When the Mountain Falls

Last winter was among the deadliest avalanche seasons on record in the United States and Europe. Why is the number of fatalities rising? And what's being done about it?

A narrow beam of light pierces the black sky over the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, and then glides slowly across the steep flanks of the Alta ski area. A few snow crystals hang in the air, remnants of a storm that has just blown through and dropped another 18 inches of champagne powder on the slopes. Within hours, skiers will be lining up at the bottom, jockeying to be first to plunder this prize. But now, in the predawn darkness, it's up to Dan Howlett, assistant director of snow safety at Alta and the head of the Alta Center for Snow Science, to be out here early to ensure that the paying public comes back alive.

Howlett, whose workday in the winter begins at 3:45 a.m., hikes slowly up a ridge through thigh-deep snow to the top of Greeley Bowl. His headlamp beam stops moving, and he reaches into his pack, grabs a coffee can–size explosive hand charge, lights the fuse, and lobs it over onto the broad face known as East Greeley, a favorite powder run for Alta regulars. There's a brilliant orange flash and a sharp crack; the snowscape explodes and rushes in a chaotic tumble toward the valley floor. Howlett, a sandy-haired 40-year-old known to everyone as Howie, fixes his gaze downhill. He learned to fear and respect this force of nature early on: Skiing near Alta when he was 15—he grew up in Salt Lake City—Howlett narrowly missed being pulverized by a wave of snow that hurtled him through a stand of trees.

Dan Howlett is a soldier in the trenches of the avalanche wars, and his battlefield is in one of the most slide-prone mountain ranges in North America. Every morning, Howie and his boss, Alta Snow Safety Director Titus Case, walk to their respective study plots near the base of the slopes to assess how the snowpack has changed from the day before. By 5 a.m., Howlett and Case have compared notes by phone with their counterparts at neighboring Snowbird ski resort and with avalanche forecasters at the Utah Department of Transportation. By 6 a.m., Howie is on his skis, sliding around the slopes with a headlamp, rescue gear, and snow-study equipment, including a shovel and a black metal card on which he examines snow crystals through a small magnifying lens. He digs snow pits to look for weak layers in the snowpack, and cuts sections of the slope with his skis to see if he can dislodge unstable pockets. Meanwhile, remote mountaintop sensors beam data about wind speed, precipitation, snow depth, and weather to his computer in the Alta ski patrol office at the base area.

"The snowpack has a soul," Howlett says, sounding more like a mystic than a guy who blasts slopes into submission. "It's a living, breathing entity that changes every day."

The explosives that he hurls are euphemistically referred to as "active control measures." For the more inaccessible terrain, Howie and his comrades (he and Case oversee about two dozen Alta ski patrollers, who are also out this morning attempting to trigger avalanches) use a fixed-mount 105mm recoilless rifle—it looks like a cannon—one of several military weapons whose use in avalanche control was pioneered at Alta starting in the late 1940s. The military ordnance is fired onto snowfields above the ski area and over State Highway 210, which runs up Little Cottonwood Canyon near Alta and Snowbird. Thanks to Alta's recipe of high-tech wizardry, brute firepower, and old-fashioned sleuthing, the ski area has had only two avalanche fatalities in 62 years.

Alta's safety record is an impressive testament to how avalanche risk has been minimized in commercial ski areas. But resort skiing is only part of the story: With record numbers of people venturing into the backcountry—Colorado's Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association, which maintains one of the nation's most popular backcountry hut systems, saw the use of its huts increase tenfold between 1984 and 1997—more and more recreationists are snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling, and climbing into harm's way.

"There are skiers and snowmobilers out there who still have no idea about avalanches when they go into the backcountry," says Howie, who has participated in numerous avalanche rescues—and body-recovery searches—around the Wasatch Range. "I just hope more people don't have to get killed before everyone gets some basic avalanche education."

The backcountry boom has already had deadly consequences: Avalanche fatalities in the United States are rising steeply. From 1950 to 1975, about a half-dozen people died in avalanches each year. In the last five years, however, that average has jumped to 28 avalanche fatalities per year. Since 1985, Colorado has led the nation in avalanche deaths, followed by Alaska, Utah, and Montana. Last winter was among the deadliest avalanche seasons on record. By the end of the season, from November 1998 to June 1999, the avalanche death toll in the U.S. was 32, the highest in 75 years; in Europe, record snowfall created a series of devastating avalanches in the Alps that took the lives of 160 people, a high number even for the most densely populated mountain range in the world.

