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Monday, October 8, 2012
Updated: March 11, 3:03 PM ET
Know fear

By Mary Fenton
ESPN.com

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A deep-seated fear of avalanches was ingrained in me from an early age.

This twisted force of nature was a part of daily mountain life, as slide debris frequently shuttered the mountain pass that separated my hometown from the rest of civilization. Every time my family drove to Denver for provisions like fresh produce and trips to the dentist, I'd hold my breath, first as we passed the infamous backside of Stanley Peak, a known repeat offender for sliding clear to the highway, then by the Disney path -- a monster of a chute that killed two Disney cameramen in 1957 when they were filming a documentary on -- you guessed it -- avalanches.

Despite warnings, the Disney slide was triggered intentionally by the highway department for the filmmakers (read Clear Creek County's report on the slide here). That slide set off another, larger slide that rallied through the pine jungle, shooting full-grown trees hundreds of feet airborne as if they were candlepins, burying the cinematographers 25 feet deep on the highway below. After that, the state made sure a slide of that magnitude would never make it to the road again. But just as my young mind heard truth in any ghost story, I was positive my sister, mom, dad and I would be buried under a suffocating block of compacted white death every time we drove over that pass.

Somewhere along the line, my perceptions changed. Growing up in a ski town, in a high-altitude microcosm of greasy man-ponytails, duct-taped Gore-Tex and homebrew, it was impossible not to fall head over boots for skiing (and snowboarding soon after) and the silence, serenity and reward that came with walking up a mountain in the snow.

I quickly came to resent my local resort, with its oppressive morning commute and argument-inducing lift lines that were as long as the untracked powder was scarce. A friend got stabbed in the chest with a ski pole, I had to take classes for speeding in order to keep my season pass -- it was time to move on. The backcountry was calling.

I made a good group of friends: highly skilled and highly educated backcountry travelers possessing varying degrees of bravado and humility. I took classes. I found my comfort level ... and occasionally exceeded it; the risks I took were not always as calculated as they should have been.

My love for the mountains and unfiltered nature was overwhelming and unwieldy, but the fear was never far behind.

As a kid, the tales my dad told about out-skiing an avalanche, coming to a stop at the bottom of the hill and "only" being buried up to his knees, seemed so heroic -- like a scene straight out of a "007" movie.

I imagine today's energy-drink sponsored skiers and snowboarders feel the same when they win their close-call fights against the mountain and see the big-budget shots come to life on the big screen in front of 500 screaming fans.

If only real life could be like the movies.

In real life, avalanches kill people. Mountains will never be conquered, and the more cavalier the hero, the more passive the observer, the more victims are swallowed alive.

As people who love the mountains and the ways in which they enrich our daily lives, we all need to take a magnifying glass to the recent increase in avalanche-related fatalities. Over the next eight weeks we'll be publishing a series of pieces on what we're deeming The Avalanche Problem.

From the glamorization of snow slides as depicted through film to the business push snowsports brands are making to tap into a growing market, we look at how avalanches are changing the way we utilize terrain. And with the current facelift being given to avalanche education, we hope to offer food for thought for those who seek to travel into avalanche terrain in hopes that they'll return home safely every day.

But first, we take a look at the faces of the victims. Our first story is a personal account of the fatal multiple-burial slide that happened at Stevens Pass, Wash., in February, and a portrait of the lives of three friends lost there, as well as the 31 other victims of the 2011-12 winter season in the U.S.

There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them, said Nobel laureate André Gide.

Nature is one of them. Be safe out there.