Geographic, March/April 94, reprinted in Doctor's Review, and
In mountainous Western Canada, avalanches are a fact of winter life,
and among nature's most impressive phenomena. They may start with
a "whoomph" as a weak layer in the snowpack fractures and shock waves
shoot out across the slope. As if sliced by a knife, a crack opens
across the top of the slope and a huge slab of snow is released. It
slides down the hill, slowly at first, but soon picks up speed. The
slab breaks into large blocks that begin tumbling and colliding, breaking
up into smaller and smaller chunks as the slide accumulates, kicking
up a cloud of swirling snow.
The slide accumulates more snow as it tumbles. Soon thousands of tonnes
of rolling snow are thundering down the mountains at speeds up to
320 kilometers per hour. The sounds of avalanches have been described
as hissing, as rumbling surf, and as the roar of a freight train.
The slide can hit with an impact of 30 tonnes per square metre, shoving
aside road graders or bridges and uprooting entire stands of trees.
As the snow spills out onto the flat valley bottom, it finally comes
to rest. The air is eerly still. Spectators remember to breathe again.
Skier Jennifer Eastwood remembers her strong gut feeling moments beforethe
avalanche hit. She was on a high slope in the Battle Range, just south
of Glacier National Park in British Columbia -- a dream come true
for anyone who loves skiing deep powder. Suddenly, she became uneasy.
"I didn't like the feel of the snow -- it seemed unstable, so I decided
that I wasn't going to ski that day." It was March 6, 1993, the first
day of her ski-touring holiday. The avalanche started 30 metres above
her. She tried to get out of the way but was carried about 10 metres
and buried under at least a metre of snow.
"My panic was very short; I was more angry with myself," she says."I
knew I had to be really cool and calm to conserve oxygen. Fortunately
one hand ended up by my face so I was able to make a little air pocket."
Eastwood was buried for about 18 minutes. "It was very peaceful and
very quiet. I came to terms with the fact that this might be it for
me." When rescuers found her, she was unconscious and blue but she
quickly recovered, and walked away uninjured.
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