01/12/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
Ed Adams steps into his office. Moments later he hears an explosion. Next a herd of elephants charges by—or, at least, that's what it sounds like. Then everything goes dark.
Adams has, in fact, just been buried by an avalanche. For the 20th time. That's what he does. "We're trying to save lives by better understanding this natural phenomenon," says Adams, a leading researcher who several times each year climbs into an 8-ft.-by-12-ft. plywood shed in Montana's Bridger Mountains, waits while assistants trigger an avalanche with explosive charges and watches it rush past through a thick plexiglas window. By the time his team digs him out, Adams's instruments have begun to record data that will fine-tune his understanding of avalanche dynamics. An added plus for Adams, who whitewater-kayaks in his spare time: "I like a bit of the adrenaline that goes with all this."
Adams, 53, who hails from suburban Rockville Centre, N.Y., became interested in avalanches during his postcollege years as a ski bum in Utah. "During the winter of '73 to '74 there was a really big avalanche cycle," he recalls. "It crashed into the lodges. It blew cars out of the parking lot. I got really intrigued." After assisting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with avalanche research, he decided to head back to school. "I didn't really intend to get a Ph.D. in anything," says Adams, who would earn one in mechanical engineering from Montana State University, "but I always seem to get overinvolved in things."
And that's just fine with wife Kat Billau. "He wouldn't be Ed if he weren't doing this," says Billau, 52, an indoor-air-quality consultant. "He likes to live on the edge, but I'm always confident he's going to come back."