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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Outdoors

Technology isn’t reducing avalanche deaths

From staff and wire reports

For the chance to recount nervy tales of outdoor machismo, many backcountry enthusiasts will risk nearly everything. Blocking off dangerous areas outside of ski resorts won’t deter them, nor will frightening signs or avalanche advisories.

But with a deadly avalanche season already under way on the nation’s slopes, many are asking if winter thrill-seekers are skating a fine line between adventure and foolishness.

In the last 10 years, the number of backcountry avalanche deaths annually in the United States has averaged 27, with a high of 35 reported for 2001-02. In 2003-04, there were 23 fatalities nationwide, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

In recent years, snowmobilers riding newer more advanced machines propelled the increase in avalanche incidents. Boarders and skiers are dominating fatalities this season.

Backcountry winter travelers should carry locator radio beacons, probes and shovels. Just as important, experts say, is instruction on how to use the equipment and how to evaluate snow conditions to prevent having to employ the gear, which often is useful only in recovering bodies.

Mountain Gear in Spokane schedules avalanche awareness courses, such as the one that’s concluding with an on-the-snow session today at Schweitzer Mountain Resort.

But not everyone is easily coaxed into a classroom, and outdoor adventurists are getting bolder with better technology. Fat skis, well-designed snowboards and powerful snowmobiles make it easier to tackle the riskiest slopes.

That technology, however, doesn’t necessarily reduce accident rates.

Drew Hardesty, of the Utah Avalanche Center, calls it “risk homeostasis” — a theory that holds that whenever improvements in design reduce overall risk, a similar increase in risk-taking will occur so the accident rate remains constant.

“With seat belts, people got into the same amount of wrecks,” he said. “With proliferation of communications technologies, like cell phones, people are willing to go a little farther.”

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