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Skier buried alive, survives

Derek Volkart used to tell friends that if he died in an avalanche they would know he lost his life doing something he loved.

Surviving an avalanche changed the 32-year-old Ashland carpenter's mind.

I've definitely re-evaluated suffocation, said Volkart, who was buried Saturday on McDonald Peak, west of Mount Ashland. It's not a way I want to go.

Volkart and his friend, Rob Sweeney, had just come down the north side of McDonald Peak, about 1.5 miles west of the Mount Ashland ski area. They were skiing in an area that has become popular with skiers who seek solitude and untouched snow in the backcountry.

It was about — p.m., and Volkart and Sweeney were getting ready to head home after skiing down 12 to 18 inches of heavy wet snow.

— I looked off to my right and saw snow flying, Volkart said. I said to Rob, 'An avalanche just released,' and then I looked back to my left, and then the slope that we were on was going.

There was nothing I could do, he said. As soon as I saw it I said something like 'Look out' and then it leveled me.

It knocked me down and proceeded to spin me, he said. I was choking and clawing for light all the time.

Volkart, a veteran backcountry skier, had skied McDonald Peak hundreds of times. He'd had some avalanche training and watched snow slides at a distance, but never been in the middle of one.

I was thinking about a lot of things when I was under the snow, he said. I was thinking about making an air pocket. I was thinking 'You're gonna die.' I was thinking, 'I can't get this snow out of my mouth.'

Avalanche survival training teaches people who are in a slide to thrust a hand skyward as they come to a rest, in the hope that someone will see them. Volkart did just that, but he's not sure it was his training coming through.

I think it was a natural instinct to claw for the light and try to get air, he said.

Both Volkart and Sweeney were wearing avalanche beacons, which can be used to locate buried skiers. But the avalanche missed Sweeney, who saw his friend's hand above the snow and hurried to dig him out.

It all happened pretty quick, Volkart said. It only took me maybe 30 feet.

It was probably no more than a foot deep, he said, but that amounted to enough to bury me.

Volkart lost his ski poles, but not his skis. He and Sweeney skied out, and returned to their car about 7 p.m.

It was not pleasant coming in from Grouse Gap in the middle of a snowstorm, he said.

Volkart's narrow escape did not surprise Steve Johnson, a veteran skier who works as recreation specialist for the Ashland Ranger District of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.

It's only a matter of time before somebody dies out there, Johnson said, noting that many people venture into the backcountry without proper equipment and little knowledge of the conditions that can trigger a slide.

Just because an avalanche is small doesn't mean it can't be deadly.

He said backcountry skiers always need to remember that they are personally responsible for their safety. They need to carry survival tools (shovels, avalanche beacons), know how to use them and learn to evaluate dangerous sites.

We tend to underestimate the Siskiyous (for danger), he said, because there aren't a lot of long (avalanche) tracks like you see on Mount Shasta or Mount McLoughlin.

There are a lot of avalanche-prone areas.

Complacency can be fatal for skiers, especially on familiar slopes, said Matt Hill, director of the Mount Shasta Avalanche Center. All of a sudden you get surprised, but all the warning signs were already there.

Volkart said he'll ski McDonald Peak with a new awareness of the mountain's potential dangers.

I would never have guessed that slope would have gone on that day, he said.

Avalanche safety training offered

A three-day avalanche school begins Friday in Mount Shasta, Calif.

The program includes field work and classroom instruction about the factors that contribute to avalanches. Students will learn how snow packs and changes as it compresses, and how terrain and weather affect avalanche potential.

Instruction begins at 8 a.m. daily and continues through 5 p.m. The class is offered through College of the Siskiyous in Weed, and costs &

36;107 for Oregon residents.

Those who want to participate should show up at The Fifth Season, 300 N. Mount Shasta Blvd., at 8 a.m. Friday. For more information, call 530-926-3606.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail