Slide Rules

An avalanche buried their friend -- and a Denver trio is still digging out.

After testing the snow's stability by digging a shallow pit, Heinz directed the skiers to begin heading down the mountain about 150 feet apart, or about one every fifteen seconds, so as to minimize the potential of setting off an avalanche. As they plowed through the powder cutting fresh tracks, Richard flew to the ground.

"There's nothing but snowfields, and somehow I hit a rock," he says. "It just pole-axed me -- I literally flipped through the air." With his equipment spread out in the snow, a couple of skiers stopped to help him back on his feet. "Every time you fall, it's a struggle," Richard says. "The snow is just so deep."

For his part, Barry, the last one to drop into the bowl, ignored him. "It's a big powder day; you see a heap of people, you say, 'Yeah, whatever.' I mean, you're just in the moment. We're a pretty wild bunch of cowboys. We let our hair down; we play hard and ski hard."

Barry Fisher
Mark Manger
Barry Fisher
Mike Morrisey
Mark Manger
Mike Morrisey

After the group gathered together with everyone accounted for, Heinz instructed them once more to keep their distance, then headed downhill. Seeing that no one else was going, Richard followed. Next, John, a guy from Washington state, went. Kenny followed. Barry and Mike, who liked to ski together, lingered. So did Stefan, the tail-gunner.

As the group started following Heinz down the slope, skiing slightly to the left, a second group of skiers was just being let off the helicopter at the landing area above them. While they assembled their equipment, their guide hopped down beneath a cornice to dig another quick pit to check the snow's stability. As he landed, a crack opened just below him.

For reasons that continue to mystify him, at that moment, Mike happened to look up the mountain. He saw the crack spread across the slope like a cartoon ice break, zigzagging from rock to rock in an impossibly deliberate path. And then, as he watched, a massive wall of snow released.

"I saw a huge cloud -- or at least I that's what I thought," he recalls. "That range is always socked in, and I just thought that a giant cumulus had settled into the valley. But the more I stared at it, the more I could see it was churning. If you've ever seen the video on the JumboTron at the Avalanche games, it looked exactly like that."

In a study completed in 1965, a U.S. Forest Service researcher set out to discover who, exactly, had died in Colorado avalanches since records had been kept. He found that in the 82 years between 1883 and 1965, 206 people had perished under the snow. For the first fifty years, the fatalities had been exclusively miners -- 175 of them through 1935.

In fact, the first backcountry skier death due to an avalanche doesn't even appear until the 1947-1948 season, when two skiers became the first in the state's history to die. Over the next twenty years, the pattern more or less held, with six more skiers succumbing to avalanches. But during the same period, 21 other Coloradans lost their lives to snow burial, the vast majority of them on the state's roads, where they were either driving or working.

Today, of course, the economy has shifted dramatically toward recreation and away from mining and other backcountry work. These days, only a fraction of snow burials happen to people who are working. This is true in the rest of the country as well. Between 1985 and 2001, 327 people were killed in the United States by avalanches. Of those, only eleven, or a bit over 3 percent, died while on the job. Thanks to a modern economy, the remaining 97 percent perished while playing.

(World avalanche deaths generally follow that pattern, although in second- and third-world countries, as well as in mountainous parts of Europe, deadly avalanches are still a fact of everyday life. In September 2001, more than one hundred Russian villagers were buried by a snowslide. This past December, five Iranians died under snow while driving a mountain highway.)

When most people think of avalanche fatalities these days, they tend to envision backcountry skiers -- those who like to combine their skiing with wilderness. And there are many instances of this type of accident; the seven high school students who died on February 1 in British Columbia during a wilderness education trip were skiing. Yet statistics show that most avalanche fatalities occur during other sporting activities.

In the United States, more people die from avalanches while riding snowmobiles than during any other activity. (In Europe, where the sport is less popular, skiers and hikers die at a greater rate than snowmobilers. Colorado is another exception; more people here die while backcountry skiing.) The high numbers are due to the machines' weight, which can trigger a snowslide easier than a single person; in addition, snowmobiles can roar up and across snowfields numerous times, weakening their structure on each pass.

Nationally, the only exception to the trend of high snowmobile mortality was a period from 1998 to 2001, when snowboarders, feeling their radical oats by riding out of bounds and in the backcountry, overtook snowmobilers as the most likely to perish under the snow. In winter 2001-2002, however, after three seasons, the order was restored. So far this year, snowmobilers are once again dying at about two times the rate of backcountry riders.

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