Skiers who are heedless of avalanche warnings are in for a big snow job

October 09, 1966

The avalanche that struck the village of Dalaas, Austria in 1954 was a small one. It merely demolished several buildings, plucked a 120-ton locomotive from the tracks and slammed it against the station and tossed one passenger car down a slope. As avalanches go it was small, according to scientists who study the phenomenon of snow, since it did not exceed 484 pounds of destructive power per square foot. By comparison, an impact pressure of no less than 22,000 pounds per square foot was recorded near Zuoz, Switzerland in 1961. These are some of the matters that concern Colin Fraser in The Avalanche Enigma (Rand McNally, $6.95), but there is something that concerns him more. "Today it is a rare year," he writes, "in which 20-30 skiers are not claimed by avalanches in the Alps, and to protect skiers from avalanches becomes ever more difficult." Avalanches are not the occlusive property of the Alps, of course, for they occur in any mountainous area of the world. As early as 1937 the first snow ranger was appointed in Alta, Utah to protect skiers, but as the sport continues to grow in popularity so docs the danger become more acute. "An examination of the facts, however, shows that almost all the skiers who die in avalanches today do so as a direct result of flagrant disregard for warnings from the local avalanche safety organization."

In the Alps, which are more heavily populated than most mountainous areas, measures have been taken to protect villages and winter travel has been made relatively safe, but "the building of ski-lifts and cable-cars has taken hordes of people right into the lair of the enemy." The enemy is an old one, first described by a Greek named Strabo between 64 and 36 B.C. Napoleon, when crossing the Great Saint Bernard Pass with his army on his way to the Battle of Marengo, ordered that "no one is to cry or call out for fear of causing a fall of avalanches." It was probably a useless command, for there is little evidence to support the rather widespread belief that the human voice is capable of releasing an avalanche. Precisely how much stress is necessary to dislodge tons of snow clinging to a slope is part of the enigma giving the title to Mr. Fraser's book, and a fair amount of the text explains what is being done by the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. But Fraser always gets back to the skiers, who are unaware of the menace as they "tour joyfully among the peaks." To be the victim of an avalance is, he says, quoting the author of Battle Over the Glaciers, "a pitiful way to die, a comfortless suffocation in an evil element, an ignominious extinction."

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