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Historic Avalanches, by M. Martinelli Jr. and C.F. Leaf

Review by Allen Best

Snowslides – August 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

Historic Avalanches in the Northern Front Range and the Central and Northern Mountains of Colorado
By M. Martinelli Jr. and Charles F. Leaf
Published in 1999 by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service
Technical Report RMRS-GTR-38
Free, 270 pages

THIS IS ESOTERIC and perhaps morbid stuff. I could never imagine spending an evening poring over how several hundred people died in car accidents, yet I am, without apology, fascinated to read about how hundreds of people, mostly miners, were smothered in snow and battered by logs and rocks, or perhaps even survived.

If you’ve ever skied on a slope and felt the snow whoompf underneath, or studied a slope above you nervously, then you might be fascinated too.

For this book, which was published under the auspices of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, M. Martinelli Jr. and Charles F. Leaf compiled most of the stories they could get their hands on about avalanches from Boulder to Gunnison; it’s the first of two planned books about avalanches in Colorado.

Their primary sources were contemporary newspaper accounts in northern and central Colorado from 1862 until the early 1950s. Their stories can be read on three levels.

FIRST, THERE ARE THE AVALANCHES themselves. For those of us who have waded into the snow among the peaks of winter and spring, the snow can be like a wild animal. We can know how it behaves, but without absolute certainty. That explains why I am curious about the stories of when the snow turned upon people in these same areas. The authors note that just a few winters, primarily in the 1880s, accounted for a full quarter of the avalanche deaths in the first 88 years of record keeping. Those were heavy snow winters in the locality of the avalanche — although not necessarily in all of Colorado.

Second, the newspaper accounts tell us about the times. For example, a century ago trains were how everyone got around if they had very far to go. Hence, hundreds of snow shovelers were employed during big storms to keep the trains running. Cultural morĂ©s were different, too. One account from Aspen tells about two water workers, one claimed by an avalanche (and named). His assistant was never identified as more than “a colored man.”

But the newspapers then also had a colorful eloquence that, as Martinelli and Leaf note in their introduction, seems largely absent from “syndicated news reporting so common today.” I think they’re right. Can you beat this lead from the Gunnison Daily Review Press in 1883 about a snowslide that had killed eight miners near Irwin just after the funerals of two others claimed by avalanches: “Still the sad news crowds itself upon us.”

The authors suggest that this volume, beyond morbid inspection of yesterday’s disasters, could forestall some future grief. “People will often rebuild or remain in dangerous areas unless restraints are imposed and enforced.” A case in point is the Twin Lakes avalanche in 1962 that killed six people. It had been recorded several times before, and in fact had claimed three previous victims.

But then, there are probably snowslide paths that we don’t even know about.

After all, we’ve only occupied this territory 140 years.

Best thing about this volume for those of us who count ourselves as cheapskates is that it can be obtained free. Call 970-498-1719, fax 970-498-1660, or e-mail to rschneider/rmrs! You can also write to: Publications Distribution, Rocky Mountain Research Station, 3825 E. Mulberry St., Fort Collins CO 80425-8597.

I e-mailed one day, and the next morning a copy showed up on my front porch. I wish all book publishers operated like that.