How Much is a Life Worth? At Alta, the famous avalanche research beginning in the 1940s grew out of privilege, entitlement, and the monetizing of life.
At 2:30 in the afternoon, H.C. Wallace, Leo Moore, and L.H. Lawrence stumbled into Wasatch, Utah. Likely on skis, they had left the town of Alta five hours previous, slowly trudging through freezing temperatures and knee-deep snow. Over a foot had fallen over the previous two days. With a deep slab, newspapers reported avalanches running uninitiated throughout the range and discouraged travel. Yet in 1885, Wallace, Moore, and Lawrence willingly and knowingly crossed under 17 avalanche paths, risking the crushing force of thousands of feet of snow crashing down the mountain and burying them in the narrow valley.
The three men most likely knew each crook and cranny of the long trip. Settlers in the mountains, these men lived within what skier, journalist, and historian Clare Menzel describes as the “cyclical rhythms of winter.” With all their knowledge and experience, snow drove them to risk the journey. Yet unlike the current residents who frequently navigate Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah, they were not recreating. They traveled with morbid news, in a desperate search for help.
On the night of February 13, 1885, the whole mountain ran. The papers reported that a mile-long avalanche raced down the mountain above the town of Alta, upturning trees and boulders, producing hurricane-force winds, and burying three-fifths of the diminutive mining town the three men would travel from. In the dead of night, the townspeople struggled to assess the damage. But as the sun rose over the canyon, death and destruction slowly emerged from the darkness.
Upon arriving in Wasatch, the men immediately rushed to the Sheriff and telegraph operator, calling for help. Soon both Wasatch and Salt Lake City would send men, mules, and sleds to help dig out the many people buried in snow. Meanwhile, those remaining in Alta were hard at work digging through the snow in search of survivors. The Desert News reported the following day that amazingly “nine people were dug out last night, being thus rescued from a living tomb.” Several more were saved in the hours that followed. But, in the end, the snow took fifteen lives. Searching for friends, family, and enemies, residents mostly found cadavers.
Describing the Alta simply as the West disguises the canyon’s most defining characteristic. More than anything else, people called the region avalanche country. Avalanches were the simple reality of mountain life in the nineteenth century. With the discovery of silver, settlers swarmed the Wasatch Range in the 1870s and 1880s. Claiming Nuche (Ute) territory as their own, they plunged themselves deep under the skin of the mountains, boring holes in the mountain with the violent persistence of pine beetles decimating trees throughout the region today. As the fossil economy exploded, transportation quickened – and with rapidly-moving global networks, a booming middle class craved precious metals found under mountains and snow. Avalanches took miners’ lives year after year. Meanwhile, mining companies, federal courts, and consumers stood by, choosing profits and comfort over people.
Miners have long since left Alta. In the 1890s, the silver bubble burst. But Alta never quite disappeared. Four decades later, a collection of Alta residents, Forest Service agents, and Salt Lake City businessmen transformed the near-ghost town into North America’s ski Mecca. The same snow rhythms that destroyed Alta a half-decade before threatened the skiers. Out of Alta’s grisly past, American skiing bloomed. Unfortunately – and sadly, unsurprisingly – the federal government valued protecting skiers from violent death, more than they had valued miners, railroad workers, and mailmen.
In 1937, regional Recreation Officer Felix “Kozy” Koziol made an irresponsible decision. He placed a ski area under a plethora of avalanche paths. In the process, avalanche research emerged to protect people who chose to put their lives at risk, not to protect people who needed to if they wanted to feed themselves and their families.
Koziol, the most ardent supporter of Alta’s creation, was born in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1900. There he likely learned to ski. At the same time, it is unlikely skiing brought him further west. The ski bum lifestyle only came about in middle age. Regardless, by 1924 he was in Montana working on a degree in forestry at the University of Montana in Missoula.
The city occupied the perfect location for an aspiring alpinist. The name, meaning “place of frozen water,” was a bastardization of Nmesuletkw, the Salish name for the Clark Fork River. Nmesuletkw described the river and the region well. It was still relatively small in the early 1900s. But with an elevation of more than 3,000 feet, surrounded by high peaks on all sides, Missoula later became a recreational hub for skiing, hiking, hunting, climbing, and kayaking. With the Rocky Mountains in his backyard, Koziol, for the first time, was surrounded by public lands and tall peaks. By the time he reached Salt Lake City in the 1930s, he was by all accounts a phenomenal skier. He craved mountains and snow with an obsessive passion that drove him to help build a western ski industry.
In the 1930s, the ski industry was still nebulous, but Koziol and his superiors were obsessed with winter recreation. He envisaged a future where skiing transformed from roaming mountainsides into an activity bound and confined to comparatively small, roped-off, and protected spaces. Once in Salt Lake City, Koziol brought his energy, enthusiasm, and prescience to the Wasatch Range. There, he fell in with some of the best skiers of the era – most importantly the Engen brothers, Alf and Sverre. Hired by Koziol, these men became key participants in the creation of Alta.
Born in Norway, Alf Engen came to the United States at a young age. After getting to work, he managed to save up his money, bringing over Sverre, his mother, and his other siblings. (His father had died when they were still young.) While working in the Midwest, Alf began participating in ski jumping competitions. “Born on skis,” people watched, astounded by his skill. He soon joined the U.S. National Team and Sun Valley later recruited him to teach skiing. Within a few years, he migrated to Salt Lake City. As told by Alf’s son Alan Engen, the USFS “knew that if they wanted to enhance the recreational avenue for the population, and they were encouraging people to go to the mountains to ski, they had to have places for them to ski.” Thus, they needed someone to find and plan the resort. Koziol immediately called upon Alf.
The first avalanche researchers worked to diminish the class aspects of their work. For example, in the first Avalanche Handbook, published in 1953, Koziol and Atwater wrote, “the fundamental reason for [avalanche research] was the same as in Switzerland – necessity.” However, “necessity,” the word that dangled all alone at the end of the sentence vibrated with irony. The statement was overwrought. No one forced avalanche mitigation upon Koziol or the Forest Service. As the authors admitted, “the Forest Service planners who recommended Alta, F.C. Koziol and Alf Engen, were fully aware of its avalanche hazard problem.” Thus, Koziol chose to mitigate avalanches, not choose a safe location.
Koziol and Atwater were not unaware of the hypocrisy of the word “necessity.” They acknowledged that it “may seem inappropriate” that resort skiing drove avalanche studies. But they defended themselves by writing that “there was no simple explanation. Lacking any means of combatting it, the miners endured avalanches as one more hazard in a hazardous occupation.” Of course, the explanation was simple. Research could have started earlier, the town could have been better placed, and mines could have closed during high avalanche danger.
While miners never developed technological mitigation techniques, what they really lacked was economic might and the political power to force mine owners to value their lives like they valued balance sheets. The owners of the Alta mines chose not to study or mitigate avalanches to protect workers. After all, town boosters and mining companies did not bring miners west so they could become active and permanent members of communities like Salt Lake City. The miners, instead, were cheap and disposable labor.
People understand that modern skiing economically excludes most Americans. Yet histories of skiing’s origins still highlight former soldiers and charismatic ranchers, weaving yarns about men creating something out of nothing. The history of avalanche research suggests the opposite. Federal employees and investors built skiing out of the privileged safety demanded by wealthy winter recreationists and guaranteed by federal land managers. The government chose wealth over poverty and play over work. Simply pointing to American progress and improved technologies (as Koziol wrote) cannot account for these changes. As a result, mining towns turned into ski towns and never broke from the past. Instead, they continued a classist relationship between labor, economy, and safety.