Person of Interest

Mike Duffy's Mission Is to Save Lives

The snowmobile safety instructor teaches thousands of riders each year how to avoid avalanches.

By as told to Devon O’Neil Photography by Scott Bellow December 15, 2020 Published in the Winter/Spring 2020–2021 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

Mike Duffy

 I grew up in New England and moved to Vail in the fall of 1984 because I love snow. I had just graduated from Plymouth State University; when I left, my mother said, “I’ll see you in the spring,” and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. 

After running ski shops for years, I joined Vail Mountain Rescue Group (VMRG) as a volunteer in 1989 to give back to my community and learn some hard skills along the way. In the mid-’90s, we went on two body recoveries in three weeks in the East Vail Chutes. At the time, avalanche classes cost about $400. We knew a lot of locals weren’t taking the classes because they didn’t have the money. So four of us from the rescue group started offering Level 1 classes for $65 out of the East Vail Racquet Club. 

Being a skier and a snowmobiler, I noticed that snowmobile avalanche fatalities were increasing dramatically, but all curriculum was skier-based. So I developed a snowmobiling-specific curriculum to fill that gap. One of the key things missing in standard classes was how much more terrain snowmobilers cover, and how quickly we can get into a bad situation. What skiers cover in a day, we cover in 20 minutes. We’re analyzing terrain on the go, often as a group, at higher speeds. 

In the early 2000s, snowmobilers comprised about 50 percent of all avalanche fatalities in the U.S. Riders who were traveling from the Midwest to the West accounted for about half of those fatalities. A lot of people were making basic mistakes—not having rescue gear, or not being proficient with it. They really needed more awareness. So in 2006, I started a business ( and started traveling to teach. I taught my first avalanche class in the Midwest to 30 people sitting in a living room in Minnesota. 

Snowmobilers are no longer No. 1 for avalanche fatalities every year, but teaching still keeps me extremely busy. In a normal year, from October through Christmas, I’m traveling nationwide and teaching in 14 different states. Last year [2019] I went two and a half months without a day off. I’ve started training the FBI as well as Navy SEAL teams. We cover things like how to take a snowmobile off trail through the backcountry, how to assess snow stability, terrain analysis, route finding, and rescue. And they can do it stealthily, let’s put it that way. We use things like night vision on snowmobiles.

The toughest classes I teach are after a fatality, pointing out mistakes people made. But my job is to get the information out there. Avalanche education is very reactionary, but we’re pushing people to be proactive: Are you an asset or a liability to your group? If something happens, are you ready with the skills? Can you make good decisions? 

The saddest thing about the two local snow bikers who died on Muddy Pass north of Avon [in February 2020] was they were playing it pretty safe. They realized they were in bad terrain, and then they tried to get out of there and got caught. They hit the one spot on the mountain where you could trigger an avalanche, and it had a horrible terrain trap. I wasn’t involved with that accident, but I went in the next day to take a look. It was surprising how deeply buried they were from such a small slide. 

One thing I always say in class is: a lot of people get in trouble when they’re exploring. You’re cutting through the trees, going to an opening, just like they did, then you realize you’re in avalanche terrain. You need to get out of it as quickly as you can, which they tried to do, and it didn’t work out. They were so close to getting out of it. 

I’m not in this for the money. I’m in it to save lives. My whole goal is to reduce avalanche fatalities.   

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