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Creative Alchemy In

The White Death
A U of U historian looks at avalanches, natural disasters, and the blame game that often ensues in their aftermath.

by Marcus Hall

“Skiers Risk Answering the Call of Their Wild Side” announced the front-page headline of The New York Times. Utah had made national and international news that day in January 2005, and it was not for achievements in the sciences or the arts, artificial hearts, or film festivals. Instead, the news focused on a deadly avalanche that was pushing the state’s annual avalanche death toll toward its highest in decades.

Marcus Hall
U of U Assistant Professor of History Marcus Hall

The article was brimming with “Far West” interpretations, suggesting that rugged individualism was propelling skiers to head out of bounds to seek pristine powder. According to the article, adrenaline addiction was setting off avalanches, together with testosterone poisoning (90 percent of avalanche victims are male). The root of that individualism was apparently Frederick Jackson Turner’s pioneer, who risked life and limb to tame the elements while recapitulating the mythic “westward course of empire taking its way,” to paraphrase a well-known line from an early eighteenth-century poem by George Berkeley. I realized then that avalanches would make good social history—or at least good hormonal history.

Here at the University of Utah, we have experts in the fields of climatology and meteorology whose work encompasses some of the science behind the weather conditions that contribute to avalanches (see sidebar), yet few were examining the anthropological side of the phenomenon. Since there are historians of rivers, fire, fish and salt, I thought there was certainly room for a few avalanche historians, as well.

Avalanches almost take on a life of their own: the dangers they pose, the havoc they wreak, the sheer power and unpredictability they represent, lead us to tell stories and generate myths about them that may say more about ourselves and our relations than about the crushing walls of snow themselves. In particular, avalanches can tell us a good deal about our propensity to assign blame. After an avalanche roars to a halt and the damage is done, we wonder who is “at fault.” Who is held responsible for the tragedies that occur every winter on Utah’s unstable mountainsides, and what can this blame tell us about ourselves and our relationships with the natural world? Disasters, from avalanches to hurricanes to tsunamis, sometimes entail great loss—and can also lead to much finger pointing.

Rather than let the lawyers tackle this question, I would like to make a few historical observations to put things in sharper focus.

Avalanches in History

It’s not surprising that avalanches have plagued Utah for as long as people have ventured into the state’s snowy mountains. Skiers have been dealing with avalanches in the Wasatch Range since even before makeshift ski lifts were fashioned out of recycled ore tramways in the 1930s. In those early days of skiing, abstention was the main way to avoid being buried under deep snow—that is, simply avoiding high-risk areas. By the 1940s, a National Ski Patrol was helping to control avalanche danger by roping off areas or triggering slides before the weekend skiers arrived. The U.S. Forest Service also developed methods for mitigating snow hazards that ranged from prediction to prevention, utilizing weather science, snow physics, and alpine bombing with army-surplus howitzer cannons.

And even before the ski era, avalanches posed problems, especially for miners, whether in the Wasatch or Oquirrh ranges, or in the steep hillsides near the coal veins of Price. In the quest for valuable metals, Alta’s miners chopped timber for mineshaft supports as well as for fuel, thereby clearing mountain gullies that in winter would usher destruction through the town. Rich ore veins in Bingham Canyon also placed miners in the path of slides. Utah’s worst avalanche tragedy happened there on February 17, 1926, killing 36 and injuring 13. Earlier still, loggers, railroad workers, prospectors, and trappers also had unhappy scrapes with crushing snowslides, and in the days before the advent of outdoor recreation, if there weren’t strong reasons for going into mountains, people generally stayed clear of them. Marjorie Hope Nicolson points out in her classic Mountain Gloom, Mountain Glory that mountains had long been considered among “Nature’s Shames and Ills”—akin to warts or blisters on the earth’s surface—and only after the 1800s were they no longer seen as “inhospitable, desolate, hostile, obdurate, barren, hard, and proud.”

When Native Americans confronted avalanches, they sometimes incorporated them into their traditional nature myths. In the Pacific Northwest, avalanches rumbling down Takhoma, or “White Mountain” (Mount Rainer), were thought to have been triggered by capricious and unfriendly supernatural beings that dwelled in Takhoma’s highest reaches. Not surprisingly, Indians avoided venturing onto the snowfields that disappeared above treeline into the foggy mists.

The Alps and Avalanches

But when searching for avalanches deeper in Western history, the archival trail inevitably leads eastward, to the Alps. Inhabitants of Europe’s famous mountain range have long confronted the “white death.” The scale of the Alps, the steepness of its slopes, and the severity of its winters, coupled with high human density, meant that Europe’s earliest alpine inhabitants developed a variety of ways of coping with, and seeking explanations for, these snowy disasters.

