Three weeks ago in the California ski resort of Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe, seven people were killed by an avalanche. Four more were spared from death—all of them quite miraculously, and one of them a lot more miraculously than the other three. Despite a booming four-day blizzard, every applicable form of safety measure and avalanche-control practice had been undertaken on that besieged mountainside. Moreover, no avalanche of that magnitude, nothing even close to that size, had ever occurred on that slope before. The odds were hugely stacked against such a disaster. Yet seven people are dead, four alive by miracle.
And therein lies the bleak and bitter truth about avalanches: They are wildly capricious killers. They stand among nature's most volatile, most deadly creations. They are also among her most frequently occurring phenomena—yet they remain, as far as human intelligence has been able to divine, as erratic and as enigmatic as they are awesome. For the better part of a century, glaciologists, foresters, ski-area designers, snow scientists and just plain citizens of the world's mountains have been applying every instrument and insight that modern science, computer technology and common sense can bring to the problem of understanding and controlling avalanches. They have made enormous progress, and yet Knox Williams of the U.S. Forest Service's avalanche research project in Fort Collins, Colo. speaks for them all when he says, "The more you know about avalanches, the more you come to understand that you will never know enough."
There are certainly enough of them to get to know. In the Alps there are some 11,000 avalanches in an average year. In the far vaster mountain ranges of the Western U.S., there are about 10,000 annually (many of them man-made through control techniques) that people actually observe, and God only knows how many tens of thousands more that thunder, hiss or glide noiselessly down slopes far from human habitat.
Avalanches are nearly infinitely varied—differing in shape, size, density, sound, momentum, esthetics, destructiveness, etc., etc., etc. Some are small, pretty sloughs of powder that flow downhill in lovely teardrop tongues, liquid as syrup yet sending up plumes of snow smoke as they go. Some are immense slabs that cover acres of ground, thick and dense and wind-pounded to the consistency of a million-ton tombstone. Avalanches may start with a whoomp that sounds like a blast of dynamite, then spread in crazy fractures across the mountainside and then break into blocks the size of house trailers, which are, in turn, pulverized by the turbulence of the slide into flying snow-smithereens tinier than snowflakes, which, in turn, then set as solid as concrete when they finally grind to a stop.
April 19, 1982
The natural forces generated within an avalanche are among the most stupendous on earth: wildly fluctuating densities of mass, strange hydraulic imbalances, weird increases in speed, massive changes in air pressure, heat wrought of friction within the mass, enormously high levels of specific gravity. All this is caused by the simple power of a relatively large mass moving at relatively high speed. And it can be terrifying stuff. For example, a slab avalanche can routinely skim along at an average rate of 50 or 60 mph, which is faster than any skiers except high-level experts going full-out can attain. The thought of trying to outrun something with the mass of, say, half a dozen ocean liners while it chases you at a speed exceeding the freeway speed limit is something calculated to turn any skier's knees to water. Yet it could be worse.
If the incline of the slope is steep enough and long enough, then a big, heavy slab avalanche can accelerate to speeds of considerably more than 100 mph. And at that point, the laws of hydraulics and aerodynamics being what they are, the force of the avalanche wall slamming ever faster against normal air resistance creates an air blast-wave in front of it. This ultimately can produce an imbalance in pressure that will actually cause the mass to accelerate faster than gravity is moving it because, according to current theory, it is being sucked powerfully ahead into a semi-vacuum.
This imbalance in pressure occurs in less dense powder avalanches to such an extent that a mass of snow has actually been measured moving at the speed of 240 mph! Incredibly, that is faster than the rate at which a body free-falls through space. (Due to air resistance, this rate of fall is rarely more than 180 mph.) An avalanche moving at more than 200 mph generates all sorts of bizarre actions—outside as well as inside the mass. Dr. Herbert Aulitzky of the Vienna Agricultural University, one of Austria's leading avalanche experts, says, "A powder avalanche hurtling along at 240 mph really in many ways resembles a hurricane—except for the fact that its density, caused by the mass of snow, is a great deal more destructive."
