The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”
The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought—fresh, soft snow—instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.
Snow shattered and spilled down the slope. Within seconds, the Tunnel Creek avalanche in February was the size of more than a thousand cars barreling down the mountain and weighed millions of pounds. Moving about 70 miles per hour, it crashed through the sturdy old-growth trees, snapping their limbs and shredding bark from their trunks.
The avalanche slid past some trees and rocks, like ocean swells around a ship’s prow. Others it captured and added to its violent load.
Somewhere inside, it also carried people. How many, no one knew.
The slope of the terrain, shaped like a funnel, squeezed the growing swell of churning snow into a steep, twisting gorge. It moved in surges, like a roller coaster on a series of drops and high-banked turns. It accelerated as the slope steepened and the weight of the slide pushed from behind. It slithered through shallower pitches. The energy raised the temperature of the snow a couple of degrees, and the friction carved striations high in the icy sides of the canyon walls.
Elyse Saugstad wore a backpack equipped with an air bag...