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Courting Disaster, in Search of Snowy Thrills
By TIMOTHY EGAN


GLACIER, Wash., Feb. 9 - One after the other, 42 snowboarders launched
themselves off the shoulder of Mount Shuksan in a silent salute to a
fallen pioneer of their sport, Craig Kelly, 36, who was killed in an
avalanche last month.

But high above them, in the untracked snow of the North Cascades,
other snowboarders were perched at the intersection of risk and
stupidity, preparing stunts that even Mr. Kelly might not have tried.


The snowboarders had been warned of death by avalanche, and beyond -
"you or your heirs will be charged for rescue," the Forest Service
signs said. Still, they dropped into the snow chutes, setting off
small slides, yells of thrill echoing in the canyons.

"Craig Kelly was a hero to all of us, but his death seems to be just
part of the game," said Shane Drexler, 26, a snowboarder who once
nearly died in an avalanche but is still drawn to deep, unstable snow.

The game - courting avalanches, pushing into the highest, untracked
reaches of snowbound mountains - has of late turned particularly
deadly. Last winter, 35 Americans died in back-country avalanches,
the most ever. The previous high was 33 in the winter before.

Over the past decade, avalanche deaths have risen, mostly among
snowmobile riders, but more and more snowboarders and back-country
downhill skiers have also died.

The numbers this season are slightly below record level. But in the
past month, two avalanches have killed a total of 14 people in
British Columbia, including one that claimed Mr. Kelly, who did
things on a snowboard that once were unimaginable. Three other
Americans died in the avalanche that buried Mr. Kelly. So far this
winter, 15 Americans and 16 Canadians have died.

Despite a a weather pattern from El Niņo that has delivered snow than
usual to the West, most experts do not blame the elements. An
avalanche, they say, is the only natural disaster that is usually set
off by victims. What has changed is human behavior in the mountains.

"When I started looking at avalanches 25 years ago, the only people
you'd see in the back country were the rare telemark skiers, and
those people were thought to be real weirdos," said Bruce Tremper,
director of the United States Forest Service's Utah Avalanche Center.
"The conventional wisdom was you don't go into the back country in
winter."

But just this weekend, Mr. Tremper estimated, more than 2,000 people
in the Salt Lake City area alone ventured into the wilderness by
snowmobile, skis or snowboard. They were all seeking the same thing:
a slope with untouched snow.

In the 1970's, Colorado had "ski to die" clubs, skiers who tried to
make tracks in places that made most people's hearts stop on sight.
Since then, the toys and the challenges have changed considerably,
inspired in part by a subculture that celebrates extreme sport and
gravity defiance in all its contortions.

"Now we've got some people actually trying to cause avalanches," said
Mr. Tremper, who spends his mornings examining snow stability to put
into a daily avalanche report. "It's a sport."

Mr. Tremper recently spotted a bumper sticker on a truck bound for
Utah's back country. "On the edge for you is the middle of the road
for me," it read.

For snowmobilers, the sport is called high-marking. The object is to
ride as high as possible on a steep, typically untouched flank of
snow.

"It's a lot of fun," said Darin Bryant, a Seattle snowboarder and
snowmobiler. "But stuff happens."

The records of avalanche deaths this year complied by the Colorado
Avalanche Information Center, which tracks North American avalanches,
show the kind of accidents that follow people who hunt for unsteady
snow.

The center's listings from this month include the death of a
snowmobiler in the Crazy Mountains near Livingston, Mont. It is just
one of many: "One snowmobiler caught, buried, killed. Two
snowboarders caught and buried, one rescued, one killed. One solo
snowboarder caught, buried, and killed."

Here in Washington, more people die in avalanches - 15 since 1996 -
than in any other natural disaster, according to the federal
Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center in Seattle.

"We're killing more people in avalanches every year than die in
wildfires or floods," said Mark Moore, director of the avalanche
center. "And a lot of those people, they're out there looking for the
very slope that's mostly likely to come down in an avalanche."

Just above this village near the Canadian border, weekend snow
warriors carry battery-powered beacons that send out a locating
signal, snow shovels and even balloons that inflate to take a victim
above the snow. But the tools can provide a false sense of security.

"It's not a talisman to have all these tools," Mr. Moore said.

The flip side of caution is the joy that comes from leaving the bonds
of earth, even for a few seconds. All over Mount Baker last weekend,
snowboarders wore T-shirts reading, "Craig Kelly is my co-pilot."

Mr. Kelly, known as a "snow rat" from his early days on the slopes of
Mount Baker, dominated the world circuit of snowboarding in the late
1980's and early 1990's, while pioneering numerous airborne stunts.

Mr. Drexler, as did many other snowboarders, worshiped Mr. Kelly. But
he has learned the hard way that untracked snow can be deadly. Two
years ago he and a friend tried to snowboard down an out-of-bounds
ski area near Alpental, a resort in the central Cascades, when he was
caught in a fast-moving slide.

"I held onto this tree, but the avalanche pulled me away," Mr.
Drexler said. "All of sudden, I'm like, whoa, I'm coughing, my
goggles are clogged, this cloud of snow is carrying me down. I did
everything I could to stay on top of it, and I lucked out."

Now Mr. Drexler is a changed man - to a degree. He carries a beacon
that transmits a signal allowing people to find him if he is buried.
But he has not followed through on plans to take a class on avalanche
safety.

"Yeah, I should be taking the class," said Mr. Drexler, as he
prepared for a snowboard run at the Mount Baker Ski Area near
Glacier, about three hours north of Seattle.

When snowboarders and skiers arrive at Mount Baker, the first thing
they see is a sign boasting that the resort owns the United States
record for most snowfall in a single season - 1,140 inches, in the
winter of 1998-99. That kind of snow draws risk-takers, but it also
takes its toll. During that record winter, three people died in
avalanches near here.

"We have a strict policy on out-of-bounds skiing and boarding, but
people see these videos, these magazines, these stunts, and it just
draws them in," said Duncan Howat, general manager of the Mount Baker
Ski Area.

"People wonder what Craig Kelly must have felt during his last
minutes alive - I know, because I was buried once," Mr. Howat said.
"All I could think was how stupid this was. How I was never going to
see my wife and two daughters again, and it was all because of this
stupid act."

Classes in avalanche safety are packed, ski operators say. Yet even
with the high death toll in recent winters, there are few calls for
restrictions.

"I don't think it's appropriate to restrict access to public land,"
said Mr. Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Center. "We all own it. It's
our greatest heritage. And instead of being locked up, as some
antienvironmentalists say, it's the opposite - it's total freedom."

Most avalanche deaths occur on public land outside designated skiing
and snowboarding areas.

"Snowboarders are an independent group," Mr. Moore said. "They don't
want to be told where to go or what to do. They want to go places
where the avalanche lives."

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