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Disaster on the mountain
Disaster on the mountain
Disaster on the mountain
Disaster on the mountain
Disaster on the mountain
Disaster on the mountain
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Disaster on the mountain


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  • 1. 4 Scholastic Scope • DECEMBER 10, 2012NonfictionWhat makes avalanche countrydangerous? How can skiers stay safe?AS YOU READ,THINK ABOUT:DISASON THE TMOUNChristianArnal/Photononstop/GlowImages
  • 2. RTURNTHEPAGEto • december 10, 2012 5NARRATiVENONFICTIONReads like fiction—but it’s all truewhat started as a picture-perfect dayTURNEDinto a terrifying nightmare when two alaskaskiers triggered an avalanche By LAUREN TARSHIS
  • 3. 6 Scholastic Scope • december 10, 2012On a beautiful late-winter day in 2002, two experiencedoutdoorsmen set out for an afternoon of backcountry skiing inAlaska’s Chugach State Park. This was wild country. There wereno ski lifts, cozy lodges, or ski patrols. The two men—John Stroudand Skip Repetto—had enjoyed these majestic mountains manytimes before. They loved thethrill of skiing in the wild, surrounded by therugged beauty of the Alaska;MAP:JIMMcMAHON/”MAPMAN”escape. Stroud, however,was caught in a gully. Hewas helpless as the icywave crashed aroundhim, dragging him 500feet. He clawed at thesnow, desperate to stayon top, but the weight ofhis skis pulled him down. Withinseconds, he was covered—first tohis waist, then to his neck. Finallythe snow closed in over his head.Stroud was buried alive.Warning SignsOver the past decade, thenumber of people killed inavalanches each year has beenslowly rising. In the 1990s, therewere about 15 fatalities per year.Today, the average is 29.One reason for the increase isthat more resorts, from Colorado toWyoming, have been opening thebackcountry to adventurers.Indeed, more than 400,000 skiersare now heading into thebackcountry every year. In thesewild areas, there are no emergencycrews, and the slopes are notmaintained or supervised.Most avalanche victims areoutdoor enthusiasts like Stroud—skiers, snowmobilers, andsnowboarders. And like Stroud,most of them could have avoidedcatastrophe. That’s becauseavalanches are not freak naturaldisasters, like earthquakes, thatstrike without warning. Most killeravalanches are triggered by theirvictims. Yet there are almostalways clear warning signs.Few people understand thisbetter than Jill Fredston and herhusband, Doug Fesler. Their hand-built house sits on a windsweptmountainside that is a 45-minutedrive from where Stroud andRepetto were caught.From this base of operations,within sight of 95 glaciers, thesetwo avalanche experts havestudied snow the way medicalstudents study the human body—from all angles, down to the tiniestparts. Snow is not just a solid sheetof white. It comprises microscopicWhat these two friends did notrealize was that something deadlylurked just beneath the newlyfallen snow. Had they looked hardenough, they would haverecognized the danger—but theday was so serene, so beautiful, itwas hard to imagine anythingcould go wrong.The first run down the mountainwas perfect, but at the end of thesecond run, Repetto felt somethingstrange under his skis. The snowsuddenly seemed unstable.Alarmed, he shouted a warningto Stroud. But Stroud’s dogs, whichhad come along to enjoy thesplendid day, had alreadyscampered into the valley, andStroud had taken off after them.Then Repetto heard anunforgettable sound.Whumph!In a split second, the mountainseemed to crumble. Tons of iceand snow peeled away from theslope and began a thunderous,crashing slide down the mountain.Anything and everything in its pathwould be buried: trees, boulders,animals, people.Repetto stumbled and fell butmanaged to right himself in time toArea ofmapAlaskaU.S.U.S.0 5 MIAnchorageEagle RiverCHUGACHSTATE PARKEagleRiverSouthForkSite of avalancheCookInlet
  • 4. • december 10, 2012 7SteveSmith/GettyImagesparticles of water, air, and ice thatbind together in intricate patterns,like lace. Why these particles sticktogether—and why they fall apart—is key to understanding avalanches.For example, if there is too muchspace between particles, the weightof just one person can cause anentire layer of snow to collapse.That is exactly what happened toStroud. His weight, and the weightof his two dogs, had triggered theavalanche.To understand avalanches,Fredston and Fesler have alsodelved deep into Alaska’s history.Fesler has spent dozens of hours inlibraries poring over old newspaperarticles and photographs, and haspieced together a vast history ofavalanches over the past century.He has unearthed records of morethan 4,200 avalanches that havedestroyed homes and killedanimals and humans.“Avalanche School”As co-directors of the AlaskaMountain Safety Center, Fredstonand Fesler have shared theirknowledge with thousands ofskiers, hikers, and snowmobilers.Their “avalanche school” teachespeople how to recognize avalanchewarning signs: Lots of fresh newsnow, steep slopes, suddenweather changes, and high windscan all cause the snowpack tobecome unstable.These and other dangerousconditions are often obvious, asthough Mother Nature herself hadposted warnings. Learning to lookfor these signs—and take themseriously—is key to staying alive inthe wilderness.But many people ignore thewarnings. In February 2012, sevenextremely experienced skiers werecaught in an avalanche inWashington’s Tunnel Creek. Threewere killed. The group knew theterrain well; they also knew theywere skiing under prime avalancheconditions. Yet they went outanyway. Experts call this the “haloeffect”: the skiers felt safe simplybecause they were experienced andhad skied the area before.Like the skiers in Tunnel Creek,Stroud and Repetto had attendedavalanche school. They knewavalanches were common inChugach State Park, particularly onbright, sunny days followingheavy snowfall. They also beacon forlocating aperson underthe snowAvalanchesafety gear likethis can meanthe differencebetween lifeand death.But someexperts, likeJill Fredston,feel this gearcreates afalse senseof security.What’s theuse of alocatorbeacon ifno one canget to youbefore yousuffocate?shovelfor diggingwhat you need to save Someone Buried Alive
