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Avalanche dangers often are not apparent to the novice
11:10 a.m., Feb. 13, 2003--When deciding what you’re going to need for a ski weekend, don’t forget to pick up a book on the science of avalanches. That’s the advice of McKay Jenkins, associate professor of English, a journalist and scholar of American literature, specializing in environmental studies and nonfiction writing.
McKay Jenkins, associate professor of English

His book, “The White Death: Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zone” was published by Random House in 2000. It’s the true story of five expert skiers who were killed in an avalanche in the mountains of Montana’s Glacier National Park. For the book, Jenkins researched the science of avalanches.

UDaily asked Jenkins about his research.

Q: What is an avalanche and what does it take to create one?

A: There are several kinds of avalanches, the most deadly common occurrence is called a "slab" avalanche, which is formed by a weak layer of snow giving way beneath more stable layers. These are particularly dangerous because they are formed invisibly; a skier or hiker may think he or she is crossing a solid snow cover and realize too late that an unstable layer of snow lies beneath.

Q: How long can people survive being buried under the snow? Has anyone ever survived being buried by an avalanche?

A: I interviewed one man who survived for 30 minutes under six feet of snow before he was rescued. When he was dug out, his muscles had been so severely squeezed that his urine came out, he said, "like root beer." The snow had crushed protein into his bloodstream. There are stories of much longer suvivals, but most people do not live longer than 45 or 60 minutes. Typically, they are either killed in the fall or suffocate once buried.

Q: When the subjects of your book, five experienced climbers killed by an avalanche while scaling 10,000 feet Mount Cleveland in Glacier National Park, were discovered, it deeply affected the climbing community. Why such an impact?

A: These boys were the finest climbers in their region, and since their community was so small, the tragedy struck very hard. It was not unlike the way the town responded in Gloucester, Mass., to the fishing boat tragedy in "The Perfect Storm." Young men, much admired in their community, lost in an event some considered heroic, others, foolhardy.

Q: Should average skiers worry about avalanches?

A: Skiers should only worry about avalanches when they are skiing in avalanche country. With the possible exception of Mount Washington, N.H., the highest peak in the northeastern U.S, there is very little to worry about on the East Coast. But, as the twin tragedies in Canada revealed in January, once you get into the big mountains of the West, where this is a great deal more snowfall, learning the science of avalanches can save your life.

Article by Barbara Garrison