‘Encounters in Avalanche Country’: settlers in harm’s way
University of Alaska professor Diana L. Di Stefano’s book “Encounters in Avalanche Country” is a thorough account of how the push to settle the West between 1820 and 1920 often clashed with the safety of miners and settlers, as they pushed ever further into avalanche-prone regions.
Special to The Seattle Times
Diana L. Di Stefano
The author of “Encounters in Avalanche Country” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E. in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
Anyone who lives in the mountains, travels or enjoys winter sports among them knows that steep terrain combined with heavy snowfall can cause avalanches. Indeed, fatalities occur every year. But although the ability to predict where and when such slides will be triggered has improved, it remains an inexact science. And as assistant professor of history at the University of Alaska — Fairbanks, Diana L. Di Stefano, demonstrates in an academic thesis now published in book form, settlement and expansion for business in the century from 1820 to 1920 faced many challenges in the American West, where fierce weather and high peaks defined the territory.
In “Encounters in Avalanche Country — A History of Survival in the Mountain West, 1820-1920” (University of Washington Press, 171 pp., $34.95), Di Stefano notes that in the early 1820s, trappers and traders began working their way west in search of furs. Too, prospectors soon arrived, hunting precious metals. Helping each other to cope with their environment, these explorers gradually learned to craft various methods to deal with snow blindness and frostbite, to melt snow and ice for water, to rely on skis and snowshoes — even some draft horses’ hoofs were fitted with flat paddles to prevent the animals from sinking — and to appreciate that tents and teepees often fared better than log cabins.
But as the beaver trade dwindled in the 1830s, trappers turned to guiding pioneers, teaching survival strategies, local routes and long-distance trails to the coast. Some became ranchers and farmers, too, settling near trading posts, which grew into towns. Missionaries followed as did women bringing families.
The Gold Rush, of course, prompted thousands to race to California, Colorado, Nevada, Alaska — anywhere prospecting might prove profitable. Then companies set up shop to begin mining operations, moving ever higher into the mountains. Communication lines, supply routes and railways to support these communities grew.
Di Stefano describes how the drive to strike it rich brought people into harm’s way. For instance, she cites Alta, Utah, where precipitous canyons frequently failed to hold deep snow. Settlers had adapted in some ways, designing buildings with steep roofs, tunnels to doorways and tall chimneys, but they cut or burned so many trees that the now-bare hills above towns and train tracks provided no barrier to slides.
“As the death toll rose,” Di Stefano writes, “so did the profits.” Yet since people remained willing to risk their lives for substantial if uncertain reward, they developed a reliance on one another, a western code based on strong bonds needed in times of difficulty and disaster. Di Stefano’s common-sense thesis is well if repetitiously explained, with effective examples showing how companies that sacrificed safety eventually faced their own “corporate negligence.”
Too, Westerners “came to know nature better” in avalanche country, “where lack of preparedness and skills could lead to tragedy.” The ethic of cooperation that developed among them “contributed to the social makeup of these communities.” Her book retains the endnotes, bibliography and index required for an advanced degree, but the text itself is interesting and details the historical context clearly. Di Stefano also includes 20 excellent photographs that illustrate these exquisite but treacherous surroundings.