  • 5. 8 Scholastic Scope • december 10, 2012knew that colder,shadowed slopesare moreavalanche prone.Yet just such aslope is where theyventured for theirfateful ski run.And then—whumph!—it wastoo late.The avalancheburied Stroud socompletely that hecouldn’t open hiseyes. The snowaround him was ashard as concrete.He couldn’t move, much less dighimself out. His mouth had filledwith snow. Within moments, hestarted to suffocate. He thoughtabout his dogs, wondering if theyhad survived. (Sadly, both his dogswere killed.) And then he resignedhimself to the fact that he wasgoing to die.Repetto, meanwhile, was badlyshaken, but he did not panic. Heknew time was precious. He had tofind his friend immediately.Luckily, the two men had nottrekked into the wildernessunprepared. They were bothwearing beacons, small trackingdevices designed for exactly thiskind of emergency. Stroud had onestrapped to his chest. Even as hewas drifting toward death, hisbeacon was sending out a steadyelectronic signal.Repetto switched his beacon to“receive.” Within seconds, it beganto flash red lights that directed himRepetto dugfaster. He dug untilthe snow was chest-deep around him.He dug until he wastoo exhausted to dig,then he dug moreuntil—finally—hesaw Stroud’s head.Stroud wasn’tbreathing, and hisface was blue.Repetto quicklyscooped the snowout of his friend’smouth.And then, toRepetto’s relief,Stroud gasped for air. But he wasin bad shape. It took 10 minutesfor him to regain consciousnessfully and another 20 minutes ofdigging for Repetto to free hisbody. If Repetto had arrived evenone minute later, Stroud wouldhave died.In her critically acclaimed bookSnowstruck, Fredston says thatStroud’s story is typical except forone detail: He survived. The tragictruth of avalanches is that fewpeople do. Fredston herself hasunburied more than 40 victims, alldead. Most victims suffocatewithin 30 minutes of being buried.Others die during their terrifyingtumbles down the mountain, assnow and debris knock theirbodies around like rag dolls.Yet the vast majority of thesedeaths could be prevented. “Naturesends out strong messages,”Fredston says. “If only peoplewould learn to listen.” •Bettmann/Corbis(1910AVALANCHE);,avalanchesign,backgroundimage);JanGreune/GettyImages(airbagpack);WalterBibikow/Corbis(footballfield)to where Stroud was buried.Repetto had other equipment tohelp him. His ski poles screwedtogether to form a probe. Rescuersuse these slender, flexible poles tosearch through snow and debris forburied victims. After a few quickjabs into the snow, Repetto struckStroud’s back. Getting Stroud out,though, wouldn’t be easy: He wastrapped under four feet of snow.A Dying ManStrapped to Repetto’s backpackwas another piece of crucialemergency equipment: a lightaluminum shovel. Repetto beganto dig frantically, the snow pilingup around him. After 10 minutes ofexhausting work, he saw no sign ofStroud. Still, Repetto kept digging.He knew he had to create an airwayfor his friend as fast as possible. Hisarms ached. He was drenched insweat. At last, he heard a noise—the rasping sounds of a dying man.Worst avalanche in U.S. history: On March 1, 1910, a 10-foot wall of snow,knocked loose by a lightning strike, swept into the town of Wellington inWashington State. It sent two trains crashing 150 feet down a steep ravine.Ninety-six people were killed.
  • 6. • december 10, 2012 9Write a Letter Imagine that your friend is taking a ski trip in avalanche country.Write a letter convincing him or her that avalanches pose a serious danger and offeringadvice on how to stay safe. Use details from the article and the infographic aboveto support your advice. Send your letter to AVALANCHE CONTEST. Five winners willeach receive a copy of Far North by Will Hobbs. See page 2 for details.Write a Letter Imagine that your friend is taking a ski trip in avalanche country.Write a letter convincing him or her that avalanches pose a serious danger and offeringadvice on how to stay safe. Use details from the article and the infographic aboveto support your advice. Send your letter to AVALANCHE CONTEST. Five winners willeach receive a copy of Far North by Will Hobbs. See page 2 for details.contestGet thisactivityOnlineAVALANCHES BY THE NUMBERSWhom They Kill*How They Kill1962The year of one of thedeadliest avalanchesever recorded. Itdestroyed ninetowns and sevenvillages in Peru,killing about4,000 people.$1,179The cost ofa North Faceavalancheair bag pack.Wearingan air bagcan helpprevent youfrom gettingburied, andoffers someprotectionfrom flyingdebris.The speed at which an avalanche cantravel in feet per second. That’s the lengthof a football field every second.300skiersand snow-boardersHYPOTHERMIASUFFOCATIONTRAUMAsnow-mobilersother40.8%1%75%24%39.5%19.7%0510152025303540200020012002200320042005200620072008200920102011NUMBEROFavalanchefatalitiesYEARHow Many Die*2001-2011SOURCE FOR STATISTICS: AMERICAN AVALANCHE ASSOCIATION