The White Death
December 11, 2008
Avalanches claim the life of at least one skier every year. Usually the victim was skiing out of bounds, often without the skills or knowledge necessary to avoid death. For Aspens early miners, avalanche fatalities were just as common. Examining the cause of death listings of Aspens cemetery records reveals that deaths from snow burial were almost as common as fatalities from underground mine accidents. Miners were aware of the potential hazards of sliding snow because they traveled though avalanche prone areas on their way in and out of Aspen and on their way to work. Before roads were built they picked their own routes and were more conscious of the danger than we are. They even used a more realistic term for avalanches and snowslides: The White Death.The gulches carved into Aspens mountains by water reveal their interior geology and expose mineral zones. These gulches provided a shortcut for miners tunnels and shaft entrances. Unfortunately, those same gulches, especially the steeply sloped ones, harbor the highest avalanche potential. Cabins, mine buildings and the men who worked around them were all vulnerable.In 1884, a snowslide down Spar Gulch on Aspen Mountain buried the entrance to the Vallejo shaft and the boarding house at its side. Four men had been sleeping in the boarding house and 13 were working in the mine. When word of the disaster reached town, volunteer rescuers immediately turned out. Nearly 300 citizens, about 10 percent of the population, climbed the mountain to search for survivors. With shovels and probes they dug through deep snow only to find the crushed shaft house containing four frozen fatalities. Soon afterward, they uncovered the entrance to the shaft and freed the anxious miners who had been trapped by the snowslide.In the early days, narrow trails provided the most direct route to the mines. That meant miners ascended the mountains in the bottoms of gulches. They were susceptible to being smothered in snow each time they traveled to and from work.Teamsters were always on avalanche alert as they hauled material to mines along the east side of Castle Creek. New York, Keno and Queens gulches were the most dangerous; they are steep, with significant snow depths that can slide unimpeded from top to bottom.The mines of Queens Gulch, like the Midnight, have a history of avalanche encounters. In the 19th century, the Queens Gulch road followed the stream that flowed down that gulch. Slides frequently blocked travel and occasionally claimed lives, so eventually the road was moved higher up to one side of the gulch, but it remained in the path of avalanches. The Midnight camp, boarding house and mill were located at the bottom of a frequent slide. Smaller slides took out power lines and often blocked the road. Several large slides reached the mill, the largest in 1936. Even now, the slope between the edge of the Buckhorn ski run and the Midnight slides more years than not. Miners coincidence with sliding snow was infrequent. Most fatalities were similar to those of todays skiers, individuals who were aware of the potential but tempted fate. Some miners were lucky enough to outwit death; others were discovered in remote areas, months after their burial.The next time you think about skiing out of bounds down Queens Gulch, keep your ears open for echoes of that ancient thundering disastrous force: The White Death.
Tim Willoughbys family story parallels Aspens. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Yore Aspen is a regular feature of the Aspen Times Weekly.