DENVER -- The lone figure paused in deep snow near Rocky Mountain National Park, put on another layer, hitched a backpack and snowboard over his back and snowshoed up the mountain ridge.
Watching from 1,000 feet below, James Kanda, acting on little more than a gut feeling, immediately thought: avalanche.
Kanda and Emily Morgan, snowshoeing in the area, began to run, minutes before the slide silently broke, sweeping up the snowboarder and burying the place they had been sitting.
Four hours later, rescue teams pulled the body of Robert Christiansen, 40, from the snow. ''This happened so fast, you go from having just a great day, to boom, you're in a real-life emergency situation,'' Morgan said. A veteran snowboarder, Christiansen, of Fort Collins, was one of 21 people who have died in the nation's backcountry this winter. Experts believe virgin snow and a false sense of security about avalanche safety devices, are drawing more people than ever into the wilderness.
The death toll is on pace to top last year's total of 22, which was down from 32 in the 1998-99 season. The country averages 26 deaths a year, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
By comparison, the National Ski Areas Association reported deaths of skiers and snowboarders have averaged 34 each year in the past 16 years.
A center study shows that nearly half of the people who die in avalanches nationwide each year are experienced skiers.
Compounding Colorado's problems this year was a heavy snowfall that created an unstable snowpack at times.
''This year's snow cover is much weaker than we have seen in the past four or five years,'' said forecaster Dale Atkins of the avalanche center. ''Very cold temperatures have turned the shallow snow into sugarlike snow that will be a lousy base for the future winter snows.''
Recent technology improvements have led to the manufacturing of beacons, small devices that emit signals to locate someone buried under snow. There are also breathing devices that can provide air to a trapped person and more powerful snowmobiles that can reach steeper, more avalanche-prone areas.
When slabs of snow begin to slide at a pace of up to 80 mph in just five seconds, the newer devices aren't as practical as shovels and probes, the long narrow poles used to push into the snow to search for buried victims, center forecaster Nick Logan said.
Snowmobiler David Shepherd, 37, was killed in a Jan. 17 avalanche in the Beaverhead Mountains outside Jackson, Mont. The expert snowmobiler was wearing a beacon, but died in the 20 minutes it took for his friends to find him, buried under 6 feet of snow.
''If you have a partner and he is buried in a slide, and his head is 4 feet deep in the snow, you won't get to him in time if you're digging with your hands or a ski tip or a snowboard,'' Logan said.
The backcountry has become so popular that many ski resorts offer avalanche preparation classes to help people learn what to look for and what to avoid.
The Beaver Creek ski area teaches an introductory workshop on snow physics, route selection, evaluating snow and rescue techniques, among other things.
Other courses ''bury'' people, teaching them how to position their bodies as they are swept up in avalanches and how to work to clear an airway so the can breathe.
An experienced outdoorsman, Christiansen had snowboarded and hiked in remote areas, including parts of South America and Antarctica, said his wife, Sue Amador.
''He was pretty smart about that stuff,'' Amador said. ''He just really loved to do that kind of thing, but there are inherent risks in most everything you do.''
When Morgan and Kanda arrived at the mountain Dec. 29, they spoke briefly to Christiansen. Morgan said she told him to have a good day and be safe, and he responded with a friendly greeting.
Morgan didn't have an avalanche beacon with her, or a probe, and said later she will never go out again without a probe and a shovel. She said Christiansen's death hadn't scared her off of the backcountry.
''I think that to him this was like his backyard,'' Morgan said. ''When people are in familiar areas they may not think as clearly as they would in a place they haven't been before.''
On the Net:
Colorado Avalanche Information Center: http://www.caic.state.co.us
National Ski Areas Association: http://www.nsaa.org
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