The air pressure generated in front of such a blindingly fast-moving mass of snow has been known to reach, according to Dr. Aulitzky, as much as 220 tons per square meter, compared to average air pressure of 11 tons per square meter. That means getting hit by a square meter of this avalanche blast-wave would be roughly equivalent to being run over by two locomotives. Obviously, the destruction in the path of such a force can be far worse than even that caused by the avalanche itself. Huge trees are leveled, buildings actually explode, and bodies have been found, crushed and broken, hanging from trees well ahead of the point where the sliding mass actually stopped.
At these high speeds, the workings of friction inside of the onrushing snow mass can build up enough heat to actually melt the snow. Then when the mass comes to a stop, the whole thing turns instantly dense, becomes inert and freezes solid, encasing any victim who is caught within in a body-fitting casket made of ice.
All of these things can happen in routine, everyday large avalanches. The destructive power of a truly monstrous avalanche is almost beyond imagination. No flatland tornado, no hurricane at sea ever produced more punishment to human life or property than a major avalanche. Indeed, some experts are convinced that nothing in nature—with the exceptions of major volcanoes, earthquakes and gargantuan flash floods and tidal waves with their immensely dense speeding walls of water—can surpass the destructive potential of a monstrous avalanche. One case to prove that awful point occurred on Jan. 10, 1962 when a section of the ice cap broke from just below the 22,205-foot peak of Peru's North Huascaràn, the seventh-highest mountain in South America. The falling ice tore away vast acres of glacial snow and ice around the summit, plunged 3,000 feet down a sheer face and hit a shallow bowl with an impact that was heard for miles. The concussion from that set up a swirling cloud of powdered snow and also produced a huge secondary avalanche behind the first, and this constantly growing mass shot down the slopes at 65 mph, picking up uncountable tons of rocks and snow and ice as it raced down valleys, rolled over plateaus and, here and there, actually climbed uphill slopes.
In all, the Huascaràn avalanche dropped 13,000 vertical feet while traveling over 10 miles of ground. More than 4,000 people died, 10,000 animals were killed, six villages were annihilated. At the time it was duly recorded as the worst known avalanche in history. And true to the quirky-killer nature of avalanches, it was also noted that this was the first time a slide of even close to such proportions had occurred in that area. The Huascaràn slide of 1962 held the world record for death and destruction for only eight years. On May 31, 1970 an earthquake shook Peru, and snow slid from Mount Huascaràn's summit once again. This time 20,000 people died.
Though the two Peruvian disasters rank first and second among avalanches in the generation of death on a grand scale, there is one other peculiarly gruesome historical footnote that must be included in any discussion of mass slaughter by avalanche. And that has to do with the mountain campaigns of World War I in which Austrian and Italian troops battled for control of the traditionally disputed Tyrol. The two armies were locked in combat from 1915 until the Armistice of 1918, and during those years, the most conservative estimates say, no fewer than 40,000 men died in avalanches. Some were natural, for those were dark and stormy winters, but not all. Many of the killer slides were set on purpose as a new and grotesquely effective technique of waging war. The British writer Colin Fraser wrote of this in his excellent book The Avalanche Enigma: "On December 12th, 1916, a snowstorm began which continued for two weeks. Avalanches swept whole barracks away.... Then, avalanches were used as weapons, both sides releasing them onto the enemy below by firing a shell into a slope laden with snow. As a means of mass-murder, this was far superior to artillery alone. It was estimated that 3,000 Austrian troops were killed in one 48-hour period and that Italian losses were at least as heavy."
The U.S. has racked up dozens of multiple-death avalanches over the years, but nothing even remotely on the same catastrophic scale as those of Peru and World War I. In the late 19th century, mining towns of the West were frequently flattened and buried, but because of the sparseness of the population, rarely more than a dozen people died. The worst incident in the U.S. occurred on March 1, 1910 on a spur of the Great Northern Railroad in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. It was a peculiarly agonizing kind of disaster, for there was nothing quick or even particularly surprising about it. Ninety-six people were killed, all passengers or railroad men trapped by storms on two trains, and all of them had watched helplessly for five full days and nights as the load of deadly snow grew and grew and grew on the slope above them.
The trouble started with a series of furious snowstorms that hit the Cascades several days before the disaster. Two trains—a mail train and a passenger train with five cars—had been delayed again and again en route from Spokane to Seattle, first by gales that closed tunnels with drifting snow and then by slides that blocked the tracks.
