Snowfall

Into Thin AirThis New York Times article just won a Pulitzer. Frankly, I’m not one bit surprised it did. Snowfall documents, through a six-part, transmedia tale that incorporates text, images, video interviews, video footage, simulations, and interactive maps, an avalanche that occurred at Tunnel Creek in the US.

Snowfall is exquisite and haunting in terms of both its story and its presentation. It sets, as the New York Times does with just about everything it turns its gaze to, the bar high. In some ways it’s is a big, sweeping tale, charting the history and complexity of an area unstable, prone to unexpected avalanches, and that arguably shouldn’t be skied. In other ways it’s a small story—a tight-knit group of experienced skiers and friends caught in a terrifying mother nature-uncontrollable ordeal.

Either way, the tale is heart-wrenchingly comprehensive. It provides insight into what causes avalanches as well as what it’s like to both be in one and to try to dig your friends out of its aftermath. It’s also an excellent example of transmedia storytelling, using a variety of platforms to execute, complement, and augment a potent story. (It feels like an online, modern version of breathtaking print book Into Thin Air*.)

First impressions of Snowfall are of snowy sparseness, with images simultaneously iconic and eerie. Its text lobs us straight into the action. One of the skiers is tumbling, catapulting in the avalanche, trying to recall her avalanche-survival skills, terrified, stuck, unsure which was is up or down, fearing she’s going to die. It’s pulsating and suffocating at the same time, and there’s no doubt in your mind that this story is going to be emotionally fraught.

‘Like many ideas that sound good at the time, skiing Tunnel Creek was an idea hatched in a bar,’ we read. Fresh, optimal overnight snowfalls make skiing irresistible and a meeting and skiing time is roughly planned.

Naturally occurring avalanches rarely kill, we find out. Human-triggered ones, on the other hand, often do. Every skier who traverses a slope subtly changes the snowpack’s structure. The thin layer of frost buried beneath fresh snow is called the unappetising name of ‘surface hoar’.

The day’s avalanche prediction for Tunnel Creek was the difficult-to-define ‘considerable’. Suffice to say, it was inadvisable to ski there. But the skiers were experienced—many of them were locals—and one even scouted extreme skiing courses worldwide.

The mood setting out was jovial: ‘Get me out of here before another spreadsheet finds me,’ says one skier, having extracted himself from a meeting. Sixteen people set out that day, ‘although no one thought to count at the time’. It was an unusually large number, particularly for that terrain, likened to someone divulging details of a spare keg found at a party. It’s not cool, with no one quite admitting to having told others, but no one is game to uninvite anyone.

Warning signs mark entry to the backcountry ski area: Do you have a beacon, a shovel, and a probe? They’re a reminder that when things go wrong, you’ll be relying on your ski buddies to save you. Each skier is equipped with avalanche beacons, or transceivers, which emit signals for others to locate you if you get buried. But equipment advances, we’re told, make people falsely bold.

‘The start of an avalanche is unlike any other force of nature.’ That is to say that they occur without warning. Three quarters of those killed in an avalanche asphyxiate or suffocate after being buried by the snow.

Reading Snowfall, cyclic and chronological in its telling, is an exercise in inevitability and denial. We know the skiers get caught in the avalanche—the opening paragraphs show us one skier being hurled down the mountain—but we can’t help but hope they make it through unscathed.

Layering the story with video interviews with survivors explaining key moments or their reactions to them, as well as visual elements enabling us to track skiers’ movements instead of imagine them, enhances the story. The skiers’ paths, accompanied by floating headshots and simulations, appear as the story unfolds.

We don’t have to view all of the videos and simulations, but even viewing one or two lends humanising, insightful detail that makes the text-led tale even stronger. Good design that balances sparsity, multiple platforms, layers, and typography can’t be underestimated either. It makes me think this is the future of storytelling—online, incorporating complementary transmedia elements, while recognising the need for good design to supplement a good story.

The one criticism I’ll make of Snowfall is that it concentrates too much on the avalanche and its build-up and not enough on its aftermath. What happens to the skiers who survive once they make it off the mountain? How scarred are they by the incident? Who really knows? The story’s presumably a teaser directing us to watch a documentary created about the event, but that’s where it lost me. I signed on to read the story; I don’t have the time or the inclination to continue on.

That said, as a contained document, Snowfall hints at the far-reaching devastation: ‘Avalanches swallow more lives than just the ones buried beneath the snow’.

*Into Thin Air, which documents one of the worst ever accidents on Mt Everest and which questions the viability of people overestimating experience and underestimating nature.