite a lot of positive feedback about the services they offer. Boehm is the lead guide for this business and believes that the positive feedback and returning clients is because his outfit is built upon a few concentrated pillars – safety, skill and friendliness.
“Safety, we pride ourselves with having our staff trained at a higher level. We want to give a higher end product, whether it is with beginner or veteran riders we want to give them the best product possible with a local flair,” said Boehm. “They don’t feel like they are getting preached at. I want them to feel like I am a friend of theirs that they will have a great day with.”
After a day with Boehm, it was clear to see that he has folded his passions of avalanche safety and sledding into a business. It was also apparent that Boehm holds his employees to the same standards that he holds himself to.
“My guides and I are Canadian Avalanche certified. That means we are avalanche technicians, we have a Level One or Two professional course and everyone has an avalanche background,” said Boehm.
EVSS also offers Avalanche Safety Training 1 (AST 1) courses that are specific to snowmobilers. Over the past few years Boehm has noticed an age shift in his AST 1 course participants.
“We also teach avalanche certifications, last year we taught a couple AST courses and they were usually around the 20 to 25 age range,” said Boehm. “This year in the few that I have done, I’ve noticed a demographic shift to the 40-ish age range. They have a ton of sledding and mountaineering experience and are refreshing their certification or getting a snowmobile specific certification.”
While the framework of a normal AST course that is intended for skiers and snowboarders is the same as an AST course for snowmobilers, a snowmobile course covers some sled specific training and knowledge.
“The guts are similar, there is just a little bit of a difference in the programming. The biggest is the traveling difference. A snowmobile travels a lot faster and farther. A skier or snowboarder has to put themselves into the danger zone,” said Boehm. “A slope that’s 35 to 38 degrees is prime avalanche terrain, and that’s where a skier or snowboarder will typically want to go.”
Because of the need for gravity, a skier or snowboarder puts themselves into a hazardous situation. Boehm believes that one of the benefits to a snowmobile is its motor.
“We can go out on the snowmobiles and since we know the conditions we’re riding in, if we see bad trends when we are doing our observations we don’t need to let gravity dictate where we need to go. We can go play on the flattest of terrain and have so much fun, we do not need to be exposed to the same hazards at all,” said Boehm.
Exposure is a choice, and that is one of the only things a backcountry enthusiast can decide.
“The only thing we can control is the terrain we ride in. If we are at that considerable avalanche hazard level that’s the range things could start happening,” said Boehm. “Whenever we go out we are always making observations of the area around us, if we are riding in considerable hazardous weather and see the key signs that conditions may be worse than expected we dial the terrain back a bit to make sure it’s safe.”
While there are half-day options available, full day guided sessions are the businesses forte. If rentals are needed the guide will meet the clients at Ghostrider Motorsports or GearHub to rent sleds and the required equipment then proceed to the staging area. If clients are already equipped then they meet their guide at the staging area.
Once the group assembles at the staging area they go through the day’s briefing.
“We start off every day at the trail head with a guides meeting. Whether it is myself or another guide, we will go through a specific process with the avalanche forecast and make a plan for the day so that we have a safe area to ride in,” said Boehm.
Guides will cater the day around whatever riding terrain the group prefers. However the weather and snow conditions are the real dictators.
“Everything is dependent on avalanche conditions and weather. If we have high avalanche conditions and bad weather it will really limit where we can go, but if it’s a low chance and good weather we can push the envelope a little more than in worse conditions.”
After the condition report the guide will make sure that everyone is accustomed to their backcountry gear, specifically their transceiver.
“After the weather report we do a transceiver familiarization session to make sure everyone is comfortable with the basics. Depending on how busy it is in the staging area we may do a quick demo. Once we get away from the chaos of the staging area, we stop and use the transceiver in a couple scenarios and demonstrations,” said Boehm.
The usual meet time is 8:30 a.m. at the staging area. EVSS finds that after their briefing is done they typically leave the staging area around 9:30 a.m. From here the group will travel anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to get to the riding area depending on conditions and client terrain preferences.
“Then we have the whole day, until 3 or 3:30 p.m. to play. We want to leave around this time to ensure we do not travel in the dark,” said Boehm. “Typically, people think that is not enough time, but a solid four hours of riding for most people is more than enough by the time we get back to the parking lot. That’s the day in a nutshell.”
Boehm compares it to the backcountry skiing or snowboarding companies and believes all guiding companies should do the same.
“It’s like going heli skiing or cat skiing. We are a professional insured business. There is a plan based on conditions, coming from certified people and the day is custom built to the needs of our guests. We do not combine groups; it is a custom day for your group. If you want steep technical terrain with trees we can make it happen.”
“If these people have not taken an avalanche safety course we need to teach them safe travel techniques, stuff about observations like snow falling off a tree it will teach them to ride safe,” said Boehm. “The big thing is the guided days are kind of like a mentorship. We share our knowledge with people, we don’t talk down to anyone and we let them know why we are making these decisions.”