Reviewed by Veronique Greenwood
On Wednesday night, a mysterious new article appeared on the New York Times site. News of it began to leak out via Twitter, and people who headed over to read the first chapter of Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, an account of a backcountry ski run turned deadly, found a piece not only grippingly reported but physically gorgeous, laced with soaring animations of the mountain, a looping GIF of the wind over the snow, and haunting audio and video captured by the survivors. Here's a sample of the reaction, from Atlantic correspondent Yoni Applebaum:
By Thursday morning, the rest of the story--five further sections in all--had been posted, and we'd learned that Snow Fall, a groundbreaking example of journalism enhanced by the web, would appear without multimedia features in the Sunday edition of the NYTimes and be the first ebook released through a new collaboration between the New York Times and Byliner.
I've read the story and examined both the Web and ebook versions, and I'm here to tell you: buy the ebook if you'd like to carry the text around with you, but please, please do yourself the favor of reading it online.
The story starts on the back side of Cowboy Mountain in Washington. Two days' powder lie thick over the landscape, and professional skier Elyse Saugstad and a group of 15 other ski industry professionals and local experts have just joyfully begun the descent of an out-of-bounds run named Tunnel Creek. Standing in a copse of old-growth trees, Saugstad looks uphill and sees something that should not be there: a two-story-high wall of snow. Seconds later, she and an unknown number of others are buried in a river of ice that, if it had not already crushed them to death, would suffocate them within minutes.
These skiers and boarders weren't noobies. Over and over again, you hear, in the survivors' own voices in the embedded videos, that this was a dream team of backcountry skiers with decades and decades of experience between them. They would have known if it had been unsafe to go. But in meticulous reporting John Branch gently teases out the new technologies that have given out-of-bounds skiers enough of a boost in confidence that avalanche deaths have leapt in recent years, along with the cultural effects—the politesse, the bravado of even smart skiers—that clicked together like the parts of a deadly machine in Tunnel Creek.
The comparison that immediately comes to mind is with Young Men and Fire, the last book written by Norman Maclean. Maclean's 1992 masterpiece is a reconstruction of the Mann Gulch Fire, a disastrous 1949 blowup in Montana that consumed 12 smokejumpers, the elite fire-fighting parachutists of the Forest Service, in less than 10 minutes. As I watched the animations laying out the tracks each skier took, and watched the helmet cam videos of Saugstad and others taken just before, and after, the mountain fell, I thought, “This is what Young Men and Fire would have looked like, had the smokejumpers had video on their helmets.”
If the Byliner version, which has only text and a few photos, were the only version, I'd be crowing over it. But having seen the beauty and skillfulness of the web version, I have to wonder why the New York Times did not release Snow Fall through The Atavist, which has made it their business to tell multimedia stories in ebook form. Perhaps there's a business question in play here. After all, the Atavist offers stripped-down Kindle versions of their stories, which sometimes climb up Amazon's best-seller charts. For now, there may just not be enough demand for elaborate programming for these long-form features. And since the Times has already built Snow Fall an online home--and, as of Friday morning, sold most of the advertising slots in it to Sotheby's--they may see the ebook simply as a way to skim a little more cream off what they've already done, without investing too much more work.
That's a bit of a pity. But at least we'll always have the Web.
Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at DISCOVER Magazine. She writes about everything from caffeine chemistry to cold cures to Jelly Belly flavors, and her work has appeared in Scientific American, TIME.com, TheAtlantic.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter here.