Blizzard conditions are common in northern climates, but how one acts in a mineral exploration setting can make the difference between a postive outcome and a tragedy. In the case of a drill rig employee who became lost on a snowmobile, a combination of preparation and instinct led to a good ending.

On May 14, 2013, Michel Justin Pilon and three co-workers were following a marked trail by snowmobile to a drill rig at the Meliadine project near Rankin Inlet in Nunavut. It was snowing, and visibility was restricted to about 500 metres. Pilon did not arrive at the rig and was reported missing. A rescue effort was launched, but the search was hampered due to blizzard conditions that developed during the day.

Two days later, at 10:30 in the evening, rescuers found Pilon alive and safe in an igloo-like shelter he had built. He received medical observation in Rankin Inlet and then flew home to be reunited with his wife and family. As his employer, Richard O’Brien, president and CEO of Boart Longyear, stated, “We are very gratified that Mr. Pilon was able to apply his instincts and training to withstand harsh weather conditions and survive under very difficult conditions. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family as they reunite. Our corporate culture places the highest priority on the safety of employees and customers and includes ongoing training for all of our drillers. That culture, combined with Mr. Pilon’s personal experience in the far North, attention to his own safety and resourcefulness, allowed Mr. Pilon to survive a harrowing experience.”

Pilon’s story demonstrates the need for training that is appropriate for the conditions on a mineral exploration property – in this case, winter conditions lasting well into May in northern Canada. Additionally, although the snowmobile is a useful tool for mineral exploration, it does bring with it some unique challenges. Note the following guidelines adapted from AME BC’s soon-to-bereleased fifth edition of Safety Guidelines for Mineral Exploration in Western Canada.

General Guidelines

  • Travel in pairs where possible.
  • Communicate expected route and arrival/check-in times.
  • Wear safety helmets, faceguards and suitable eye protection. • Be aware of the effects of wind chill on exposed skin and dress accordingly. Learn the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and its treatment; hypothermia is the greatest hazard encountered with snow vehicle travel.
  • Maintain a safe speed and keep the snowmobile under control.
  • Avoid areas where avalanches are possible. Travel in heavily treed areas, tops of ridges, or flat areas away from avalanche paths.
  • If travel over lakes or rivers is absolutely necessary, test the thickness of ice beforehand and avoid areas with fast flowing water, such as narrows.
  • Watch out for overflow conditions.
  • Beware of hidden obstacles such as fence wires and boulders.
  • Various light conditions make it difficult to see hazards. Drive so you can stop within your limits of visibility.
  • Learn general maintenance and trouble-shooting procedures for the machine.
  • Familiarize yourself with maps and compass readings, survival techniques, and ground-to-air rescue signals.
  • Do not unduly damage the environment or harass wildlife.
  • Carry repair kits.
  • Carry survival kits on extended trips.
  • If using a Sno-Cat, ensure there is an escape hatch in the roof.

Essential Equipment

Essential equipment, sufficient for each person and machine, to be carried on extended trips includes the following:

  • Extra fuel in safe containers;
  • Two-cycle gas de-icer;
  • Repair kit, including a tool kit and spare parts;
  • Survival kit;
  • Map and compass;
  • GPS unit;
  • Two methods of communication: radiotelephone, satellite messenger (e.g., InReach) and/or satellite phone;
  • Snowshoes;
  • Shovel and axe;
  • Block and tackle pulley system;
  • Rope;
  • Flashlight and extra batteries;
  • Spare key; and
  • Self-rescue ice picks and auger when travelling over ice.

Have a safe day, everyday!