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Avalanche!

Photographer Mark Gallup was hanging from the open door of a helicopter as it hovered over the slopes of British Columbia's Coast Range, but he wasn't the one in trouble.

On the snowy slopes below, Australian heli-skier Andrea Binning was being washed away by car-sized chunks of snow in an avalanche.

"She had to go to her right because there was a cliff to her left," Gallup, a 43-year-old Calgary resident, recalls of the 2006 accident. "She finally got upright, skied at about 100 mph into a gully, rag-dolled and only ended up with a blown-out knee."

Binning was lucky that day, unlike dozens of people who have been killed by a string of avalanches in the West this year.

As February began, avalanches had claimed the lives of 28 people in North America, all but one of them west of Montana, according to the National Avalanche Center. The national annual average for avalanche deaths is about 25.

Closer to home, a wall of snow 300 feet wide slid down a 50-foot slope in Crater Lake National Park in early January, closing the park temporarily but causing no injuries.

Backcountry activities are in full force this winter as snow piles up across the West, from cross-country-skiing and snowmobiling to snowshoeing and tele skiing.

With the heightened risk of avalanches comes a warning: There are five "red flags" that indicate when an avalanche might occur, and knowing them could save your life, says Eric White, director of the Mount Shasta Avalanche Center and the lead climbing ranger on the 14,162-foot peak. Any of the five is reason in itself to be extra cautious, and a combination of them is a direct sign from Mother Nature, he warns.

When a person overlooks these signs, deciding to let their sense of adventure override the risk, it's a recipe for disaster.

"One of the key factors for avalanche accidents is the human factor," says White, 42, who teaches classes on avalanche safety in Northern California and occasionally in Southern Oregon. "Sometimes we put up blinders. We keep a positive outlook in the face of danger because we're so intent on being out in nature."

Doug Volk, ski patrol director at the Mount Ashland ski area, says about a third of the professional and volunteer ski patrollers he works with have avalanche training.

"Most of it is hands-on," Volk says. "A lot of it is just knowing what you're doing and the equipment you're using out there. It's not a structured training program where you go to school and get a certificate. It's the school of hard knocks."

Volk says avalanche safety knowledge has benefits for anyone who either works or plays in the outdoors.

"It makes you more aware of where you're going and what you're doing. It's knowing what to expect and where to expect it. It tells you where to go and where not to go," he says.

Gaining that knowledge through one of White's courses can involve varying levels of commitment.

White's shorter classes, "more like free lectures," are held for an hour or two in a pub one time or a city library or outdoors store the next, covering key factors that lead to avalanche formation. Higher-level courses, which can run for up to four days, bring students out into the wilds of Mount Shasta, where they study the stability of the snowpack and look for signs from nature that indicate danger.

For even the most-seasoned outdoors lover, a knowledge of avalanche risk is essential, particularly during the traditional slide months of December through April, White says.

"But we can have avalanche season last here from November to July," says White, who works with the National Weather Service office in Medford to coordinate avalanche warnings during the winter and spring. "We have close calls every year, and as more and more people travel into the backcountry, the potential is there all the time."

The four triggers for avalanches are wind; a skier, hiker or snowmobiler; wildlife; and snow or rain, White notes. Counting the accidents where humans are involved, 90 to 95 percent of them occur when one of the victims or someone in their party triggers the slide.

He points out that fewer than 1 percent of avalanche accidents occur inside the boundaries at ski areas. Most people get into trouble, he says, when they go off-trail.

White, who grew up skiing in the Sierra Nevada and was a ski patroller at the Mount Shasta Ski Park for years, says people can take steps to prepare themselves for avalanche danger before traveling into the steep-sloped backcountry:

  • Bring avalanche tranceivers that can receive and send calls; also bring a lightweight snow shovel and a probe.
  • Be flexible depending on conditions. "Be ready to turn around if it gets bad enough," White says.
  • Get topographical maps and come up with several different routes, thinking of alternatives to high-risk areas. "If you are going to eventually take a longer route because of conditions, that's a reason maybe to bring extra food along," he says.
  • Have a rescue plan, which might include knowing whether anyone in your party has medical training in case of an accident.

Along with recognizing the five red flags of avalanche danger, snowmobilers or skiers should always look for terrain features that indicate danger, White says.

"The terrain is always going to be the same, and 90 percent of avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees," he says, noting that black-diamond runs at most ski areas typically fall within that slope range.

Reach Troy Heie at 776-4474 or e-mail theie@mailtribune.com

Australian heli-skier Andrea Binning avoided being washed away by car-sized chunks of snow in an avalanche by knowing how to avoid imminent danger. - Photo by Mark Gallup