Now I am warm. In the corner of the cold lab are 12 cardboard Chiquita banana boxes filled with snow. Fierz scoops some of it into a sieve and hands it to Baunach. “Now we make a snowfall!” Baunach says, grinning like a kid. He shakes the sieve over a box to re-create inside the lab what has been happening outside for the past 12 hours. Like a hypercritical head chef, Fierz points to lumps in the mound of sifted white: “Try double sifting,” he suggests.
Fierz and Baunach will take snow samples from their boxes every 12 hours, as the snow’s temperature rises from minus four to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow is shallow—only about two-and-a-half inches. The shallower the snow, the steeper the temperature gradient between the ground-warmed bottom (being played, in this case, by a heated metal plate) and the air-chilled top of the snow. The warm air rises, cools quickly, and becomes frost crystals. Fierz’s experience as a skier tells him in general what his experiment will tell him in detail. “A few centimeters of new snow, followed by two or three days of nice, clear, cold weather,” he intones. “You’ll get depth hoar.”
Fierz is wearing red ski boots. At the end of the day he will ski home—through very risky avalanche conditions. The uphill-bound cable-car service ended for the day shortly after my morning ascent. (A slide destroyed the tracks in 1968.) It wouldn’t be Fierz’s first avalanche. Like many of the avalanche researchers I spoke with, he himself has been caught—not while on the job, but while backcountry skiing. “I was not really scared,” he shrugs. “Luckily, I could always see where I was going.”
Bob Brown was scared. The Montana avalanche researcher was on a backcountry ski trip seven years ago when a companion triggered an avalanche directly uphill from him. He tried to hide in a hole in a snowdrift. “I thought it would go right over me. It blew me up out of that hole like a rag doll. Carried me 150 yards downhill. I must have gone from zero to 60 in about a second.” Brown saw a tree coming up and tried to grab hold, but the avalanche ripped it from his grasp. Grabbing the tree did help pull him to the top of the slide, however, so he wasn’t buried deeply and suffered only minor injuries.
I’d rather not hear this story just now. Fifty yards above me, an avalanche of undetermined size is about to be set off. The only thing between me and a surging wave of killer snow is a three-walled plywood shack. Brown sips hot chocolate inside the shack while his colleague Jim Dent sets up data readers. “I don’t like to say ‘shack’,” says Brown. “I like to say ‘chalet’.” I point to a pair of crossed support beams, their intersection lashed together with duct tape. Brown shrugs. “We haven’t had any trouble so far.” Dent wipes his nose. “Except the year the roof caved in.”
Outside the shack, Ed Adams and Karl Birkeland are busy with portable shovels, clearing space in the snow to lay down equipment that will log the snow’s temperature as the avalanche passes. They hope to disprove a stubborn and thus far unfounded assumption about avalanches: that the friction at the bottom of the slide is vigorous enough to heat the snow to the melting point. As the assumption goes, the melted snow then quickly refreezes, pinning the trapped victim like a Popsicle stick.
I ask Adams what would happen if the avalanche let go on its own while we were out here. “See those flats?” Adams points down the slope. “You’ll end up down there.” Brown sticks his head out of the shack. “But first, you’ll have to go through those trees. That’ll beat you up real bad.”
I mention that it hasn’t snowed that much, and that the avalanche risk is low to moderate today. Adams points out that the snow being deposited on the ridge top by a strong wind is a significant factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. It was Jim Dent’s research that revealed one of the mechanisms by which windblown snow accumulates at the top of a ridge. He discovered that when snow gets blown around, it picks up an electric charge. As windblown crystals hit the snowpack, particles with opposite charges are attracted to each other and stick together to form a cornice.
I ask Jim Dent what it’s like in the shack during an avalanche. “It just gets grayer,” he says. “I like to stick my hand out into the avalanche as it goes by. It’s like putting your hand into a river.” He tells me that if I want a good view, I should climb up onto a platform nailed to a tree 100 yards downhill and 30 feet to the side of the slide path. So I do. From my perch, I watch Adams ski up to the top, his backpack bulky with explosives. Then two other researchers ski off to the side, much farther to the side than my tree. The path from Adam to me looks like a straight line. Apparently, the avalanche turns as it flows downhill. I try not to think about it. I listen to the “wooo-hoos” of skiers on the neighboring slope and admire the big Montana sky. If these are to be my last sights on this earth, I couldn’t have picked a nicer view.
Five, four, three, two . . . A tumble of choppy white emerges from beneath the bomb’s sooty smoke cloud: Avalanche! Having only seen the slow-motion, zoom-lens rendition of an avalanche, I’m shocked at how fast it is. I’m reminded of a documentary I saw about the Hoover Dam, which showed water raging back into the riverbed for the first time. By the time the slide passes me, it has spread and flattened itself out, becoming a rippling disturbance in the snow. It’s as though something had gotten under the mountain’s skin. There’s an eerie, almost hallucinogenic quality to the sight: Fallen snow, something I’ve always thought of as stationary and benign, suddenly come to life.
Back up at the shack, Adams sits in the rubble, holding a thermometer in the snow like a concerned mother. Brown is shaking his head. He had hoped a 15-inch layer would break loose from the snowpack and slide. It was considerably smaller. “The snow set up too much,” he says. “It was too warm.” He sounds like a chef assessing a failed soufflé. But Brown has high hopes for another big slide before the season ends. It’s late February now, so he figures he’s got one more shot at it. Or it’s got one more shot at him.