Encounters in Avalanche Country

A History of Survival in the Mountain West, 1820-1920

Diana L. Di Stefano

  • Published: 2013. Paperback August 2015
  • Subject Listing: History / Western History; Environmental Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 192 pp., 20 bandw illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Emil and Kathleen Sick Book Series in Western History and Biography
  • Contents

Every winter settlers of the U.S. and Canadian Mountain West could expect to lose dozens of lives to deadly avalanches. This constant threat to trappers, miners, railway workers-and their families-forced individuals and communities to develop knowledge, share strategies, and band together as they tried to survive the extreme conditions of "avalanche country." The result of this convergence, author Diana Di Stefano argues, was a complex network of formal and informal cooperation that used disaster preparedness to engage legal action and instill a sense of regional identity among the many lives affected by these natural disasters.

Encounters in Avalanche Country tells the story of mountain communities' responses to disaster over a century of social change and rapid industrialization. As mining and railway companies triggered new kinds of disasters, ideas about environmental risk and responsibility were increasingly negotiated by mountain laborers, at the elite levels among corporations, and in socially charged civil suits. Disasters became a dangerous crossroads where social spaces and ecological realities collided, illustrating how individuals, groups, communities, and corporate entities were all tangled in this web of connections between people and their environment.

Written in a lively and engaging narrative style, Encounters in Avalanche Country uncovers authentic stories of survival struggles, frightening avalanches, and how local knowledge challenged legal traditions that defined avalanches as acts of god. Combining disaster, mining, railroad, and ski histories with the theme of severe winter weather, it provides a new and fascinating perspective on the settlement of the Mountain West.
Diana L. Di Stefano is assistant professor of history at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

"Before the Rocky Mountains, Cascades, Sierra Nevadas, or Selkirks lured skiers, snowmobilers, and other fun-seekers, these rugged ranges drew fur traders, miners, and railroad workers. Encounters in Avalanche Country offers a fast-paced and well-researched retelling of the tragedies that resulted when snowslides slammed into homes, trains, and industrial workplaces through the North American West."
-Thomas Andrews, University of Colorado at Boulder

"Who is to blame when an avalanche wipes out a train and everyone sleeping peacefully on board? A historical version of Deadliest Catch, Diana Di Stefano's Encounters in Avalanche Country introduces the mountain West as an extreme industrial workplace, with its own attendant culture, community, and legal drama."
-Annie Gilbert Coleman, University of Notre Dame

"Encounters in Avalanche Country is an important work about how humans knew and were shaped by their environments in the American West. It is an intelligent, sophisticated, well-written, intensely researched, thoughtfully structured, deeply felt, and clearly hard-won piece of historical scholarship."
-Kathryn Morse, author of The Nature of Gold

Map of Avalanche Country Study Areas

Introduction: Arrival in Avalanche Country

1. Survival Strategies: 1820- 1860
2. Mountain Miners, Skiing Mailmen, and Itinerant Preachers: 1850-1895
3. Industrial Mining and Risk
4. Railway Workers and Mountain Towns: 1870-1910
5. Who's to Blame?
6. Disaster in the Cascades
7. Topping v. Great Northern Railway Company
8. Departure from Avalanche Country


"A casual reading shows this book to be a soundly researched, deftly written collection of anecdotes set in narrative form. A more careful review will show that it is much more than this. . . . Recommended."

"Di Stefano's research is showcased in the book's second half where she takes up the issue of blame, especially by dissecting killer avalanches that led to court cases intent on determining who was responsible for the tragedies. . . By serving as an excellent case study on the development of liability law, Encounters in Avalanche Country provides new windows into understanding human encounters with violent natures."
-Marcus Hall, H-Net

"This riveting tale is part history, part outdoor narrative, and part legal thriller. Di Stefano, a history professor at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, crafted a tale of how early avalanches affected mining towns and railroads at the turn of the last century. . . .Di Stefano's treatise is an interesting read."
-Christopher Van Tilburg, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine

"Encounters in Avalanche Country is a well-documented exploration effectively shaped by the originality of its approach. It should be of specific interest to historians investigating litigation anent liability, but it surely would engage anyone wanting to know more about the asperities endured by our western ancestors."
-Michael Johnson, American Historical Review

"Encounters in Avalanche Country is written in a lively manner that will be enjoyed by the general public while being well documented for the scholar. This book could be used in classes on the American West, environmental history, legal history, and more, or given as a gift to anyone interested in the settling of the Mountain West."
-Jean A Stuntz, Environmental History

"Di Stefano presents an interesting overview of how residents in various western settlements adapted and responded to the threat of avalanches, and provides insight into Gilded Age politics and the manner in which this rugged terrain became integrated into the social and economic fabric of the United States and Canada."
-Christian Harrison, Montana: The Magazine of Western History

"Ranging from Alaska to the California Sierra and Colorado Rockies, the book covers a tremendous amount of ground both physically and historiographically."
-Michael Childers, Pacific Northwest Quarterly

"Encounters in Avalanche Country is a well-written and fascinating peek into a unique part of western life."
-Brad F. Raley, Historian, The