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Avalanches kill at least four in Austrian Alps

VIENNA -- Skiers and mountain rescue workers call them ''The White Death" -- killer avalanches hundreds of yards wide that sometimes exceed 100 miles per hour and sweep away everything in their path.

Despite warnings that conditions were ripe for disaster over the weekend, many skiers and snowboarders ventured off trails. A huge snowslide killed at least four people, including a 31-year-old American, and seriously injured about 10 others who strayed off-trail for skiing and snowboarding in the Austrian Alps.

Officials had raised Austria's five-step avalanche alert to level four in recent days after a combination of heavy snowfalls, strong winds, and subsequent mild temperatures made snow cover unstable and prone to breaking away.

In an attempt to reduce mountain deaths, Austrian authorities launched a new service that delivers avalanche warnings by cellphone text messages. But frustrated emergency workers say technology is useless to those who ignore conventional warnings and take unwarranted risks.

''If they lack knowledge and the necessary background information, then it's just carelessness -- pure and simple," said Roland Mattle, an alpine gendarme.

Yesterday, rescue workers called off their search for the American snowboarder presumed to have been killed in the avalanche that also killed two Canadians, ages 40 and 57, and seriously injured a third a day earlier in the western province of Tyrol. The victims' names and hometowns were not released. A German snowboarder died Saturday in an avalanche in southwestern Austria.

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