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"If you get caught in an avalanche, the first thing to do is try and 'swim' your way out. If that fails, there are three things I want you to remember." The 13 skiers gathered on the slope at Snowbird ski resort in Utah listened to Ray Santa Maria with such intense concentration you could hear a snowflake drop.
"First, fill your lungs with air when you feel the slide slowing down. That way you'll have some room to breathe when the avalanche sets up around you like wet cement. Second, cover your mouth with one hand so you don't inhale any snow. And third"—Santa Maria bent down and placed a red ski glove on the ground—"try to stick one arm up, whichever way you think up is. Even if just one finger is sticking out of the snow it will make it that much easier to find you."
Santa Maria was watching us intently as his last words sank in. It had been less than two weeks since five people ventured out-of-bounds near Breckenridge, Colo. Four of them had died in an avalanche. There wasn't a skier among us who didn't know that, and yet we had just paid $70 apiece to join Santa Maria and two of his fellow guides on the Interconnect Adventure Tour. In something like six hours we would ski an 18-mile circuit that included the resort areas of Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and Solitude. Much of the time we would be out-of-bounds in the backcountry of the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, where the risk of an avalanche would be substantial. Ski-area managers take great pains to reduce the risk of avalanches. Dynamite blasting and even artillery shells are used to trigger avalanches before skiers are allowed on the slopes. It's a delicate and expensive precaution and one taken sparingly in the vast backcountry areas of national forests.
The Interconnect Adventure Tour, which operates under a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, is one of the few relatively safe ways to ski the backcountry. Santa Maria's lecture was not the first indication of the serious risks ahead. That had come at the start of the day when there was the obligatory signing of a waiver releasing Santa Maria and Ski Utah, Inc., which runs the tour, from any responsibility in case of an accident. Then, even before Santa Maria began outlining the perils we might face, Rod Keller, one of his associates, handed me a small yellow package hanging from a cord loop. "You aren't superstitious, are you?" Keller asked. I looked at the package. Someone had written the number 13 on it.
"This is your beeper," Keller said. "It will help us find you if you get buried or lost. Put the string around your neck and wear this inside your clothes." As if that were not sufficiently chilling, when I held the cigarette-pack-sized device to my ear, I discovered that it was already on. I could faintly hear rapid, high-pitched peeps coming from within. I quickly stuffed it inside my sweater. My heart felt as if it were beating in sync with its little yellow companion.
Safety—ours, primarily, but theirs as well—was paramount in the minds of Santa Maria, Keller and John Gammon, who would be our guides. Each would be easy to spot in his fire-engine-red ski suit. Each carried a walkie-talkie. Not only could they communicate with one another, but also, if necessary, their transmitters were powerful enough to call for outside help. Each guide also carried 40 pounds of equipment—medical supplies, a collapsible shovel and other emergency gear—all efficiently stowed in brightly colored backpacks.
At a casual glance, the ski equipment the guides wore looked identical to my own. Long Alpine skis, quick-release safety bindings and heavy plastic-shell boots. But there was a subtle, and important, difference. The ski poles that the guides carried were specially designed telescoping models that could be extended to a length of 12 feet. If someone became buried under the snow, the poles could be converted into probes to help in the search. I hoped we would have no need to see them in operation.
Once the lecture was over, the rest of our preparations went quickly. We took a tram ride to the top of Snowbird, where Santa Maria and his partners checked each individual's skiing ability—it must be at least advanced-intermediate—on a run back down to the base. After our descent, we went by van to neighboring Alta, where the tour actually started. At 10 a.m. the sun was already high in the clearest sky we had seen in a week. The air and snow were beginning to warm up, which was not necessarily good news: conditions like these increase the danger of avalanches.
It took three successive chair lifts to get us to the 10,000-foot ridgeline at Alta. Between the second and third lifts Santa Maria performed a final beeper check. At the top we ignored the Day-Glo out-of-bounds signs, began traversing Alta's ridgeline, plunged into the backcountry and were immediately surrounded by trees.
We emerged from the forest at the top of a wide-open bowl, and Santa Maria analyzed the terrain. Santa Maria, 34, has spent almost a dozen years helping people to ski. He is a certified emergency medical technician and has been a member of the ski patrol at Park City, Utah, where he also did avalanche-control work and was responsible for evaluating snow conditions.