Review by Ed Quillen
Living (and dying) in Avalanche Country
by John Marshall and Jerry Roberts
Published in 1993 by Simpler Way Book Co.
WHERE MOUNTAINS RISE, snow generally falls. And from time to time, the snow merely pauses on a slope, waiting for a chance to descend again — this time as an avalanche.
Thus Central Colorado endures its share of avalanches. Three Western State College students were killed this spring by a snowslide on Cumberland Pass. In 1962, half the town of Twin Lakes was demolished by a slide that roared down Mt. Elbert. Monarch Pass gets closed, from time to time, by avalanches, as does the road to St. Elmo.
But the state’s major avalanche zone lies to the southwest, in the San Juan Mountains, where avalanches are not an occasional danger, but almost a daily fact of life (and death) for most of the year.
Living in Avalanche Country might be considered a social history of avalanches in some slide-prone territory. It passes over most of the science (things like moisture content and slope gradient) to focus on history and the human element from the vantage of Silverton — a one-time mining town in the heart of the range, where every route to town passes through slide zones.
Avalanches are the main reason that the narrow-gauge tourist train from Durango doesn’t run clear to Silverton in the winter — there’s the danger of a slide striking the train, and the constant expense of snow removal.
The Colorado Department of Transportation doesn’t enjoy the option of suspending operations in the winter, and authors Marshall and Roberts devote much of the book to that department’s heroic efforts to keep the highways open so that Silverton residents can get their groceries and mail.
Conceptually, the process is fairly simple. As soon as the clouds clear and the wind dies down after a storm, close the road. Use explosives to bring down the snow on the known avalanche runs — a map in the back of the book lists 40 named runs between Ouray and Silverton. Then plow the snow off the road, and wait for the next storm.
This began after World War II with a surplus army 75-mm howitzer, which was hauled on a trailer to where it could lob an explosive shell toward the top of the slide run. If all went well, it triggered the slide.
More cannons were added over the years, but by 1986, the security requirements for storing the ammunition exceeded what small towns could offer. So now a helicopter takes off after every storm with a pilot and a bombardier, who drops the charges. It’s safer and faster, and the same crew can handle Wolf Creek Pass, too.
On the ground, though, the road still has to be plowed, and the slides sometimes ignore the explosives, only to run later. On March 5, 1992, a snowshed on the East Riverside Slide saved the lives of four motorists who were trapped in it for 12 hours. But less than 200 feet away, outside the shed, two highway maintenance men had been buried under their plow truck.
One of them, Danny Jaramillo, kicked out the truck window, reached a little shovel he had aboard, and dug his way to the surface and then walked to the snowshed. It took 18 hours.
The other, Eddie Imel of Ouray died. His death led to improved procedures and better radios in the trucks, but the authors argue, rather convincingly, that if the East Riverside snowshed had been built to 1,100 feet long, rather than the money-saving 180 feet, the well-liked Eddie Imel would never have been swept to his death.
Living in Avalanche Country teems with first-person accounts from survivors, generally well-told. One of my favorites was from an Arizona couple whose car was swept down by the Mother Cline slide in the spring of 1988. And as an informal student of place names, I was fascinated that the slides had names, many of them attached to local characters or events.
One chapter focuses on mail-truck drivers, whose dedication is astonishing; the Postal Service should start using them in commercials. The authors go back to the 19th century for accounts and photos — the early freighters often tunneled through slides, and others taught pack burros to walk on snowshoes.
The photos, historic and modern, seem worthy of a book in themselves, and there are stories behind the photos — or even non-photos:
So Pete’s up there about to shoot the Brooklyns. We’re standing there by the mine road where they park the cat. This guy pulls up in a station wagon and asks if he can take some pictures. “Sure,” we tell him. Well, Pete’s up there by Chattanooga getting ready to fire away. This guy has set a tripod and he’s got about three cameras hanging from his neck. He looks ready.
‘Bout the third shot Pete fires, things start happening. I mean happening. Every slide from the Eagle down through the Brooklyns takes off running. I think later we counted 16 avalanches that ran. Pretty incredible.
Well, things start settling down and we begin to hear this camera guy swearing away. He picks up his tripod, camera and all, and throws it — I mean, hard — into the back of the station wagon. Then he throws his other cameras in one by one. “Must’ve got some great shots,” we said. “I never snapped a damn picture,” he replied. The swearing started up again. You know? I don’t think he ever did say good-bye.
In some ways, Living (and Dying) in Avalanche Country is an extremely local book about coping with winter in the core of the San Juans, and you won’t find much lore from elsewhere. But in recounting those life-and-death struggles, Marshall and Roberts are telling stories that resonate throughout the Rocky Mountains, wherever avalanches might strike.
— Ed Quillen
Still occasionally find a copy on eBay or a local garage sale for cheap. Just heard from a friend that the book is still available at Fetch’s in Silverton.