The grim news is that the avalanche death spiral is likely to continue. But the face of its victims is beginning to change. For the last 30 years, backcountry skiers and climbers have dominated the list of avalanche victims, comprising about 80 percent of those killed. (Almost all the victims are males between the ages of 18 and 35.) But over the past three years, a new trend has emerged: 40 percent of avalanche victims have been snowmobilers. According to the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association, sales of snowmobiles in the United States more than doubled between 1992 and 1997 (from 81,946 to 170,325). "The new snow machines are light, fast, powerful, and can go anywhere a skier can go," says Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. "Snowmobiles are also a very efficient avalanche-triggering mechanism, so snowmobilers are getting slaughtered like flies."

Disturbingly, just as more people are venturing into the snowy wilds, both on skis and astride powerful engines, the federal government has beat a swift retreat from the front lines of avalanche safety in recent years. In response to budgetary cutbacks during the 1980s, the U.S. Forest Service—which has been the lead federal agency carrying out avalanche research and education efforts since the late 1930s—has withdrawn entirely from doing avalanche research. "The political climate under the Reagan administration was that the government should do as little as possible," says Doug Abromeit, director and one of the two employees of the Forest Service's National Avalanche Center in Sun Valley, Idaho. "Avalanche research was a casualty of that thinking." Since then, avalanche work has been scattered among a hodgepodge of agencies; individual ski patrols assumed the responsibility for safety at ski areas, and state highway departments were forced to start forecasting and controlling avalanche hazards on the roads. The Forest Service shifted its focus to backcountry recreation, providing partial funding to a dozen regional backcountry avalanche forecasting centers; it also oversees the use of military ordnance in avalanche-control programs (like Alta's) and supports a variety of avalanche education programs. But its commitment has been minimal: Last year the Forest Service spent only $461,000, primarily on the avalanche forecasting centers.

Regional avalanche forecasting centers that once relied exclusively on federal funding must now conduct fundraising drives to survive. Sometimes, the money simply runs out. Last April, as thousands of backcountry skiers were flocking to the Rockies, visitors to the Web site for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a nonprofit avalanche forecasting and education resource, were greeted with the message, "Sorry to report we have closed for the 1998-99 season. We are broke!!"

To make matters worse, snow science research, upon which avalanche forecasters base life-and-death decisions every day, has also been crippled by the federal funding cutbacks. In 1985, the Forest Service's internationally renowned Snow Science Laboratory, in Fort Collins, Colorado, was permanently shut down. The pursuit of snow science has been picked up by a small number of scientists at various universities, and by one unlikely participant: the U.S. Army.

The cutting edge of snow science can be found in the foothills of the White Mountains on the outskirts of Hanover, New Hampshire, in a large, boxy building with a slate and brick facade. Inside, researchers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL), established in 1961, study a wide range of scientific and engineering problems that occur in frigid climes. They have assessed the avalanche hazard for NATO troops in Bosnia and pioneered techniques to build ice tunnels at the South Pole.

In the basement of CRREL headquarters, Sam Colbeck, senior research scientist, scurries through a catacomb of cold lab rooms. A slightly rumpled white-haired physicist dressed in an olive-drab military-issue parka, Colbeck, 59, is a former petroleum engineer who decided to devote himself to the study of frozen water molecules; he earned a Ph.D. in geophysics, with a focus on snow and ice, from the University of Washington in 1970, and has been with CRREL ever since.

Nearly everyone in the avalanche business speaks Colbeck's language: In 1990, he was instrumental in establishing the standard nomenclature now used to assess snow. As Don Bachman, executive director of the American Association of Avalanche Professionals, says, "We're standing on Sam's shoulders when we get into studies of snow."

But even Colbeck, an avid skier who occasionally teaches avalanche-awareness courses, says that it is "horrendously difficult" to make the leap from understanding an ice crystal to predicting what a snow slope will do when a person steps onto it. Part of the problem of linking science with praxis is that Colbeck himself recently found that one of the basic assumptions of snow science was wrong. He discovered that the shape of snow crystals, which forecasters rely on to make their hazard assessments, is not the best indicator of the strength of the snowpack. Instead, he says, it is the way that crystals bond to one another that matters. Surprisingly, until Colbeck decided to study bonds under his microscope, no one had ever accurately described the process. Colbeck filled a void: He found that snow crystals bond by way of a distinct "grain boundary groove" that forms an obtuse 145-degree angle, not a smooth surface, as scientists previously had thought.

