The deadliest avalanche season in recent memory begins on a day that is sunny and clear. Bruce Tremper turns to his girlfriend and says, "Someone is going to get killed today."
It's the first Saturday in December and, after two days of storms, there is fresh powder in the mountains. The Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, where Tremper is director, has issued a special avalanche advisory, but Tremper knows it won't keep people away from the slopes.Early in the morning, Vern Cotterell meets his snowmobile buddies near Current Creek Peak in the mountains near Heber. They ride up and down one bowl, then head for another, gunning their machine straight up through the untouched powder. Snowmobilers call it "high marking" - leaving your track as high as you can on a hillside.
Cotterell takes a stab at the new slope and gets stuck halfway up. He gets off his machine, bends over and begins to adjust the skis. He is wearing his helmet, so maybe that's why he doesn't hear what's coming. Or maybe some avalanches are just quiet.
The mountain, suddenly, is sliding on top of him. And then, just as suddenly, everything is dark and quiet. The thing that amazes him is that he can't move. The snow feels like cement. It is pressing so tight on his chest that he can't take a deep enough breath.
In the seconds before he loses consciousness he thinks, in a detached sort of way, Who would have ever thought I would die like this?
The slab has also buried his friend Carl Guymon and has partially buried Guymon's son-in-law, Sam Peterson. Peterson is able to dig himself out and then dig out his father-in-law. Then they begin looking for Cotterell. Minutes go by, maybe 20, as they frantically dig at the snow with their hands. He is not wearing an avalanche rescue beacon.
Finally Guymon decides to look uphill from Cotterell's snowmobile, up past the wedges of slab that have blocked their view of Cotterell's gloved hand, jutting up through the snow.
At first when they uncover his face they think he's dead. But luck, it turns out, is on Cotterell's side after all. The snowmobile helmet, visor down, has kept a deadly ice mask from forming over his face. He is blue but still breathing. In 10 minutes they have revived him. Soon he is driving his snowmobile back down the mountain. He is taken to the hospital and then home, where his two children and pregnant wife are waiting for him.
At about the same time, two counties away, on Bountiful Peak in Farmington Canyon, Rick Adams isn't so lucky. Snowmobiling with friends in Tree Bowl, he triggers a slide that completely buries him and his machine. When it's over, the debris covers an area as big as four football fields. It will take 12 days before rescuers, using probes and dogs, find his body.
This all happens on Dec. 7, the same day Bruce Tremper is scheduled to teach an avalanche safety class at a Salt Lake snowmobile shop. The class is canceled because nobody signs up.
The 1996-97 avalanche season will turn out to be the deadliest since the turn of the century. And it will begin, oddly enough, with rain. Rain that pours in November, on slopes as high as 10,000 feet, then freezes at night.
Snow settling on ice is bad news, especially early in the season when the snowpack is thin. Heat from the earth travels up through the snow toward the cooler nighttime air. So the snow on the top of the snowpack is colder than the snow underneath, and these temperature differences cause the snow to change.
Where once you had those pretty hexagonal crystals that snow is famous for you now have odder, angular crystals called "faceted snow"- crystals with fewer surfaces for other snow layers to adhere to.
Scott Carrier, a Salt Lake backcountry skier and radio writer, puts it this way: Snow in the air is like love. Snow on the ground is like marriage. Sometimes the layers don't really bond. That's when everything can fall apart.
So by December, the Wasatch has a rain crust, slippery as a luge run, and a layer of faceted snow, fidgety as a bunch of styrofoam pellets. Then it snows some more, thick and dense - ready to slide at the slightest provocation.
Thursday, December 26. Greg Dres is supposed to pick up his girlfriend at the Salt Lake International Airport at 8 p.m.. When he doesn't show up she finally takes a cab to Park City. The next morning, she notifies the sheriff.
Dres had last been seen heading up Flagstaff Mountain, across from Alta, at 3 p.m. on the 26th. Flagstaff is popular with snowboarders; you can hike up, then ski down Day's Fork, heading toward Big Cottonwood, or back toward Alta.
It is snowing and windy when he heads up the trail. "High avalanche danger on slopes steeper than 35 degrees," warns the Avalanche Forecast Center.
