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The Dangerous Game

The Dangerous Game

posted: 03/17/2006

It was a great day to be out enjoying the powder - but that was not the slope to pick," says veteran avalanche forecaster Dale Atkins, remembering the slide that killed 32-year-old snowboarder Sam Teetzen at Colorado's Berthoud Pass. On November 6, 2005, Teetzen and two friends ventured into the notoriously slide-prone Mines Peak area - but Teetzen left his beacon in the car. Fifteen inches of new snow and 50-mile-per-hour winds had created a hard slab that shattered above Teetzen as he cut down a north-facing, 37-degree gully, burying him some 600 feet downslope. Eight skiers probed for 30 minutes before finding his body and attempting CPR. At 12:52 P.M., Teetzen was pronounced the first avalanche death of the season - and one of the earliest ever recorded. (For an account of the ordeal, see Shawn Heinrich's story below, "The Truth.")

But to anyone who's noticed the dramatic increase in backcountry traffic, the early death is hardly surprising. Out-of-bounds areas are clearly in, as resorts continue to open gates to uncontrolled terrain, and sales of alpine-touring equipment climb higher each year. "The numbers of fatalities will almost certainly keep rising," says Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center. "When you look at that graph, you just wish it were your stock portfolio."

Education is the answer, of course, but it's no panacea. Often, it's people with avalanche training - and sometimes lots of it - getting caught. Last March, a client taking an avalanche course was killed in the Aspen backcountry. Three weeks earlier, a slide near Colorado's Red Mountain Pass buried Jerry Roberts, an avalanche forecaster for 30 years with a reputation for prudence. Roberts wasn't breathing when his comrades dug him out, but he gasped for air soon after. "It's like walking through a corral full of bulls," he says. "You might walk through it several times fine. But eventually, you're gonna get gored in the ass."

So if you're hungry to get beyond the resort boundary, know that your avy beacon is nothing but a body finder at least 50 percent of the time - and totally worthless if you don't know how to use it. The best way to survive a slide is to never get buried.

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