The Purple Mountains’ Fading Majesty

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To most dwellers in the high country, these new winter sportsmen were incomprehensible. We who lived there were afraid of snow. The toll of disasters over two thirds of a century had been appalling. In 1874 an avalanche at Alta, Utah, killed more than sixty residents; the exact number was never determined. Between 1875 and 1910, when the last of the Alta mines closed down, sixty-seven more died from the same cause. Nor was Alta unique. At 7:30 A.M. on the morning of February 28, 1902, a slide tore away part of the workings of the Liberty Bell mine above Telluride. As rescuers toiled up from town, a second avalanche dropped on them. And finally, after the rescue work had ended and the weary volunteers were dragging the corpses and the injured back to town on sleds, there was a third slide. The triple blows killed nineteen men, including my grandfather’s brother, and cruelly hurt eleven more. My stepfather-to-be saved himself by seizing a tree as he was being hurled down a hillside; there he clung, semiconscious, deafened and almost suffocated by the snow that had packed like cement into his ears, mouth, and nose.

At a mine where I had once worked above Ouray, a slide swept away the boardinghouse and killed seven or eight of my erstwhile companions. And we all listened to men like Harry Johnson, who had been trapped above Telluride at the Black Bear mine, where the cook and her husband had been crushed to death in their own bed; Johnson’s tale of a dazed groping for help in the white wastes twelve thousand feet high was by no means reassuring.

As skiers unfamiliar with the slopes began thronging them, the Forest Service, which issued special-use permits for lifts that might carry the newcomers to disaster, took to worrying. The result was the establishment at Alta, during the winter of 1937-38, of the nation’s first avalanche-research center. The masses of information collected there during subsequent years enabled not only ski patrols but also highway departments and telephone and pipeline maintenance crews to design protective bunkers at vulnerable spots, to predict unstable conditions, to shoot down threatening accumulations of snow with cannons and special “avalaunchers.” Today, if hazards warrant, slopes and highways are closed entirely, and when accidents do occur, tested rescue procedures are put into operation immediately. The results have been phenomenal. By 1965 the annual toll from avalanches, which once had killed a score or more people in the Rockies each year, had dropped to less than six, although more users than ever were travelling the roads and coursing the slopes.

The guidelines for whatever the Forest Service did, whether promoting outdoor sports or developing utilitarian goals, were laid down as matters of administrative policy by the Department of Agriculture and hence were susceptible to amendment with each change of administrators. To give the programs the dignity and stability of law, Congress in 1960 passed the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act. In this new act, recreational facilities were officially recognized for the first time as a national resource, and the service was ordered to “manage” recreation along with trees and grass and water.

Budgets jumped; crash programs were instituted. Thousands of miles of road were built not only for timber cutters and stockmen, as in the past, but also for growing numbers of highly sophisticated mobile camping units. Visitor information centers, built in imitation of similar units in the national parks, appeared in the more popular areas. Signs interpreting a region’s history, geology, ecology, and whatnot sprang up beside the mountain highways. “Adventure” trails led from parking places into choice dells where viewers might glimpse animals in their native habitats.

Census takers meanwhile stalked the gathering places with clipboards and pencils, trying to determine what the forest visitors really wanted. Most, it seemed, were not touring the forests per se but were passing through on the way to visit relatives in another part of the country. They would leave the direct route if roads were good and afforded roomy turnouts where they could exclaim over striking views with a minimum of inconvenience. Fishermen among them hoped to be able to catch trout from the shoulder of the road and apparently saw no incongruity in ganging up elbow to elbow beside the pools formed by bridge abutments. A significant majority of the passersby insisted that when they “camped out” for a night in a mobile home, they preferred doing it in tight clusters with others of their kind. They desired showers and laundromats with hot and cold running water, sturdy tables and prepared fireplaces, convenient toilets and ready access to grocery stores and gasoline stations. When they returned at night from a day with the power boats or motor scooters that they carried with them, they were not averse to nearby entertainment—juke-boxes, bowling alleys, shooting galleries, cocktail lounges, and the like.

As more and more camping spots of this sort appeared, dissident voices began to sound. As long ago as 1872 naturalist John Muir of California’s Sierra Nevada had spat out in a private letter that “rough vertical animals called men … occur in and on these mountains like sticks of condensed filth.” But were modern recreationists really so inured to urban crowding that they craved similar conditions in the mountains? Or were their attitudes being subtly guided by the purveyors of an annual four billion dollars’ worth of trailers, boats, scooters, sports clothing, and sports equipment—a new breed of exploiter as ruthless as any lumberman ever was?