More snow and wind the next day make rescue efforts impossible. On the 28th, Tremper and Dave Madera, a Utah Department of Transportation avalanche forecaster, hike up Flagstaff and begin their search. When they find Dres' body, the snowboard is still attached to his feet.Two dead, and it's not even January yet.
Bruce Tremper has been watching avalanches for half his life. This is his conclusion: "Mountains don't care if you're rich or handsome or if you have people who love you or if you have a meeting at 8 o'clock." They're just being mountains. They're just doing their job.
As for us, we have to remember that timing is everything. You have to pick your times and pick your slopes.
The magic number for mountain slopes is 38. That's the degree of incline where most avalanches occur.
Of course, that's just a number on a bell curve, says former avalanche forecaster Peter Lev. Avalanches can happen on more gradual slopes, too, especially if there are steeper slopes above you.
There are danger signs to look for. The most obvious, often overlooked, are other avalanches in the vicinity. A snowpack that makes a whomph sound when you walk on it is also a bad sign. If you're smart and dig a snow pit, you can also actually see weak snow layers with your own eyes - a difference in color, a change in texture. Peter Lev and forecaster Tom Kim-brough could see obvious signs of the snowpack's instability on Bountiful Peak just two days before the Dec. 7 avalanche that killed Rick Adams.
The typical avalanche victim is male, between 16 and 35. He's usually skilled in his sport but not about avalanches. More often now, the victims are snowmobilers, whose fancy, high-powered machines can climb the steep terrains once reserved for backcountry skiers and snowboarders.
More and more too, though, says Dale Atkins of the Colorado Avalanche Forecast Center, rescuers are seeing people who know something about avalanches but take a chance on bad days anyway.
These are the people, he says, who've been out in the backcountry a lot and get fooled by what Atkins calls a "negative event."
"We frequently hear, `Boy, we skied it yesterday or last month or last season and there wasn't an avalanche."' But what happened yesterday or last year, says Atkins, "has nothing to do with today."
Ninety-five percent of avalanche accidents are triggered by the victim or a member of the victim's party. Tremper finds a lot of comfort in that. You can avoid most avalanches if you're careful.
But he also knows that sometimes you can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Saturday, Jan. 11. Snowfall, 1 to 3 inches, the Weather Service predicts. But by afternoon it's obvious that the situation is grimmer than that. One to 3 inches an hour in the mountains is more like it. With strong winds.
Max Lyon and his friends Karl Mueggler and Keith Maas plan to do some snow camping in Dry Canyon near Logan Peak in Cache County's outback. Lyon, 38, is a wilderness veteran who has recently completed a yearlong sabbatical to some of the world's roughest terrains, from Chile to Siberia.
Logan Peak, on the other hand, is the backyard he grew up in. So, when nightfall approaches and the snow is getting deeper, he and his friends know enough to pitch their tent in a level spot among a stand of mature trees. There probably hasn't been an avalanche across there in 50 years.
But it is snowing like crazy, and strong northwesterly winds are blowing, redepositing the snow on top of a weaker layer of snow on top of a 5-inch rain crust. When the snow on a ridge high above them releases sometime during the night, it slides farther and faster than anyone would have ever guessed.
Rescuers find them two days later, buried under 4 feet of snow, their tent wrapped around an aspen tree.
Meanwhile, in the canyons outside Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Lynn Cox spends most of Jan. 11 patrolling Little Cottonwood Canyon highway in his Ford Bronco.
Just after dusk, he makes a run to the bottom of the canyon to pick up a couple of UDOT snowplow operators. Heading back up the highway toward Alta, he spots a trio of backcountry skiers strapping gear to the top of their car.
In the next instant the trio is buried in a wall of snow that covers the highway, and in the instant after that Cox's Bronco is buried too. Cox rolls down his window and tries to punch his way to the surface, but the snow is already as solid as a rock. His passenger is luckier. The snow is shallower on his side of the car, and the men are able to tunnel to the surface with a shovel, then begin looking for the three skiers.
