Conquering the avalanche

The image above is of the Bailets Hotel after the avalanche in 1910. It’s attributed to Asahel Curtis, a well–known photographer of the North Cascades. Haunted house stories usually take place on black nights in homes set on dark landscapes. I liked the idea of one rising out of the white snow.

Here’s the backstory for the tale I just posted, Dead of Winter.

There really is a road stop on Highway 2 near Steven Pass for the well-hidden Deception Falls. A short trail takes you to a spot below the highway. Deep in the shadow of concrete, damp with mist and soft with moss, it’s a Cascades gem.

Like so many places in our road-crossed world, you could drive by the bypassed beauty and never know it was there. Just as you’d never know Wellington was there just from out your car window.

You would notice the alpine peaks above you. Even in this age of global warming and snow control, it’s not unusual for avalanches to close sections of Highway 2.  You control avalanches as well as you can; you can’t stop them.

Signs at the road stop tell of the disaster of 1910, the avalanche that killed 99 people on a train in the mountains just above the south side of the highway. The Wellington/Tye town site sits in a broad, open slope on the edge of alpine, above what is now the well-developed Iron Goat rail trail.

You can find the real history of it here, along with a collection of photos. To me, those were the days when men thought they could conquer nature. Getting trains across Stevens Pass in 1890 was a laborious task, with a rail line of multiple switchbacks and, before the turn of the that century, the near 3-mile-long Cascade tunnel. Electric engines were used to haul trains through the tunnel, given the risks of coal smoke from the regular engines.

Snow meant delays in the winter. Wellington was often cut off and trains stranded for days. It seems to me it should have been obvious that disaster would happen eventually. But someone tried to show the mountains who was boss.

In fact, the line and the town remained in use a few years after the disaster, until a fire in 1915 destroyed most of it. Eventually a different path that included an 8-mile tunnel bypassed the rail line completely.

There’s a small book about the disaster out there — I haven’t read it, not wanting to steal anything unintentionally — and talk of a film. Perhaps they’ll offer some clues to help understand the hubris that said trains could outrun the avalanches forever. I don’t get it.

It rarely snows like that even on the pass anymore. But avalanches still claim lives. Three died in 2012 nearby at a place called Tunnel Creek.

I’ve done a lot of outdoor stuff, nothing spectacular, but you learn a few lessons. One is that you can’t fight nature and win. You can’t conquer an avalanche. You can only survive and hope that, when one eventually wins, it will leave something recognizable of you behind.

Which is what the story is about. The avalanche of 1910 took 96 lives. Had I been one of them, I’d hope part of me was left up there in the cold smoke.




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