Avalanche Crashes With Religion and Physics

Let me share with you the curious, entertaining and embarrassing circumstances surrounding an avalanche when religion got schooled in a simple law of physics: what goes down must come up. As you know, mixing science and religion is akin to mixing oil and water. They just don’t mix. But while they do not mix, often these repelling matters do interact. And please, don’t get me wrong. They can interact in good ways too. For most of history, however, the results of trying to mix science and religion resulted in painful outcomes (especially for the early scientists). However, this time religion found itself on the short end of the rope. Literally.

This story comes from nearly two hundred years ago when The Hagers-Town (Maryland) Torch Light And Public Advertiser reported the amusing story of religion meeting an avalanche. This interaction led to a simple lesson in physics. The story’s headline: Laughable Adventure, and the best way to tell this story is to share exactly the original text (and punctuation) as reported in 1829 (December 10, volume 14, page 1).

Not long since, a reverent clergyman in Vermont, being apprehensive that the accumulated weight of snow upon the roof of the barn might do some damage, resolved to prevent it by seasonably shoveling it off. He therefore ascended it, having first, for fear the snow might all slide off at once, and himself with it, fastened to his waist one end of a rope and giving the other to his wife, he went to work; but fearing still for his safety, “my dear,” said he, “tie the rope around your waist;” no sooner had she done this, than off went the snow, poor minister and all; up went his wife. Thus, on one side of the barn, the astonished and confounded clergyman hung, but on the other side hung his wife, high and dry, in majesty. Sublime, dingling and dangling at the end of the rope. At that moment, however a gentleman luckily passing by, delivered them from their perilous situation.

Lessons Learned From The 19th Century
When it comes to avalanches this amusing story offers three important lessons-learned that still apply three centuries later. Like many backcountry travelers the good clergyman recognized the danger, so he sought to mitigate his risk. Just like today’s riders, snowmobilers, and snow workers, he took precautionary actions. He had a partner (his faithful wife) and used safety equipment (a rope). I am sure that like some of today’s snow warriors, he also prayed for a little Devine intervention to keep him out of harm’s way.

The first lesson learned is that “safety” equipment, proper protocols, and hope in Devine intervention do not prevent accidents. In essence, gear and precautions do not necessarily keep people out of trouble. Some might argue that gear and precautions may lead people to take more risk. Like many avalanche victims today, this hard-working Vermont preacher thought they were being careful. He and his loyal bride were very lucky that a good Samaritan happened to find them hanging out.

Second, just like their mountainside cousins, roof avalanches are dangerous and sometimes deadly. Roof avalanches should not be considered trivial. Their impacts — pun intended — are just as serious as their bigger cousins. In recent years roof avalanches have claimed a number of victims. Last winter in Colorado two men lost their lives while visiting their mountain cabin when the roof’s snow cut loose.

The third lesson is a simple and sobering reminder that bad things can happen to good people. Avalanches don’t care about your friends, your goals, your schedule, your skills and knowledge, or how well equipped you are, or even that you are familiar with the area. Avalanches happen for specific reasons, in specific places at specific times. To reduce your risk when playing and working in the mountains take the time to get educated about snow and avalanches, and travel with avalanche-experienced people. Learning about avalanches is a journey, not a destination.

If you’re headed out the door, here’s some advice: click here.

Thanks for reading,
Dale Atkins
RECCO AB

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