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Winter playground holds pitfalls for unwary

Avalanche fatalities underscore need for education, as morerecreationists traverse the backcountry.

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A soaring mountain covered with a thick blanket of snow is one of nature's most spectacular settings - but it can also be one of the most dangerous.

That was the lesson to backcountry enthusiasts everywhere last weekend, when avalanches in three Western states killed five outdoorsmen and injured several others. Abroad, two avalanches struck a village in the French Alps, and rescue teams worked furiously Feb. 9 to find people thought to be buried in the snow.

While the past week has been an unusually bad one for fatal avalanche accidents, the tragedies underscore a disturbing trend: The number of avalanche deaths in the US has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

The explanation is not more naturally occurring avalanches. Rather, the steep alpine terrain of America's mountain ranges has become the winter playground of a growing number of recreationists - many of whom are ignorant of the danger or how to steer clear of it.

"The easiest thing to tell people to do - and the hardest thing for them to actually do - is to stay away from avalanche-prone areas," says Dale Atkins, an avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Denver. "By simply staying off of steep slopes [30 to 45 degrees], you can eliminate the risk of avalanche."

Unfortunately, the urge to be the first to lay down tracks in a pristine snowfall seems irresistible to some. In an accident in Colorado Feb.6, a slide that killed three people was likely triggered by a snowmobile traversing a steep mountainside.

That's an increasingly common scenario. "The one user-group that is producing the greatest increase in avalanche accidents is snowmobilers," says Charley Shimanski, education director for the Mountain Rescue Association, based in Golden, Colo. That's partly because snowmobiles are still rising in popularity and, more powerful than ever, can readily climb treacherous terrain.

But as avalanche season peaks between now and the end of March, it takes much less than a loud machine to trigger a huge snow slide. Just the mere whisper of a pair of skis can cause snow to thunder downhill at speeds up to 100 m.p.h., experts say.

In other accidents over the weekend, a Utah man on snowshoes died after being engulfed by a massive slide south of Salt Lake City. In the Sierra Nevada, a sledder died after being trapped under an avalanche.

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