The party of eight set out to ski the southern slope of Microdot Peak, located in Alaska’s Hatcher Pass, on the morning of March 1, 2003. All were experienced skiers. Some had spent more than 100 days in the backcountry that winter. They were familiar with the properties and behavior of snowpack. They’d refined their safety assessment and prediction skills, sometimes through negative outcomes. A few had triggered and survived avalanches. One had witnessed an avalanche fatality.
The southern slope of Microdot averages an angle of 35 degrees. Avalanches are most prevalent on slopes with angles of 30 to 45 degrees. When the skiers began their ascent, the sky was blue, and the winds were calm. The week before, four feet of snow fell on Hatcher Pass during a storm that, given the wind direction, covered Microdot’s southern slope with an additional burden of blown snow. Snow and wind create “slabs,” which in turn create weakness in the snowpack. When subjected to stress — like the stress that a skier, carving over the surface, might exert — rapid shape-shifting can occur. A slab can detach from the stable snowpack beneath it and career downhill like a runaway tectonic plate that transforms, within milliseconds, into a many-ton, half-frozen wave, subsuming whatever is in front of or on top of it, before instantaneously seizing, when it settles, into a substance resembling cement.
Midway up the slope, the eight skiers paused to dig a pit in the snow. They discovered the existence of storm slabs and wind slabs, confirming the “considerable to high” avalanche danger determined by the local rangers. They continued their ascent.
Solar radiation and rapidly increasing temperatures cause melting and weaken the snowpack’s top layer. Beautiful weather causes skiers to disregard warning signs, or take risks beyond their comfort zone. Once the skiers reached the summit of Microdot, they descended the southern slope one at a time. Four reached the bottom safely. The fifth triggered a slab avalanche that carried him 700 feet over a rock ledge, partly burying him and two others.
The instructor, an amiably intense man in his 30s named Ryan, asked us to introduce ourselves and answer the question, Why am I here? (“Why am I here?” we’d soon learn, is the question backcountry skiers must repeatedly ask themselves as they encounter new pitches with new conditions.) Most people lived on the West Coast and had summited famous peaks. A pair of men in their 20s were members of a locally itinerant rock-climbing community that truck-camped during the winter in a place called the Pit. People, on the whole, were here for two reasons: Half the room wanted to become less scared of avalanches; the other half wanted to become more.
One: Because I had been an indiscriminately fearful child — and, despite repeated exposure to “considerable to high” dangers over many decades, that child failed to be eradicated and replaced by someone braver — the act of preparing for every type of unknown, even one I’m unlikely to encounter, began as a coping mechanism and evolved over the years into a passion. Preparing for hypothetical terrible events (a terrorist attack involving high-speed elevators in a Vegas hotel; the dismasting of a sailboat while rounding Cape Horn) provides a creative high to which I’ve become addicted. Acrobatic feats of problem-solving and projection make the future elongate and then bend back around the present. Time becomes spherical and exudes the deep glow of cogent busyness. Possibly as a result of — or as forecast by — this beloved hobby, I became a novelist; I’ve reconfigured this oft-pathologized “catastrophic/paranoid/neurotic” tendency as a peril of my trade. Out of professional necessity, I obsessively engage in outcome empathy.
“Prepare for the worst,” the avalanche course manual advised, “and know what to do.”
Two: Among the deaths I do not wish, being buried alive is the one I do not wish the most. Edgar Allan Poe published a story called “The Premature Burial” in 1844. (Poe most likely suffered from taphophobia — technically the fear of being mistaken for dead and then sealed in a coffin and buried in a grave — but I imagine he’d be equally inspired by the live-burial potential of avalanches.) After listing a number of horrors, including plagues, earthquakes and massacres, Poe’s narrator asserts: “To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.”
Learning how not to be buried alive, however, turned out to be a little bit boring. Ryan opened a snowpack PowerPoint while we took notes about storm slabs and wind slabs and persistent slabs, all of which sounded like subcategorical psychiatric disorders from the D.S.M.
When Ryan shifted the conversation to “avalanche problems,” we perked up, maybe because the term would seem provocatively redundant, the avalanche itself being the primary problem. But no. Ninety percent of human-avalanche encounters, Ryan said, are triggered by humans, making humans the primary avalanche problem. Nature doesn’t kill people with avalanches. People kill people with avalanches.
Then Ryan revealed a second twist: By entering the storefront two hours earlier, by taking an avalanche-safety course, we had statistically increased our chances of being killed in an avalanche. We were more likely to die now than we were at 8 a.m.
The room absorbed this information. It felt like being in a movie in which you thought you were at a normal dinner party, but just by showing up, you’d implicitly agreed to fight the other guests to the death.
The problem — the primary human problem — is that people are susceptible, prideful, bullheaded, egotistic, dumbstruck and lazy. Add to this doomed slurry a little avalanche training (or what used to qualify as avalanche training, and its focus on analyzing snowpack), and people make terrible decisions with greater frequency and confidence.
I already knew about the human problem, because I did some of the recommended reading before class, including “Human Factor 2.0,” a seminal 2016 article about avalanche education published in Powder magazine and written by David Page (who also happens to be an ex-boyfriend from long ago). Page’s article tracks the shift in avalanche education away from snow-pit forensics and toward human forensics, a change in large part attributable to Ian McCammon, an engineer and avalanche researcher. McCammon dryly states the learning-death paradox in his 2004 paper “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications”: “The blatancy of the hazard in avalanche accidents would be understandable if most victims had little understanding of avalanches. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case.”