In general terms, Colbeck explains, big, round crystals bond strongly together and are less likely to avalanche, whereas sharp, angular crystals don't bond well and are therefore more likely to create a weak layer of snow that will fail. While the shape of the crystal will still tell a forecaster something about how the snow is bonding, Colbeck is experimenting with ways for those in the field to look directly at the strength of the bond itself. He admits that his revelation is a small piece in the much larger puzzle of why a snow slope avalanches, but he believes that forecasters examining these bonds under a magnifying lens when they dig their snow pits will gain a more precise grasp of why and when avalanches occur.

Dan Howlett, who heard Colbeck present his discovery at the biennial International Snow Science Workshop in Sunriver, Oregon, in 1998, was intrigued by the insights. "That work may help us to understand deep slab instability," he says, but the pure science does not immediately translate into changes in his tried-and-true avalanche control techniques. Colbeck is changing the way experts think, but he hasn't yet changed the way they work.

The contradiction doesn't bother Colbeck. "They're damn good at what they do," he says, admitting that guides and forecasters, though not always scientifically rigorous, have a good track record of predicting high avalanche hazard. "Do they have accidents? Yeah," he says. "It's an incredibly dangerous business. But we take risks. That's part of the thrill of skiing and climbing. If you take away the element of danger, you'd take away some of the pleasure."

Lately, Colbeck has been worried about how avalanches are changing in response to the way human beings are transforming the environment through pollution and development. "As the high alpine environment changes, the nature of avalanches changes," he says. He raises the specter that avalanches have become like drug-resistant viruses, mutating to overcome new obstacles that are put in their way. "Pollution," Colbeck notes, "can destroy vegetation in high alpine environments. If you destroy trees in an alpine environment, you are removing natural avalanche defense mechanisms in potential avalanche starting zones. Then you are creating starting zones where they haven't existed in modern history."

"We are doing what the Europeans did many years ago, expanding and developing into the mountains," he says. "As we do more of that, we will have more avalanche deaths."

The Austrian village of Galtür, population 701, lies at the foot of a long ridge of 10,000-foot peaks. Last winter, abundant snowfall promised the best skiing in years, but it also created a death trap. Shortly after 4 p.m. on February 23, 1999, the quiet of the Alpine valley was interrupted by a loud rumbling. Suddenly, a huge wall of snow burst through the windows of the town's homes and lodges. Two avalanches had converged to form a 656-foot-high powder blast that hit Galtür at 186 miles per hour. When it was over, the debris pile the avalanche deposited in the center of town was more than 15 feet high. Thirty-one people were killed. Unfortunately, Galtür was not an isolated case. Before the season ended, thousands of avalanches ravaged Europe, bringing the death toll to 160, almost twice the number of fatalities from the year before.

The European avalanches of 1999 didn't just kill people; they inflicted staggering economic losses. The Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, widely recognized as the world's premier avalanche research center, estimates that avalanches caused $258 million in property damage in Switzerland alone, despite the fact that the country has spent $630 million during the last 50 years to construct 340 miles of avalanche fencing above villages, towns, and roads. Another $438 million went to build avalanche sheds to protect roads and deflection dams to divert snow from villages. In the past five years, the Swiss have erected 80 remote sensing stations high on mountains in avalanche starting zones. These stations continuously transmit weather data that enable avalanche forecasters to predict when and where an avalanche might run.

In spite of these preparations, avalanche fatalities in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe are not decreasing. It's a numbers game: In addition to the resident population, 120 million visitors per year come through the Alps. "What we can assume is that the increasing settlement pressure is increasing the danger," notes Karl Kleemayr, a member of Austria's Institute of Torrent and Avalanche Control. "The more people there are, the higher the risk that something will happen."

In response to the Galtür disaster, a deflection dam has been built above the town, and avalanche fences have been placed higher up on the mountain. The French and the Swiss also reacted to last year's tragedies. The French repaired and built new avalanche barriers and accelerated previously planned avalanche prevention programs. In Switzerland, 15 new early avalanche warning stations were installed, the height of deflection dams was increased, and the nation's avalanche warning Internet site was revamped.