Eventually, on the night of Feb. 24, the trains reached the godforsaken little railroad shantytown of Wellington just past the long tunnel at Steven's Pass. They were shunted onto sidings to wait for a few hours until the storm abated. It never did. A brief timetable of those last days, assembled years later by a U.S. Forest Service editor for a government manual listing American avalanche accidents from 1910 to 1966, outlined the inevitability and futility of a situation in which every change in the weather worked to ensure that the 96 would ultimately suffer death-by-avalanche. The timetable reads like this:
"Feb. 25—Cold, gray blizzard. Eleven feet of new snow at Wellington. Feb. 26—Snowfall at times reached 12 inches per hour and drifted 20 feet deep in places. Ominous roar of occasional avalanches made passengers jumpy. During the night, wind increased in intensity. Feb. 27—Storm grew worse, in a final blast of fury. Later in the day, snowfall dwindled into a thin sleet. Feb. 28—Sleet continued during the day, into the night. Around midnight, sleet quit, and a warm moist southwest chinook set in; rain began falling. March 1—At 0120 hours, the slope above the trains avalanched, killing 96 persons."
The avalanche was a monster, 1,400 feet wide, rushing some 2,000 feet down a bare steep slope that had been burned off years before. The slide thundered into the side of the trains, rolled them over and sent everything on the spur tracks plunging down a 150-foot drop to the bottom of the Tye River Canyon. Rescuers from Wellington, which the avalanche somehow missed, went to work immediately in the driving rain. Only one end of one railroad coach, a shack roof and a part of a railroad snowplow showed above the snow. After seven hours, 21 survivors had been dug out of the twisted wreckage. After 11 hours, when all hope of finding any more alive had gone, someone heard a sound "like the mew of a kitten." Rescuers dug frantically into a small cache that had appeared miraculously beneath a tree trunk and there found the 22nd and last survivor, a woman clutching her dead baby. In later litigation by families of the victims, the courts ultimately found the railroad to be without blame in the disaster. One reason for the verdict was that the slope which avalanched had never been known to do so before and, thus, no one could be blamed for assuming it would hold steady once more.
There again lies the terrible truth about the caprice and trickery of it all. As Dr. Aulitzky says dryly, "The most dangerous avalanches of all are those which come down mountains where, in the belief of the local population, no avalanche has struck since time immemorial and none ever will."
Thus, the only truly intelligent attitude toward life on the end of an avalanche path is one of humility, a frank recognition of one's own ignorance. Onno Wieringa has been the snow safety director for 10 years at the Alta, Utah ski area located in Little Cottonwood Canyon, a narrow, V-shaped gulley nine miles long that is the undisputed American sweepstakes winner for avalanche danger and avalanche action. Working for so long in a terrain fraught with so much latent violence has made Wieringa predictably cautious and philosophical. "We're just babies in the mountains," he says. "What does it mean to say we've been here 10 years, 30 years? We talk about avalanche cycles, but what do we know about 100-year cycles? Or 200-year cycles? We're short-timers in the mountains. Sometimes you have to give in to the forces around you and just get the hell out until the sun shines again."
By hindsight, of course, that is precisely what could have been done at Alpine Meadows—get out, evacuate everyone, forget about the place until the sun came out again. No one would have died, no one would have been hurt. But total evacuation is a bold act taken only in the face of obvious catastrophe, something that hasn't been done even in the super-volatile environs of Little Cottonwood Canyon since 1966.
In the case of Alpine Meadows, the fatal storm had started in the Sierra Nevada on Saturday, March 27, following a period of relatively clear skies interrupted now and then by light dustings of snow—a combination that worked to paint a thin shimmering layer of "sun crust" on the surface of the old snow-pack, which was already 7½ feet deep at the base, 14 feet on the ridges. The new blizzard dumped an extraordinarily heavy blanket of snow on the crust. The "precipitation intensity," the measure experts use to gauge sudden, dense accumulations of snow, was an alarming two to three inches an hour during some of the storm. That was at the base area, where there was a ski lodge, a lift building and a maintenance shed. On the ridges high above, an incessant brutal wind whipped the dense shroud of falling snow into even heavier and deeper accumulations. This, in itself, was a serious indication of trouble, for the force of wind blowing fresh snow is, in the words of the Forest Service's Williams, "the prime architect of an avalanche in its beginning stages."
