Buried Alive: Avalanche Expert on Suffering for Science

Sandra Keats
National Geographic Adventure
December 4, 2002
Avalanches claimed 35 lives in the United States last winter, the most
avalanche deaths recorded in this country since 1951. The spike can be
attributed, in part, to growing numbers of snowmobilers, skiers, and
climbers now venturing into the backcountry in pursuit of fresh powder
and steep terrain—which makes snow scientist Ed Adams's job of
predicting avalanche behavior more crucial than ever.

The 52-year-old avalanche researcher and associate professor in the department of civil engineering at Montana State University believes that the best way to fully understand the power of avalanches is to be buried alive in them. (Read an excerpt of "Buried Alive and Loving It" in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine.)

Adams practices his theory with the help of his graduate students and fellow faculty near the Bridger Bowl Ski Area near Bozeman, Montana. After heavy snowfalls, the researchers hike out to an 8-foot by 10-foot (2.4-meter by 3-meter) plywood shed that lies directly in the path of an avalanche they "create". Explosives are rigged to set off the snow drift and warning shouts—"Fire in the hole!"—are given over the walkie-talkies. In just ninety seconds, the avalanche consumes the hut in a snowy tidal wave. When all is calm again, the research team has compiled velocity, depth, and energy data.

National Geographic Adventure magazine recently spoke with Adams to learn more about his unorthodox research approach and the risks that avalanches pose to backcountry travelers.

How much of a threat are avalanches in the U.S. backcountry?

I think they're pretty significant for skiers, snowboarders, and climbers in the mountainous regions in the winter. The risk is quite severe when you're traveling into deep terrain that's got sufficient snow cover—you probably don't need much more than half a meter [1.6 feet] or so—and the slopes range from about 25 to 60 degrees. Snow doesn't tend to stay long on anything steeper than that. But anytime you're in that range and there's been snowfall, the hazard is certainly present.

Who is most at risk?

Currently, the people who seem to be getting into the most trouble are snowmobilers, largely because their machines have gotten so good that they can get much further into the backcountry and climb up very steep slopes. They can get back into places fast and don't have the luxury of time that a skier does to contemplate where they're going. After snowmobilers, I would say skiers and snowboarders, and then climbers. Generally, the slopes that you're skiing on are just about the perfect pitch for avalanches. If you want to ski something, you want it to be about 35 degrees. And you want it to have a lot of nice fresh snow, which are two of the main ingredients for having the snow come down the mountain.

How long have you been involved in avalanche research?

I've been playing with it for about 20 years now. I came out of college with an English degree and then I moved out to Utah. I started doing some backcountry skiing in the early 70s, and then I decided to go back to school and get a geophysics and a couple of engineering degrees. I wanted to spend my time in the mountains. I wanted to be able to use what brainpower I had to play with it. I got overly involved I guess!

Where do think your passion for avalanches comes from?

There's no doubt that it began when I took a year off from college to go skiing in Utah. We had a very large avalanche cycle that year. Several of the lodges were clipped. Windows were knocked out. Rooms filled with snow. Cars were tossed across the parking lot. I saw their power and wanted to understand them better. First for survival and then for intrigue. [It] took me to a deeper scientific involvement than I would have anticipated. Just seeing a big avalanche roll down, the awesome power of it [is so interesting to me]. It's so delicate, yet so strong.

What has been your most frightening experience with an avalanche?

Once when I was skiing with a partner, I hiked a ways out across a slope to see if it was something we would want to ski. I thought I heard a plane above. But when I looked up, there was none. I looked down, and saw that I was standing in the middle of a fairly large avalanche slope. Around my skis the whole surface had fractured. And I was sitting in a jigsaw of snow out in the middle of this thing. I just stopped right there and told my partner to keep his eye on me. I put my hood up, cinched everything tight and hiked off. So that was a little bit harrowing. Mostly, I've been pretty fortunate.

How do you "study" avalanches?

The real thrust of my research is looking at the structure of the snow itself and trying to understand when it might snow, when it might avalanche, and how the snow metamorphoses. I look at the microstructure of the snow. How it bonds together. How it bonds to various layers. And…how that might influence whether we're prone for avalanche conditions or not. We all want to get out and ski those 35-degree slopes. So how do we assess whether it's a reasonable day to do that or not? That's what I've been trying to study.

What would you ultimately like to do with your research?

My long-term goal would be to take large-scale climate data and the topography of mountainous areas and then model the metamorphism that's going on and forecast the probable mircostructural conditions of the snow—in essence, the strength of the snow. Then, put it all together in a large-scale model that's accurate and actually useful for forecasters and highway folks. I think we're moving in that direction.

I would also like to see the U.S. get more involved in funding of avalanche research. I think avalanches are going to become more of a problem. Especially as more and more people move into mountainous regions and put houses in fairly exposed areas. I think it becomes more important to see how avalanches work on a very basic level and how we might mitigate them.

What safety precautions would you suggest for people active in the backcountry?

The first thing to do is to get some basic background on the subject either through reading or an avalanche safety class. Nobody, in my opinion, should be going out in the backcountry if it is an avalanche hazard without [the absolute minimum required avalanche gear]: an avalanche beacon [transceiver], a shovel, and a probe [a collapsible pole used to pinpoint the exact location of someone or something buried under the snow]. Without this equipment, the probability of getting found is actually quite slim. Unless you happen to have a glove or something else sticking out of the surface. But you have to practice with the equipment. You can't just buy it. It could cost you your life if you screw it up.

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