North America suffered its own avalanche catastrophe during the 1998-99 season. On December 31, 1998, in the remote Inuit village of Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec, 500 townspeople had gathered in the local school gymnasium for a traditional nightlong New Year's Eve celebration. The school, located just over a hundred feet from the base of a steep 650-foot hill, was the community's main gathering place. The weather leading up to New Year's Eve had been warm, and then there was a heavy snowfall. That night, the wind was blowing at up to 70 mph. At 1:40 a.m. on January 1, a powerful avalanche roared down the side of the hill and collapsed a wall of the gymnasium, burying scores of people.

Those who weren't in the gym rushed to the site and frantically tried to dig out their neighbors and loved ones. "There we all were, in the lit-up gym, but in a couple of meters of snow," principal Jean Leduc later told the regional Nunatsiaq News. Nine people were killed, and 25 were injured. It was later revealed that building inspectors had expressed concern in a 1995 report to the school board about the area's vulnerability to avalanches. The report recommended several safety measures. But none of those recommendations was carried out prior to the accident.

Why would anyone choose to build directly in the path of a potential avalanche? "A problem for the developer," explains Dale Atkins, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Boulder, "is that the runout zone of an avalanche path is a very attractive building site. The zone is at or near a valley bottom, there's easy access, water is often readily available, and it comes with terrific views, since much of the vegetation has been wiped out."

The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, with 40 skiing events planned at Deer Valley, Park City, Snowbasin, and the Soldier Hollow Ski Area in Wasatch State Park, may be the most audacious initiative yet to tempt fate in avalanche country. Security personnel will have to monitor large areas around each event site. That has Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center and avalanche safety coordinator for the Utah 2002 Winter Olympic Games, feeling decidedly nervous. Some of these areas, he says, "are in high avalanche terrain, and very dangerous. It's extremely difficult to control them." He says that "security people not only will have to be good as a SWAT team, but they will also have to be good mountaineers."

Avalanche forecasting and control efforts around Salt Lake City are already stretched thin. The Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, among others, is underfunded, Tremper says. The problem with the upcoming 2002 Games, he points out, is that "the Olympics will double the population of Salt Lake City—we will have an extra 1.5 million people here." And with thousands of security and media people swarming the mountains, he says, "I worry that there will be a notable avalanche accident during the Olympics. The last thing we want is for an avalanche to be the main Olympic news."

That's just the sort of tragedy it may take to wake up recreationists and developers to the need for greater vigilance—and restraint—in avalanche country. As the avalanche death toll rises, the federal government, for one, is beginning to take more interest in the problem. Last December, the Forest Service allocated $185,000 in new funds to the National Avalanche Center for the year 2000 (in addition to agreeing to maintain the $461,000 to partially fund the regional avalanche centers this winter). Doug Abromeit hopes the additional money will help the National Avalanche Center's efforts to pursue larger funding partnerships and expand its forecasting technology. The amount won't cover all of the center's needs, but "it's definitely a start," he says.

While acknowledging that government funding is significantly lower than it was in the early 1980s, Denny Bschor, the director of Recreation, Heritage, and Wilderness Resources for the U.S. Forest Service who also oversees avalanche programs, says, "I wouldn't say that safety is compromised. People still have to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their own actions, whether they have avalanche forecast centers or not. Avalanche centers are a tool to help them make better decisions." He believes that the snowmobile, ski, snowboard, and outdoor equipment industries should contribute more support to avalanche safety programs. "We need a lot more help from the partners who have a stake in helping the American public be safer in avalanche country," he says.

Meanwhile, avalanche professionals and scientists know that they are in a race against time as they continue to unravel the mysteries of the ice crystal and increase awareness among backcountry enthusiasts. "People have to get educated," Dan Howlett says. "That's the only way to stop the fatalities in the future. But they also have to recognize the difference between education and experience."

Sam Colbeck is philosophical about the challenge. "Can we get people to stop building houses where they shouldn't, get people to stop going into mountains when the avalanche danger is high? I don't think so. As we develop as a society, people are going to take these risks. We are going to find that we have more and more of a problem. And usually society doesn't do anything until after a problem is well established."  

David Goodman is the author of Fault Lines: Journeys into the New South Africa, and two guidebooks to backcountry skiing in New England.

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