For 96 hours or more, the ridges above Alpine Meadows continued to catch dangerously large amounts of snow that had been beaten and driven and hammered by the fierce wind as it fell. At the base, by 7 a.m. on Wednesday, March 31, measurements showed that 81 inches of fresh snow had accumulated. On the ridges, that meant in places between 10 and 15 feet. The term "fresh snow" may bring to the minds of many a picture of smooth and tranquil beauty, the epitome of calm. Not so. As the U.S. Forest Service warns in its Avalanche Handbook, snow is one of the world's more excitable substances: "Unlike most materials encountered in nature, snow exists quite close to its melting point. When any solid is near its melting point, its molecules have a great amount of mobility and it changes quickly in response to changes in external conditions. New-fallen snow is one of the most unstable natural substances on earth." The metamorphosis of snow once it has fallen is constant—it is also enormously complex, for the density of snow can vary in weight from that of feathers to that of lead, depending on air temperature, wind speed, water content, ground temperature, the angle of incline of the slope, etc.
At Alpine Meadows the accumulation of new snow increased dramatically—and dangerously—in the last two days before the avalanche. Werner Schuster, vice-president for marketing of the area, told SI Associate Editor Anita Verschoth last week: "We were taking snow measurements every morning at 7 a.m. On Monday we found we had gotten a new 30 inches, on Tuesday another 21 and on Wednesday another two or three feet. We closed the lifts early on Monday so we could do avalanche control on the road. On Tuesday, we only had three lower lifts going. And Wednesday morning, we didn't open the slopes at all. Only the lodge."
Over the three days before Wednesday, avalanche control had continued at a constant, wearing pace. Each morning ski patrolmen would ride the chair lifts through the blinding storm. At the top they would ski in pairs along prescribed routes where dangerous amounts of avalanche-potential new snow were known to accumulate. Each carried a rucksack of explosive charges that were planted at the known trouble spots. Approximately five hundred pounds of dynamite were used every day. The concussion from an exploding charge was meant to jolt any buildup of snow into an artificially triggered avalanche that spilled harmlessly before it grew to monster size.
Despite the blinding violence of the storm along the higher ridges, the ski patrolmen covered most of their control routes day after day, and none noticed any alarmingly large buildup along the ridges—at least not along the ridges they could get to. However, some critical sections above the ski area could not be reached on skis—or seen—during this storm. Three of those unseen areas were called Poma Rocks, Pond Slide and Buttress Slope. These contiguous zones had rarely spilled over in unplanned and unwanted avalanches before but all required frequent control work to keep them safely defused.
The major method for triggering controlled slides on those ridges when skiing was impossible was to fire a series of explosive projectiles from a 75-mm. recoilless rifle mounted on a spot below called Gunners' Knob, as well as a mobile howitzer of the same caliber, vintage 1944. The use of this type of near-antique weapon of war for peacetime avalanche control is as common as lift lines at many ski areas in the American West. The technique was pioneered in the U.S. in the 1950s on the volatile slopes of Alta by the late Monty Atwater, a veteran of the celebrated 10th Mountain Division of World War II and the man known as the "godfather of American avalanche control." Atwater also invented something called an Avalauncher, a nitrogen-powered gun that lobs impact-detonating, high-explosive (TNT) projectiles. This instrument is used at a few areas, but the fact that its range is limited and its projectiles are subject to wind drift and thus less accurate during storms, when crews must fire blind, makes it less popular than good old direct-fire U.S. Army howitzers and recoil-less rifles.
During the Alpine Meadows storm, howitzer crews aimed their weapons using a series of prearranged settings to bring down the building snow some 700 vertical feet up the mountain. Norm Wilson, once mountain manager at Alpine Meadows, now a private snow-avalanche consultant in Norden, Calif. who assisted with the post-disaster control operations at the resort, recalls: "They fired in the Poma Rocks, Pond and Buttress direction twice a day on both Monday and Tuesday. They fired nine rounds each time, 18 a day. They fired a dozen more rounds Wednesday morning. They couldn't see anything in the storm up there, but it seemed like they were getting results down below. There was avalanche rubble in the road. They had no reason to think things were building up so big. But there was a hell of an intense snowfall up on the top, and the winds were gusting up to 125 mph. If they could have seen up there, they might have cranked up some more rounds."
