Monday, February 20, 2006

Avalanche!


"If the top of the mountain hadn't still been shrouded, witnesses might have seen a thin crack arc across the slope, announcing itself with a boom that was likely lost in the ratcheting wind. At first the crack would have looked like a tear in the clouds, a rent easily stitched up with white thread and forgotten. But, in a blink, it would have wrapped more than a half mile around the bowl and, as if yawning, widened as a plate of snow more than six feet thick lost its grip on the mountainside. More ruptures would have shot along the sides, through the middle, and along the bottom edge of the plate until, for one suspended moment, it resembled a child's jigsaw puzzle. And then there would have been too much motion for the eye to track, the pieces buckling and breaking into smaller and smaller shards, the whole slope a shattering windowpane. Falling and tumbling, shoving forward a tongue of displaced air, gathering speed, the avalanche would have vaccumed up the massive quantities of loose snow that lay in its path, building a thundering cloud of its own that ballooned higher and higher into the sky, becoming the only view. This boiling cloud would have looked soft and cottony, its advancing edge dancing and surging like an ocean wave, but it was a barrage of stinging icy particles, a vortex of loud punishing wind. Behind the cloud, bumping along the craggy ground, was an unstoppable torrent of millions of pounds of snow.

The term avalanche stems from the French verb avaler, which means "to swallow" but originally meant "to descend." WIthin four seconds, the 5.5 Mile avalanche was dropping at freeway speeds, still accelerating as it pounded down even steeper slopes and flew over the edges of cliffs. The avalanche had already plunged almost the height of the Empire State Building when it reached the narrow squeezing gut in its hourglass-shaped run. There it erupted, the cloud shinnying up the gully walls and shooting more than four hundred feet into the air. Acres of trees two or three feet in diameter that had stood for nearly a century snapped like raw spaghetti and shredded into strands almost as thin. A behemoth spruce, six feet thick and four hundred years old, sacrificed limbs. Inside the turbulent, deafening snow cloud now were hurling branches and sheared tree trunks, errant missles seeking targets.

Jerry didn't see the avalanche until it was about twenty seconds and almost two thousand vertical feet into its life, on the last steep drop above the Copper River Highway. It didn't fall so much as pounce upon the road, obliterating nearly a thousand linear feet of pavement under piles of snow as deep as thirty feet. Its forward edge now smoking 90 to 120 miles per hour, the avalanche tore through the subdivision as though the houses were made of paper, dissipating the last of its energy only when it was more than a quarter mile out onto the ice of Eyak Lake. From start to finish, the avalanche had taken less than thirty seconds."

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