By then a few dozen other skiers, on their way down the canyon from the resorts, have jumped out of their cars to help. Two of the skiers are found right away. The third is found a few minutes later, pinned between two cars. They are all alive.
It's not the first time an avalanche has buried cars in the canyon. The truth is that the road up Little Cottonwood crosses dozens of avalanche paths, and it's a wonder, say former UDOT avalanche forecasters, that no one has been killed in the bumper-to-bumper traffic heading down from the resorts.
In the early '90s, five of those forecasters quit in protest over UDOT's road closure policies, charging that the department occasionally kept the road open when it shouldn't. Conditions are better now, they say, but there are still days, when the road is open but a storm is blowing through, that they choose to stay home.
An avalanche can begin with rain and ice and faceted snow. But it can begin so many other ways too. It can begin with wind-deposited snow or snow that falls unevenly. It can happen just because a slope is too steep. If is snows hard and fast enough, it can even happen in a canyon as small as Millcreek.
It can happen when you're shoveling your driveway and your wife and daughter are sitting at the kitchen table. Snow and trees can come crashing through the window in the one place you should feel safe.
That's what happened to Matthew Bailey and his family, who had moved to Utah from Hawaii only two weeks before, who never even saw snow till Bailey took a job as general manager at Sundance and a house on the mountain.
Thursday, Jan. 23. Bailey hears the avalanche while he's shoveling the driveway right after breakfast. He runs into the house. He calls his wife's name and hears nothing at first because Carla Bailey is too overcome with relief that her husband is still alive.
He digs out Carla, and then they begin their frantic search for 4-year-old Lauren. They tunnel to her with a pot lid and their hands. They get to her in time, and later they all move to another house on the sunny side of the mountain, in the middle of a meadow.
Everything is fine now, although sometimes Lauren will still be frightened when a piece of ice falls off the roof. And sometimes Bailey will wonder what would have happened if he hadn't needed to shovel the driveway that morning. Or what would have happened if he had been buried in the driveway. He imagines his 3-year-old son, asleep upstairs when the avalanche hit, waking up an orphan.
Avalanche forecasting is as much an art as a science. This is why, Lev says, a good forecaster has to spend a lot of time in the mountains, "constantly walking uphill."
The science and art of avalanche forecasting actually began at Alta, Utah. In the 1950s, people like Ed LaChapelle and Monte Atwater began studying how snow works, and how humans could shoot a cannon into the snow to get it moving.
Following in their footsteps, forecaster Tremper says he thinks of himself as a "natural detective." After a lifetime of skiing, it's the snow now, not the speed, that intrigues him. Skiing now is mainly just transportation - to get him to the places where he can figure out what secrets the snow is hiding.
Saturday, Jan. 25. It is raining or snowing, depending on where you are. In Provo Canyon it is both raining and snowing. It's generally a yucky day, but when you work all week, sometimes Saturday is all you have.
Scott Lee and Doug Hall have a plan to go backcountry skiing, but they discover, after they're already on the road, that Hall has forgotten his avalanche rescue beacon. So they opt instead for ice climbing up The Fang, a frozen waterfall just up the canyon from Bridal Veil Falls.
It is not raining when they start out, but about 10 minutes into the climb it begins to drizzle. Later it begins to pour. Hall gets to the top of The Fang and anchors himself to a tree. Lee is about 10 minutes away. There is water dripping from the ropes and their Gore-Tex jackets.
The avalanche seems to come out of nowhere, although actually it has come from a bowl of snow somewhere up above them. All Lee knows is that suddenly the sky gets black. He doesn't remember the rest, but other people have told him: The avalanche knocks Hall and his tree straight down through the air and then across the snow. Lee, attached to Hall by rope, is pulled up toward him and then is pushed down along the avalanche path.
Hall is dead when they find him, the sixth death in seven weeks. Lee is buried but can move an arm and dig himself out.
Weeks later, warm and dry and recuperating from his injuries, Lee talks about risk. He has always been avalanche-conscious, always the one to wear a helmet, even on easy climbs.
But if you wanted to be completely safe, of course, you'd just stay home. What he likes about climbing is that you have to rely on your gear and your wits. You make a commitment to the climb, and you stay with it.