But, of course, they didn't. For some murky reason that had to do with the mix of that particular snow and those particular winds and the precise angle of the incline of that slope, the stuff stayed up there, building up ton by ton. Everything dictated that the snow should slide—certainly the major symptom existed, for as Dr. E.R. LaChappelle, a glaciologist considered by many scientists the U.S.'s leading expert on avalanches, writes in his book The ABC of Avalanche Safety, "The most common internal trigger [to push an inert slope into an avalanche] is overloading by fresh snow." Though no one could see it, this overloading was precisely what was happening on the snow-dense steeps immediately below Buttress Slope and Poma Rocks. Certainly, the angle of the mountain incline was steep enough—the area had avalanched before, once in the mid-1960s actually knocking out a Poma lift near the base lodge.
Whatever the reason, those vast and dangerous acres of snow on Buttress Slope, Pond Slide and Poma Rocks remained poised and still, piling higher and heavier through Wednesday morning and into the afternoon. By 3 p.m. there were only a few people left around the resort base. Because the slopes were closed, scarcely 20 of the 435 employees had turned up. Ski patrolmen had finished what avalanche-control work they could do in the area, and a crew of them had just left for Squaw Valley, seven miles by road, to ride up the lifts there, ski over a ridge and plant hand charges in some unstable areas that threatened to slide into the Alpine Meadows access road.
Supervising the work was Bernie Kingery, 49, Alpine Meadows' mountain manager for 11 years and a well-respected expert on avalanches who had once described them as being as quirky and volatile as "a stack of marbles ready to go." Kingery was in the three-story A-frame Summit Terminal Building at the ski area base that housed ski-lift machinery and ski patrol headquarters. He sat in what was known as Base 4 Room, ski patrol headquarters, next to a radio that offered him communication with the patrolmen at Squaw Valley, as well as with a trail crewman, Jeffrey (Jake) Smith, 27, who had just left the Summit building to get a snowmobile so he could ride out and prevent any motorists from using the access road while the avalanche controllers were working above.
With Kingery in Base 4 Room were Randy Buck, 24, a maintenance man; Beth Morrow, 22, a ski-lift operator; Jeff Skover, 23, a night security man; and Tad DeFelice, 24, another lift operator. Two other people, Anna Conrad, 22, also a ski-lift operator, and her boyfriend, Frank Yeatman, 22, who was visiting her from the University of California at Davis, were in an adjacent second-floor locker room used by resort employees. Conrad and Yeatman had just arrived at the base lodge on cross-country skis, and Kingery had reprimanded them for being so foolish as to ski in the backcountry in what were obviously dangerous avalanche conditions.
At 3:45 the nightmare began. The first hint of disaster came over the walkie-talkie from Smith, who was crossing the parking lot on his snowmobile. Buck told S.I.'s Verschoth about those first wild seconds: "We received a radio message from Jake, and it was garbled. All I heard was the word 'avalanche.' We got the impression he was seeing one and was about to get caught in it. Bernie asked for his location. He got no answer. About five seconds later the avalanche hit us. There wasn't much warning. You could hear a rumble and almost immediately the building started to shake violently. A second later there was a powerful air blast, something like being five feet from a fast train going by. That's when I went for the floor, grabbed my head and tried to curl up in a ball. Immediately following the air blast, there was the snow. I was completely engulfed in snow. It felt like being tumbled in a wave. You lose your balance; the force is overwhelming. I felt a current in the snow, like fast running water. Then I could feel it slow down. I felt I had to do something or I would be trapped. Underneath the snow I pushed my feet down and hit something solid. The floor. When the snow stopped moving, I was about one and half feet under it. I heaved and got my head and shoulders out of the snow. I realized that Tad [DeFelice] was right next to me and his head and shoulders were also out. I looked around. I was still in the room I had been in, but it no longer had any walls."
