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The Back Story

But we will forgo Jackson's 2,500 in-bound acres for the more radical 3,000-plus acres of backcountry in the Bridger-Teton National Forest abutting Jackson Hole. We spill out of the tram onto the wind-packed shoulder of Rendezvous Mountain, well above the tree line at 10,450 feet, and head to the resort's southern boundary.

Periodic gates along this rope allow backcountry access to anyone who wants it. There is no patrol check, no quiz on avalanche safety, nothing at all to stop a total novice from imperiling his life and, if he triggers a slide, the lives of others. Avalanches happen frequently around Jackson Hole, but often in areas people don't ski (because they are so prone to sliding) or during cycles of severe weather when avalanche risk is extreme and few people are in the backcountry. More slides occur during periods of "high" or "extreme" avalanche risk, but more avalanche fatalities occur when risk is "moderate" -- the second-lowest risk rating -- because more people are in the backcountry.

_____Winter Ski Special_____
Backcountry Skiing in Jackson Hole
Stowe, Vt.
Off the Slopes
washingtonpost.com Ski Guide
Interactive Map: Mid-Atlantic Resorts

We pause at the gate to check that our transceivers are emitting signals. The dramatic, toothy peaks of the Teton Mountains yawn skyward, draped in white and scarred (often in ridiculously unfathomable places) with ski tracks. The only things missing are lifts, restaurants and the sharp geometry of manmade runs.

'Always Be Thinking'

Jackson backcountry, as backcountry goes, is heavily skied. User volume through the boundary gates rose from about 114 people per day in 2000-01, the first season the gates were open, to 204 skiers per day in 2002-03, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The numbers, which undoubtedly increased again last year, are likely conservative estimates, says Anna Olson, the resort's communications director.

On many days, from the top of the tram, one can see an ant-line of backcountry athletes filing up the ridge of Cody Peak, a huge, shadowy dome of knee-buckling steepness. We ski over a gentle knoll and through a beautiful grove of sparse pine trees. Shephard shoots ahead to set up a search-and- rescue drill.

"Look around," Sanders says. "Would you ski that?" he points up to a long, wide hill hemmed by rocks. I am stumped, probably because I was in a cowboy bar the previous night when I should have been reading "Snow Sense." Nobody else seems too confident, but Brent finally mutters, "Maybe it could slide if the sun heats it up too much?"

Sanders shrugs. "It's probably fine," he says. "Snow was light last night and the wind didn't blow it into east-facing aspects. Plus, it's probably been skied 1,000 times this year, so it's age-hardened," the same thing that happens in-bounds when so many people pass over a slope that numerous snow layers compress to form one solid layer. "But those are some of the things you need to think about. Always be thinking when you're out here."

We then get a simulated taste of an avalanche search. Shephard has hidden a pack with a live transceiver somewhere on the next hill. I follow Sanders's direction to "work from the last seen point" of the victim. "Note where you are. Do more than just blindly follow the signal."

I zigzag slowly down the hill, zeroing in on the increasingly strong signal coming from a cluster of pines. I finally find the pack. Time to rescue: about four minutes, in decidedly forgiving search conditions. For one, no slide had actually occurred, so I was hunting in downy soft powder, not the chunky, rock-hard debris characteristic of avalanches. Nor was I combating the anxiety of a real emergency.

The last thing I wanted -- on this or any other weekend -- was an actual avalanche emergency, but I also hoped the camp would get a little more electrifying, as in me screaming off of 40-foot cliffs. As I looked longingly up at the vertical rock band above us, Shephard said, "Yeah, people ski off of those. We call 'em lab rats: If they land and the slope doesn't slide, we know it's safe to ski."

Despite the morbid motif of the camp, avalanche risk can be mitigated rather effectively with a reasonable amount of safety intelligence. In fact, neither Sanders nor Shephard, in their collective decades of backcountry skiing, had ever been caught in an avalanche or had to rescue others from one. Avalanche fatalities in the United States -- for all winter activities, including snowmobiling, climbing and snowshoeing -- have averaged just over 25 deaths a year since 1990, according to the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center. Like a driver's ed course that relentlessly emphasizes safety over driving style, the Jackson camp seeks to front-load students with avalanche awareness, figuring that we already know how to have fun on the snow-covered hills.


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