"In the Bloom of Youth"

"In the Bloom of Youth"

The crystalline beauty of snow and ice often completely masks a most dangerous and dramatic force of nature. In the European Alps alone more than 10,000 avalanches occur per year. The death toll during this century numbers well into the thousands.

The sight of mountain climbers in the Swiss Alps, with guides who appear so expert in their craft and surefooted in the snow, is impressive. But even the advantage of much experience and knowledge of the ways of snow and ice is no guard against sudden unexpected disaster. It is almost as if nature is luring these adventurers into a catastrophe from which there is no escape.

A rather famous avalanche story with a grisly ending occurred on August 20, 1820. On that occasion a nine—man team was attempting to climb Mont Blanc. The expedition was going along without mishap when suddenly, with no warning, the icy snow above cracked and came down on them. An enormous avalanche swept three of the guides into a glacial crevasse, where they perished, eventually to be assimilated by the glacier. By some miracle the remaining members of the group were left unharmed and returned to report the deaths to the authorities.

Because they knew the location of the bodies and could calculate the rate of glacial movement, they predicted that the bodies encased in the ice would reappear forty years later at the foot of the valley of Chamonix some five miles away. Their calculations proved to be surprisingly accurate, for the bodies of the three guides did appear, completely encased in ice, but forty—one years later. According to reports of witnesses, "They were still looking in the bloom of youth."

Although a climber has no recourse against an avalanche, such events do not always end in complete tragedy. In one case it appears that the hand of Providence tried to intercept the angel of death.

It happened in 1952, when a group of Swiss mountaineers were horrified to look up and see an enormous avalanche plunging straight toward them. No escape seemed possible, and they expected to be crushed and buried, when suddenly a large crevasse opened up between them and impending death. The mass of snow and ice crashed in its entirety into the opening, leaving the men terrified but completely unharmed. The sudden opening was a collapsed snow bridge over a large glacial crevasse. Ironically they had walked over the bridge just moments before, completely unaware of the thing covering between them and yawning death below. The men were so emotionally distraught by the experience that one of them never really recovered and eventually shot himself.

A cruel fact about avalanches is that they occasionally repeat long after the apparent danger has passed. After survivors of a snowslide were rescued in Blon, Austria, in 1954, a second slide occurred with—out warning and reburied the twenty—five survivors along with their rescuers. A seventy—year—old woman was recovered alive after a fifty—hour reburial in the same snowslide.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth