January 2008

It Could Be Worse: White Death

Author: Craig Hysell

The 1910 Avalanche at Wellington

One hates to presume anything. Presumptions, assumptions and the like usually lead to some kind of miscommunication, a breakdown in the conviviality of human behavior, if you will. But what is life if one doesn’t go out on a limb from time to time?

At this juncture let us presume that the majority of humanity knows being struck by an avalanche would be a bad break and assume being caught in one of the worst avalanche disasters in history would mean things probably couldn’t get much worse.

The 1910 Avalanche at Wellington
The blizzard had become impenetrable, an impossible spectacle of merciless nature. In the Cascade Mountains, it was now snowing at the rate of a foot an hour. Two trains, one a mail express and the other a passenger train, had been snowbound for six days, stranded on tracks 60 miles northeast of Seattle, Washington, near a town called Wellington.

All efforts to rescue passengers and crew had been met with failure. Snow plows were out of coal, and food was running low. There was nothing to do but sit precariously on the side of a mountain, waiting and hoping for the snow to cease. Some people even tried praying.

But that was just the beginning. In the early morning of March 1, the weather warmed and snow turned to rain. A vicious thunderstorm sent spastic, jagged claws of lightning in every direction. Heavy, snapping thunder cracked its way across the mountaintops, rattling the train carriages. Around 2 a.m., a rumble rose above the growls of thunder, roaring with all the fury and wrath of a stampede coming straight out of Hell. An ice shelf hundreds of feet above the stranded trains had given way.

“White Death (was) moving down the mountainside above the trains,” recalls one witness. “Relentlessly it advanced, exploding, roaring, rumbling, grinding, snapping—a crescendo of sound that might have been the crashing of 10,000 freight trains.” The avalanche was coming straight toward the exposed and weather-battered cars, now mere sitting ducks. There was nowhere to hide. There was nothing anybody could do.

Dry slab avalanches account for almost all avalanche accidents. A cohesive plate (slab) of snow or ice fractures off the mountainside and breaks apart as it slides. Slopes with angles between 30 and 45 degrees, without much timber or rock, represent the most danger. Snow which falls at an inch or more per hour increases the risk of an avalanche as does strong winds or prolonged melting of the snowpack.

Conditions could not have been better for an avalanche in the Cascades on March 1, 1910, if they had been scripted in Hollywood.

Avalanches can reach speeds of 80 mph in under five seconds, uprooting 80-foot trees and moving boulders like they were toys. Seventy-five percent of people caught in an avalanche die from asphyxiation; either they drown in snow or they survive the initial avalanche and slowly choke to death on their own carbon dioxide while waiting to be rescued. Twenty-five percent die from trauma. If a person is not found in the first 15 minutes of being swallowed by an avalanche, the chances for survival decrease dramatically.

The crushing impact of the Wellington avalanche sent the trains hurtling down the mountainside as if they were nothing more than cardboard cutouts. They came to rest 1000 feet away, at the bottom of the Tye River Valley, buried under forty feet of snow. Ninety-six people were killed; the last body wasn’t recovered until June.

Twenty-three people survived, the town changed its name to try and forget the tragedy, and the tracks were eventually shut down. (Insert spooky music or sounds of howling, barren wind here…)

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