Sandra Shotwell
An 1830 painting by Johann Ludwig Bleuler depicting an avalanche crashing through the village of Tujetsch, Switzerland. Villagers are seeking refuge in the local chapel. This probably depicts the avalanche of 1817 that killed 27 people.

The word “avalanche” descends from the Franco-Provençal lavantse or avalantse, which itself has its roots in the old French aveler—both terms meaning “to descend or go down.” (Inhabitants of England’s soggy, rolling countryside lacked experience with avalanches, and so had to borrow this term from their neighbors across the channel.)

In medieval times, peoples speaking French, Italian, German, and Slavic languages felt that avalanches stemmed from supernatural powers. God and God’s wrath were responsible for sending avalanches to wreak destruction on low-lying villages. Yet alpine villagers were not innocent sufferers; rather, in the most common view, avalanche victims engendered their own misfortunes through immoral or unrighteous behavior. God, acting through tumbling snow masses, was merely teaching a lesson to sinners who had brought their troubles upon themselves. Ex-votos (votive offerings to a divine figure) and other religious symbols still displayed in mountain churches attest to the gratitude given by survivors of such encounters with The Almighty, who occasionally showed mercy.

With the emergence of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, people began to place greater faith in human reasoning, and physical (instead of metaphysical) explanations provided alternative ways to understand avalanches. By acting wisely and with foresight, people could avoid snow-packed surprises, they began to believe.

Over time, attitudes toward avalanches further evolved. In the 19th century, they were increasingly deemed to be “natural” (rather than supernatural) events. Impious behavior, evil spirits, an angry god, or bad luck might still be deemed by some to be the source of destructive avalanches—but an impartial nature began receiving greater blame. When Darwin’s secular implications began taking hold, bystanders witnessing catastrophic avalanches—such as the one crashing through a village near Switzerland’s Gotthard Pass in 1863, killing 29—began to transfer more blame from God to nature and its whims.

Just as important was the widening belief that rational planning and rigid laws could protect villagers from avalanches or even prevent the catastrophes altogether. For example, because avalanches usually originated in barren or thinly forested areas, village councils across the Alps began demanding tougher measures for protecting or even restoring the alpine forest. France enacted a major reforestation law in 1860; Switzerland passed one in 1876, and Italy in 1877. Such laws reflected the assumption that people could take charge of their own destinies: nature triggered avalanches only if people broke the law or mismanaged the forest.

People’s interpretation of an avalanche’s ultimate cause was shifting from the supernatural to the natural and then to the cultural. Today, when victims get buried in unstable snow, there is still an element of bad luck involved, but blame is often traced to the victim’s own poor judgment or ignorance of the dangers at hand. When avalanches wreak havoc in the mountains today, the quest is often to determine not what is responsible but what human is irresponsible.

Even so, the Utah Avalanche Center (the state’s premier source of information about avalanche conditions) sometimes classifies snow slides according to whether they are triggered naturally or by people. The center in turn may divide human-triggered slides into intentional and unintentional varieties; that is, those released by expert snow rangers throwing explosives, for instance, and those set off by careless or hapless backcountry recreationists. It’s no surprise that unintentional, human-triggered avalanches are the main concern in the West. On average, four to five people in Utah die each year under avalanches. More often than not, such tragedies are blamed on the victims—and their craving for that (perhaps overrated and often dangerous) adrenaline rush.

“Natural” Disasters

If it were possible to take to heart the advice of naturalist Aldo Leopold, a pioneer in the conservation movement, and “think like a mountain,” then avalanches rumbling down wild alpine cirques could be considered entirely natural, even healthy, events. Like wind blowing sand or rivers pushing gravel, snowslides also fulfill an ecological role in the mountains, clearing trees and moving rocks. From the perspective of hungry deer (and thus deer hunters), avalanches usefully carry snow off steep meadows to expose grasses earlier in the crucial springtime feeding season. Utah’s famous deer hunting might be a little more productive following a heavy avalanche season. Ultimately, avalanches may be considered either harmful or helpful, according to the interests of a specific group.

In short, would the proverbial avalanche crashing through the forest still be destructive were people not present to observe (or suffer from) it? The answer, of course, is that natural disasters require people in order to be deemed disastrous. And from our current perspective, natural disasters may not be so “natural” after all. In the 21st century, avalanches and floods, hurricanes, and even climate change are simply disasters—many of them put in motion by people. Excessive greenhouse gases may have accelerated the winds of Hurricane Katrina, and insufficient attention to levees may have allowed the waters to pour into New Orleans. Either way, people were ultimately an important cause of that catastrophe.

We, as enlightened human beings, are now more willing than ever to see ourselves as the makers of our own misfortunes.

—Marcus Hall is an assistant professor of history at the University of Utah specializing in environmental history. He is currently Environmental Humanities Research Professor in the College of Humanities.

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