Whiter Than Snow

Sandra Dallas

St. Martin's Griffin

WHITER THAN SNOW (Chapter One)

No one knew what triggered the Swandyke avalanche that began at exactly 4:10 p.m. on April 20, 1920. It might have been the dynamite charge that was set off at the end of shift on the upper level of the Fourth of July Mine. The miners claimed the blast was too far inside the mountain to be felt on the surface, and besides, they had set off dynamite hundreds, maybe thousands, of times before, and nothing bad had happened. Except for that one time when a charge failed to go off and Howard Dolan hit it with his pick when he was mucking out the stope and blew himself and his partner to kingdom come.

Still, who knew how the old mountain took retribution for having its insides clawed out.

Certainly there was nothing to suggest that the day was different from any other. It started chill and clear. The men, their coat collars turned up against the dawn cold, left for their shifts at the Fourth of July or on the dredge up the Swan River, dinner pails clutched in their mittened hands. A little later, the children went off to school, the older brothers and sisters pulling little ones on sleds. Groups of boys threw snowballs at one another. One grabbed onto the back of a wagon and slid along over the icy road behind it. The Connor girl slipped on the ice and fell over a stone embankment, hitting her head. It hurt so much that she turned around and went home crying. The others called her a crybaby, but after what happened later that day, her parents said the blessed God had taken her hand.

After the children were gone, the women washed the breakfast dishes and started the beans for dinner. Then because the sun came out bright enough to burn your skin in the thin air, came out after one of the worst blizzards they had ever encountered, they got out the washtubs and scrubbed the overalls and shirts, the boys’ knickers and the girls’ dresses. When the wash was rinsed and wrung, they climbed onto the platforms that held the clotheslines far above the snow and hung up the clothes, where they would dry stiff as boards in the wind. Then because it was such a fine day, as fine a day as ever was, they called to one another to come and visit. There was a bit of coffee to reheat, and won’t you have a cup? Cookies, left over from the lunch pails, were set on plates on the oilcloth of the kitchen tables, and the women sat, feeling lazy and gossipy.

“You know, the Richards girl had her baby last week,” announced a woman in one of the kitchens, taking down the good china cups for coffee.

“Was her husband the father?” asked her neighbor.

“I didn’t have the nerve to ask.”

In another house, a woman confided, “The doctor says Albert has the cancer, but he won’t have his lungs cut on.”

“Then he’ll die,” her friend replied, muttering to herself, “at last.”

It was that kind of a day, one for confidences or lazy talk. The women blessed the bright sun after so many winter days of gloom. Nobody thought about an avalanche. What could cause trouble on a day the Lord had given them?

Maybe the cause was an animal—a deer or an elk or even a mountain sheep—making its way along the ridge of Jubilee Mountain. The weight of the beast would have been enough to loosen the snow. That happened often enough. Nobody saw an animal, but then, who was looking?

Or worthless Dave Buck might have set off the avalanche. He’d put on snowshoes and taken his gun and gone high up to hunt for a deer—a fawn, really, for Dave was too lazy to cut up the bigger carcass and haul it home. The company forbade hunting around the mine, but Dave didn’t care. He snowshoed up near timberline, where he’d seen the footprints of deer. He didn’t find any, and he stopped to drink from a pint he’d put into his pocket. One drink, and another, and he sat down beside a stunted pine and picked off the cones and slid them down the white slope. Then he tossed the bottle into that cornice of snow that dipped out over a ridge.

But perhaps it was nothing more than the spring melt. That storm a few days before had dumped five feet of snowfall on top of a dry, heavy base of winter-worn snow. The wind had driven the snow off ridges, leaving them barren, and piled it into large cornices high up. But now the day was cloudless, the sun shining down as harsh as if it had been midsummer. It was so bright that it hurt your eyes to see the glare on the white, and some of the miners rubbed charcoal under their eyes to cut the sharpness.

But who cared what the cause was? Something started the slide that roared down Jubilee Mountain in Swandyke, Colorado, and that was all that mattered.

There was a sharp crack like the sound of distant thunder, and then the cornice of snow where Dave Buck had thrown his bottle, a crusted strip two hundred feet long that flared out over the mountain ridge, fractured and fell. It landed on layers of snow that covered the mountain slope to a depth of more than six feet—a heavy, wet, melting mass of new snow on top, falling on frozen layers of snowpack that lay on a bed of crumbled ice. That bottommost layer, a mass of loose ice crystals formed by freezing and thawing, lubricated the acres of snow lying on top of it just as much as if the bed had been made of marbles, and sent the snow careening down the mountain.

The miners called such a phenomenon a “slab avalanche” because a curtain of snow slid down the slope, picking up speed at a terrible rate, until it reached one hundred miles an hour. Nothing stood in the way of the terrifying slide, because the mountainside was bare of trees. They had been torn out forty years earlier in the second wave of mining that came after the prospectors abandoned gold pans and sluice boxes. Men had trained giant hoses on the mountain, washing dirt down the slope to be processed for precious minerals. Hydraulic mining, as it was called, also rid the mountainside of rocks and trees and underbrush that would have interfered with an avalanche—not that anything could have held back the tons of white that slid down Jubilee Mountain that afternoon. The slide would have taken anything in its path.

This was not the first slide on Jubilee Mountain. The hillside, in fact, was known for avalanches. But it was the worst, and it spilled over into the forest at the edge of the open slope, tearing out small trees by their roots and hurling them into the rushing snow, which turned them into battering rams. A cabin that perched under the pines was wrenched from its foundation, its log walls torn asunder and broken into jackstraws.

The slide rushed onward, churning up chunks of ice the size of boxcars, gathering up abandoned hoses and machinery and the other detritus of mining that lay in its path. It hurtled on, thrashing its deadly cargo about, not slowing when it reached the bottom of the mountain, but instead rushing across the road, filling the gully with snow as heavy as wet cement and flattening the willows. The avalanche hurtled on until it started up Turnbull Mountain. Then, at last, its momentum came to an end and the slide was exhausted, the front stopping first, the back end slipping down the mountain and filling the gulch with snow higher than a two-story house.

Snow hovered in the air like a deadly mist. The debris caught up in the avalanche rolled a little and was still. A jack pine, graceful as a sled, glided to a stop in the snow covering the road. Clumps of snow fell from the trees still standing at the edge of the deadly white mass, making plopping sounds as they landed. Snowballs broke loose and rolled down the hill, leaving little trails in their wake.

For an instant, all was quiet, as silent as if the slide had occurred in a primeval forest. Then a high-pitched scream came from somewhere in the mass of snow, a child’s scream. The slide thundered down Jubilee Mountain just after the grade school let out, and it grabbed up nine of thirty-two schoolchildren in its icy grip. Five of the victims were related, the children of the Patch sisters—Dolly’s three, who were Jack, Carrie, and Lucia, along with Lucy’s two, Rosemary and Charlie. The slide was no respecter of class, because it took Schuyler Foote, son of the manager of the Fourth of July Mine, and little Jane Cobb, the Negro girl, whose father labored in the mill, and Sophie Schnable, the daughter of a prostitute. And then there was Emmett Carter, that near-orphan boy who lived with his grandfather. All of them were swept up and carried along in that immense swirl of white.

Four of the children survived.

WHITER THAN SNOW Copyright © 2010 by Sandra Dallas.