Buried Alive: Avalanche Expert on Suffering for Science

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?

Continued on Next Page >>




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