If you’re sitting around today with some time on your hands, having taken at least a day off from the usual hurly-burly of life, I recommend that you plant yourself behind a computer — or go to a grocery store that’s open and get a copy of Sunday’s New York Times — and read “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.”
It’s a sensational story, written by sports features writer John Branch, about a group of experienced and top-flight skiers and snowboarders who, early this year, let the prospect of an exciting and challenging ski run override good sense; they ended up getting caught in an avalanche that killed three of them a mountain in Washington state.
The story was months in the making, and here’s the twist: It was done, first and foremost, with the Web in mind. It started on the Web site last Thursday and concluded a day later, I believe.
The story integrates video, photos, graphics and personal profiles of the main players like that has never been done before by a newspaper. Rebecca Greenfield of The Atlantic Wire Web said the project “makes multimedia feel natural and useful, not just tacked on.”
I saw the story on The Times’ home page last Thursday and realized from a glance at the title and a full-screen video of snow blowing off a mountain side that it was probably going to be very captivating. I resisted the urge, however, to jump into the Web version because I simply don’t like to read extremely lengthy stories online, while sitting at my desk.
On Sunday, The Times published a 14-page, special section with the story and accompanying photos and graphics. When opened, the entire front and back pages of the section depicted the back side of Cowboy Mountain — a so-called “backcountry” skiing area — where the disaster took place. A teaser at the bottom right-hand side of the front page said, “A group of world-class skiers and snowboarders set out to ski Tunnel Creek. Then the mountain moved.”
It took me at least a couple of hours to read and absorb the story and accompanying features, but the time flew by. Like a good writer can do, Branch transported me to Cowboy Mountain and I wanted to stay there until the drama had played all the way out.
I couldn’t remember having read anything by Branch, but when I ran him through Google, I found that late last year he had written another in-depth feature called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” That story, which ran over four days, tracked the career and related death of hockey player named Derek Boogaard. (I remember the series clearly, but I didn’t read it.)
Telling one interviewer how he got Boogard’s family to cooperate with him in doing the story, Branch said: “I committed to doing it right, taking time, and I told them we would probably put more resources into this than any other sports story this year.”
That was 2011…Well, he did it again this year — in an even bigger way — and the readers are the beneficiaries.