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Western storms may deliver deadliest winter

Powerful storms in the West have delivered the best snow conditions in years but also have claimed lives from Colorado to Alaska, threatening to make this winter outdoor sports season the region's deadliest in recent memory.
Deadly Winter
Nuala keeps watch from a snow bank outside the Piccaro residence in Crested Butte, Colo., after a snow storm passed through the mountain town earlier this week. Nathan Bilow / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Powerful storms in the West have delivered the best snow conditions in years but also have claimed lives from Colorado to Alaska, threatening to make this winter outdoor sports season the region's deadliest in recent memory.

Avalanches have killed at least 15 people across the West since Nov. 12. In Washington alone, they have claimed nine lives this season, the most in that state since a single slide killed 11 climbers on Mount Rainier in 1981.

"I'm not sure if they are taking more risks or if it is a lack of knowledge," said Maj. Rick Albers of the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office in Colorado, referring to winter sports enthusiasts.

The national annual average for avalanche deaths is about 25. Thirty-five people were killed nationwide in avalanches in the 2001-2002 season, the most on record, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Avalanches are the biggest killer, but they are not the only one. Blizzards, reckless skiing and snowboarding, and suddenly changing weather have also taken their toll.

On Sunday, a skier was killed at Colorado's Purgatory resort after skiing off a cliff in a blizzard. In Oregon, a snowboarder at Mount Hood Meadows suffocated Dec. 27 in quicksand-like snow around the base of a tree.

On Monday, six snowmobilers from New Mexico were rescued after being trapped for three days in a blizzard in the remote southern Colorado wilderness. But a search continued for two New Mexico snowboarders missing since Saturday at the nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area.

Albers said his rescue crew was searching for lost hikers in a whiteout last weekend when another call came in for two skiers swept up in an avalanche.

Everyone survived, he said.

"We know the avalanche danger is going to be extreme," Albers said. "All we can do is be ready ourselves."

'Balance between enthusiasm and caution'
The season has seen near-record snowfall after a relatively dry November.

California's Sierra Nevada received 11 feet of snow in the recent storm. In Washington, Snoqualmie Pass — the main route through the Cascade Mountain Range — saw its fifth largest December totals, with more than 14 feet of snow. In Colorado, the resort towns of Aspen and Steamboat set records for December, each receiving more than 9 feet.

"Everyone wants a powder day," said Nick Bohnenkamp, spokesman for Colorado Ski Country USA, a tourism promoter. "The way it has been snowing, it has been a powder day almost every day."

But the danger created by blankets of fresh snow can be as spectacular as its promise of adventure.

"It is that balance between enthusiasm and caution that is so important," said Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho.

"When you have these huge systems that come, that is typically when we get the most fatalities," he said.

Too many close calls
Bob Comey, director of the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center in Jackson, Wyo., said Wyoming has seen a number of close calls this season. A snowmobiler died in an avalanche in the Snowy Range last week.

"About 90 percent of the people who die in the avalanche trigger the avalanche or someone with them triggers the avalanche that kills them," Comey said. "The most important thing to do is to get a little bit of education on avalanches and unstable terrain, and what triggers them."

On Friday, a Worcester, Mass., man was killed when he was buried by falling snow while skiing in the backcountry near Vail, Colo.

That same day in Washington near Mount Pilchuck, a teenage girl was killed when a group she was hiking with was hit by a snow slide. Three companions were swept up but managed to escape.

A Utah snowmobiler was killed New Year's Eve in an avalanche 200 feet wide and 1,000 feet long.

Ron Hazard, a rescuer for the Wasatch County Sheriff's Office, responded to that slide. He said asking why people head into the backcountry despite high avalanche risks is like asking why drivers speed on the highway despite traffic deaths.

"They do it because 'I'm not going to get caught ... because I can't resist the temptation of virgin snow. It's just out there screaming my name,'" Hazard said. "If people were smart about it, they would put me out of business."

Snow hinders search and rescues
The snow has come down so heavily at times it has delayed rescuers from searching for missing people.

In Colorado's Conejos County, volunteer rescuers on snowmobiles said they risked becoming stuck in the snow themselves as they searched for the six missing snowmobilers.

Mineral County Sheriff Fred Hosselkus had to delay the search for the two skiers at the Wolf Creek ski area because the avalanche risk was too great to send in crews.

In Alaska, state police spokeswoman Megan Peters said troopers have conducted 50 search-and-rescue operations since mid-October, looking for overdue hunters, snowmobilers and hikers.

Peters said anyone headed for the backcountry should let others know of their plans — and be as specific as possible.

"'North of Anchorage' just doesn't cut it," she said.