Proceed with caution

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2004


  At a brief pause during a high-altitude climb in Loveland Pass in Colorado, March 25, 2004, Chris Anthony, top, probes the snow with a ski pole to assess stability while Josh Lautenberg, middle, and Kalina Simeonova check the upper peaks. AP Photo/Peter M. Fredin

At a brief pause during a high-altitude climb in Loveland Pass in Colorado, March 25, 2004, Chris Anthony, top, probes the snow with a ski pole to assess stability while Josh Lautenberg, middle, and Kalina Simeonova check the upper peaks.

AP Photo/Peter M. Fredin

LOVELAND PASS, Colo. The four skiers emerged from vehicles at the side of a highway high in the Rockies and headed up a steep, tree-covered slope into the wilderness.

Working slowly through waist-deep snow late last spring, they climbed past the trees into alpine tundra toward a 13,000-foot chute, sometimes wearing skis and sometimes crawling on their hands and knees. Gradually, they became specks so small that drivers on the highway below thought they were mountain goats.

After four hours, they stopped under a brilliant sun amid wind-blown, barren rocks. Guide Chris Anthony surveyed the scene and announced: "We're turning around."

He had given up plans to ski down the chute, and he made no apologies for it.

"Sometimes pride is the hardest part about turning back," said the world-class extreme skier.

Bob Hartenstine, a Vail ski instructor on the trek, agreed: "Sometimes you have to take what the mountain gives you."

The four are among a growing group of expert outsdoorsmen and women who seek the thrill of racing down slopes of virgin snow deep in the wilderness, whether it be on skis, snowboards or snowmobiles. Some, bored with the groomed slopes at ski resorts, are drawn by the thrill of danger in the backcountry particularly avalanches while others simply want to test their skill.

"You can't imagine how many thoughts go through my head when I am hiking up there," said Kalina Simeonova, a Bulgarian former ski racer who teaches skiing at Vail. "It pushes my limit. Basically, this is my life."

It is difficult to track the numbers of people who head into the backcountry because no permits are required at most locations.

But at the Beaver Creek ski resort near Vail, Jeff Thompson, who heads the search-and-rescue department for Beaver Creek ski patrol, says the number of people who have come into mountain outposts seeking information has increased dramatically in the past six years. Many enter the backcountry through ski areas, and when they get in trouble the ski patrollers can end up rescuing them.

"Equipment has improved, ability levels have improved. What hasn't improved is the ability of people to use their brains. People get summit fever," said Breckenridge ski patroller Joe Kanetsky, the resort's avalanche specialist.

Aaron Brill is one of those capitalizing on the interest in extreme skiing. He built a one-lift ski area near remote Silverton in southwest Colorado to guide skiers into the backcountry.

Initially, he was allowed 40 skiers a day under his permit; in his second year, he turned 1,000 skiers away. Last season, his permit allowed 80 a day, and he still turned people away.

For a $119 lift ticket during the peak January through March season ($99 in December and April), skiers and snowboarders are assigned to a guide in groups of eight. All guides are equipped with avalanche beacons, shovels and probes. All customers need a beacon shovel and probe, which can be rented on the mountain.

"There's no easy way down, but we have had only a few injuries a season," Brill said.

There is no question extreme skiing has its dangers. In the past 10 years, the number of backcountry avalanche deaths in the United States has averaged 27.1, with a high of 35 reported two winters ago. In the 2002-2003 season, 30 people were killed; in 2003-2004, there were 20 nationwide fatalities, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center figures.

But snowmobiling is No. 1 cause of avalanche deaths. Last winter, six snowmobilers died, compared with two skiers, four snowshoers and three snowboarders.

"High-marking" snowmobiles are a major cause; the competition to put the highest mark on a steep slope with a powerful snowsled can trigger big avalanches.

Whether on skis or snowmobiles, serious backcountry users use beacons, shovels and probes. Avalanche beacons, which cost about $200 to $300 each, both send and receive locator signals, and all are set to "send" as a trip begins. If one member of the group is buried in an avalanche, the others switch to "receive" and home in on the buried transmitter. Some beacons even tell how far the victim is away, though the depth of the avalanche can make it more complicated.

Probes are low-tech; they are long poles punched into the snow in hopes of hitting a body. They also are far less likely to find avalanche victims before they suffocate.

"Even with the rescue equipment, most of the time you are going to be just digging up a body," Kanetsky said.

Anthony has been appearing in extreme skiing films since 1990 and guides backcountry skiers in Italy as well as North America. He believes it can be a safe sport if safety rules are followed.

More than once Anthony has "wimped out," letting it appear that he didn't want to proceed if he felt anyone in a group was too tentative, rather than risk letting their egos force them beyond their ability or conditions.

On the trip late last spring to Loveland Pass 60 miles west of Denver, Anthony guided the skiers to a less hazardous slope, and went ahead to cut the snow first to make sure it was safe. In the event of an avalanche, only one person would be buried, he figured.

Once they pointed their skis downhill, the slope that took four hours to climb took only 20 minutes to descend, and the best of it was a 30-second plunge.

"You do it for the excitement to challenge yourself," said Josh Lautenberg, one of the group, after the descent. "To be able to say you did it."

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