KEYSTONE, COLO. — The three friends had already taken one backcountry run, reveling in the fresh powder, when they ducked under the rope at Arapahoe Basin. They instinctively headed for a steep - and untracked - part of the mountain.
They knew the risk of avalanche was high: It was the day after a big snowfall, and the new powder was sitting heavily on weak layers. But the lure of snowboarding down a virgin precipice was more than they could resist. So Jason Waite and Dan Pedrow watched as Mike Bennett did three perfect turns - and then vanished in a tsunami of snow. He was later rescued, only because he was wearing a locator beacon.
Mr. Bennett's rendezvous with danger a couple weeks ago is far from unusual. While backcountry enthusiasts have long skied a fine line between adventure and insanity, the number of people willing to take a risk for the ultimate thrill is growing. New technology and an X-games mentality are creating a generation that often seems to put adrenaline before rational thinking.
In recent weeks, the tension between risk and reward has been especially acute in Colorado backcountry: The sudden accumulation of up to seven feet of snow has made nearly everything in Summit County - historically the nation's most avalanche-prone area - even more dangerous. One longtime backcountry skier, Michael Means, says it's the worst he's seen in the 27 years he's lived here.
Fortunately, the deaths from avalanches so far this year have been down: The four fatalities in Colorado and 23 in the US are slightly below average. Indeed, for many people, the idea of embarking on a venture that could end so tragically has been an effective deterrent.
And yet for many backcountry skiers and snowboarders, the thrill of a powder descent outweighs all else.
"It's never safe," admits Mr. Waite, during a break from his job at a ski-rental shop last week. "But if you have to ask why do it, you can't understand. It's for the tranquillity of the moment. It's so peaceful. But it's also about the heavy adrenaline rush, because it is so dangerous."
The phenomenon has only gained momentum as skiers' equipment has been able to negotiate higher levels of performance. Fat skis, well-designed snowboards, and ever more powerful snowmobiles are making it possible for more and more people to tackle the riskiest slopes.
"It's pretty easy to ski a 40- or 50-degree slope if you're a good skier with modern equipment," says Doug Abromeit, director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho. Snowmobilers, meanwhile, use their machines' extra juice to "highmark," a risky practice that entails driving as high up a steep slope as possible. "Because we can do it, human nature is to go ahead and do it," says Mr. Abromeit. "I think that's the biggest cause of [increased fatalities]."
It's why Scott Toepfer has gone retro in his choice of gear. A forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, he's a devoted backcountry skier who loves to shoot through fresh powder on telemark skis. When the conditions are precarious, he simply dons more challenging equipment - narrow skis, old-style bindings, and lace-up leather boots. That way, he says, "I can have a hoot on 15- or 20-degree slopes, where I'm not going to cause an avalanche."
Mr. Means is also reining in his approach. "I've used up my nine lives," he laughs, thinking back to the avalanche that once caught him ("it was a rush") and the other that he skied into on purpose ("just to see what it was like"). Several friends, he says, are still in the "ski-to-die club," but now he mostly waits until late spring, when the danger is down.
From his office at Arapahoe Basin, at 13,050 feet the highest ski area in North America, Alan Henceroth has a view of some of the best - and most dangerous - ski terrain around. Remnants of recent slides are visible all around the resort, including across the road on a popular backcountry descent known as the Professor.
Arapahoe is legendary for its steep inclines and above-timberline slopes and, as the resort's director of operations, Mr. Henceroth spends much of his time thinking about how to keep this ski area safe. The deep booms of explosives, used to trigger small slides and keep dangerous slabs from building up, echo throughout the day. It took three weeks of hard work before he was willing to open the East Wall, a particularly avalanche-prone area.
But once skiers leave the boundaries, as Waite, Bennett, and Mr. Pedrow did, they're on their own.
"This guy who got buried out here - [all three] did everything right," notes Henceroth, whose team helped out in the rescue. "Except one thing. And that was the decision to go out in the first place."
In the end, though, Bennett was one of the fortunate ones. Thanks to the transceiver he was wearing, Waite and Pedrow were able to find him in about 10 minutes. Bennett was unconscious but still gurgling when they dug him out, and he escaped with nothing worse than a broken arm.
Waite was shaken by the experience, but two days afterward, he was back out with Pedrow. That first day, he admits, his foot was shaking "1,000 miles an hour" on the way up, but he's hit the backcountry several times since. Once Bennett recovers, Waite says he's sure he'll be back out too.
Tall, lanky, and soft-spoken, Waite struggles to explain what it is that keeps him pushing the limits of snow and slides.
"People have been saying we're beyond-adrenaline junkies who like to toy with death. But I don't think that's it," he says, noting that he has been known to turn around when a run seemed really dangerous. "But when you do drop into a chute, and come out at the bottom, it's an incredible feeling. I guess it is like dancing with the other side."