Cammy Coyle is not wearing a watch. But it is maybe about 11 a.m., maybe the same time that Hall and Lee are being buried in Provo Canyon. She is showshoeing down Butler Fork in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
It is snowing. Big heavy flakes. Coyle's cousin, Leslie Post, is 30 feet behind her. Coyle turns, sees Post coming over a rise, and then looks down at her own feet. There is snow moving across them. Then all of a sudden she is turning around and sitting down and sliding. The snow is making a crunching, gurgling sound, as if it's being pushed along by a snowplow. And then it is quiet. Coyle can't hear Post running toward her, calling her name.
It is a small avalanche, maybe only six inches deep, but it has accumulated at the bottom of a gully, in what experts call a "terrain trap." In some places it is six feet deep.
Earlier that day, Coyle and Post had talked about what you should do if you're ever caught in an avalanche. Move your head from side to side to create an air pocket, Coyle remembers as she lies there.
Coyle is lucky. The avalanche is small. It hasn't traveled very far, not nearly far enough to create the kind of kinetic energy that can warm the snow up enough to make it harden like concrete.
She can't move her arms and legs, but she can move her head. She can breathe. She yells "Help!" into the snow. Then she just lies there. She actually feels kind of peaceful.
Meanwhile, other skiers have come on the scene. They begin pushing their ski poles into the piles of snow, but the poles aren't long enough.
An avalanche can come, it seems, out of nowhere. And sometimes help can too. After about 45 minutes, Carol Ciliberti - a forecaster with the Avalanche Forecast Center - just happens to ski down Butler Fork. She immediately organizes a probe line, using the 10-foot poles designed for search and rescue.
More time goes by. Another 45 minutes. Much too long for a person to survive under the snow. Probe. Nothing. Probe. Nothing.
Then Noah Maze, an intern with the forecast center, hits something with his pole. Something different than snow. It is Coyle's head.
They can't believe she is still alive. In fact, they discover later, it may be the longest anyone has ever spent so deep under the snow and lived to tell about it.
Monday, Feb. 24, a snowboarder on Mount Ogden is swept 2,000 vertical feet but survives unhurt. That same day, a backcountry skier triggers an avalanche at Stairs Gulch in Big Cottonwood Canyon but is lucky enough to grab onto a tree. And a snowmobiler on Logan Peak outruns a slide so deep it leaves an 8-foot pile of snow and trees.
On Sunday, March 9, a backcountry skier is buried near Logan but lives.
Maybe that's the end of it.
Certainly there is a heightened awareness about avalanches now. Snowmobilers actually attend Tremper's classes, sometimes so many snowmobilers there aren't enough seats. And more snowmobilers are wearing rescue beacons. Right after the Bountiful Peak accident, 500 beacons were sold in two weeks.
That leaves only maybe 20,000 snowmobiles without them.
And now it's practically spring. Crocuses are coming up down-town.
In the mountains the snow is going through changes of its own.
As the air gets warmer at night, the snowpack heats up. Everything starts to get sloppy. The meltwater seeps into the grapple layer, weakening it even more.
And then one day in late March or early April, it will snow again, the kind of big spring snowstorm the Wasatch is famous for.
And maybe the next day, the sun will come out. It might even be a Saturday. Skiers and snowboarders and snowmobilers will head to the mountains for a shirtsleeve day on some backcountry slope - where they might discover the truth of Tremper's analogy.
Avalanches are like minefields, he says. They hide under a surface so inviting it looks as pure as, well, the driven snow. The mines just sit and wait. The more terrain you cover, says Tremper, the more likely you'll find one that will kill you.
Avalanches: why they occur
Avalanches are triggered when a heavy or dense snowfall accumulates on the snow-base of a steep slope.
Different layers of snow have varying degrees of cohesiveness according to their position and varying weather conditions between snowstorms. (Example: Melting snow that freezes again before the next storm creates a very icy surface that new snow will not stick to easily.)
NOTE: Increasing temperatures generally relax snowpacks, decreasing slide danger.
Make sure the batteries are fresh
NOTE: It's almost impossible to find an avalanche victim with your hands. A small shovel allows quick digging.