There were three avalanches that rolled out of the opaque curtain of storming snow onto Summit building from Buttress Slope and Poma Rocks, 700 vertical feet above. One massive section blasted into the terminal building. It swept branches and trees and rocks through the structure, scattering wreckage and continued until much of the ugly mass crashed into the main lodge. Not much was left standing of the Summit building but naked I beams and the huge bullwheel that drove the ski-lift cables.
The other two thundering tongues of the slide flashed into the parking lot, one catching Smith and the other three more victims: Dr. Leroy Nelson, 39, a surgeon from Eureka, Calif.; his daughter Lauri, 11; and David L. Hahn, a Los Altos Hills, Calif. businessman. The area looked as if it had been bombarded. Power poles were snapped off or leaning at broken angles, employees' lockers and gear were strewn throughout the area, a couple of large Sno-Cats had been twisted like pretzels.
Buck wriggled out of the snow, asked DeFelice if he was in pain, was told no and immediately began looking for other people. "I couldn't see anybody," he said. "I started digging right where I was. Other people started arriving. They did a quick search and found Jeff Skover. They saw his hand sticking out of the snow. I spent an hour helping until my back started to hurt too much. Later I found out I had fractured a vertebra in two places and broken a rib."
Within an hour, the ski patrol crew had returned from Squaw Valley and joined the search. One of the patrolmen, Casey Jones, tells of how they found Smith's body: "We could hear his Skadi beeping from the creek bed nearby. We determined that he was probably there, and we started probing." A Skadi is the trademark for a solid-state electronic transceiver, a common piece of equipment for people who are frequently exposed to avalanche danger. Quite simply, it sends an electromagnetic pulse from beneath the burial-blanket of snow, no matter how deep, which is picked up in turn by searchers who have switched their Skadis to the receiving mode and can then zero in on the point at which the loudest signal reaches them. Avalanche probes are aluminum poles about 12 feet long, which are poked deep in the snow again and again as a line of searchers moves in a slow, measured pattern across the avalanche zone.
Said Jones, "There's a spongy resilience when you find a body with the probes. The snow was very hard. It took six of us 10 or 15 minutes to dig to him, even though his Skadi told us right where he was. He was in a prone position. We did CPR, but a doctor told us it was fruitless." That night searchers also found the bodies of David Hahn and Leroy Nelson in the parking lot. At dark they had to abandon the search.
Thursday was bright and clear when rescuers returned. Ninety people worked at the gruesome job of probing for corpses. Three more were found, and now only two people were known to be missing—Kingery and Conrad. By now 24 hours had passed since the slide. The odds are great against surviving more than half an hour beneath the snow of an avalanche, and the odds against living for a full day are astronomical. In the Alpine Meadows avalanche, with the tumbling, smothering mass of snow also tossing around great damaging chunks of the terminal building's wood and stone and other debris, there was a great likelihood of being quickly killed in a moment of violent impact.
However, death by avalanche is not always such a merciful or sudden thing. As Williams explains it: "More than two-thirds of the deaths in avalanches are caused by suffocation. Unless the victims are able to swim to the top and stay there while the snow is still flowing, they will find themselves in a case like concrete. People cannot even move a finger. Unless they have an air pocket of some kind or are rescued in a fairly short time, the air supply will just get shorter and shorter. It is very common to find an avalanche victim with his face completely covered by an ice mask. This is caused by body warmth and exhalation, which melts the snow. Then it freezes again. Ice forms around the face and seals off any possible source of air. Most victims don't suffer long; they are usually unconscious in a few minutes."
Another nightmarish oddity about being trapped beneath avalanche snow is the fact that sound travels perfectly when it is going down through snow, but very little from below passes up and out of the pack. Ski patrolmen who have been buried beneath a couple of feet of snow in order to help train dogs to find avalanche victims report that they have been able to hear the dogs' paws walking on the snow, but when they have shouted upward, not a sound was heard above.
On Friday, April 2 yet another storm blasted the Alpine Meadows area. Despite high winds and dense snow, searchers continued to probe the wreckage of the Summit building. They occasionally shouted the names of the two lost people. They heard no reply. Besides the missing humans, there had been another victim of the slide, an 18-month-old German shepherd female, Mariah, an avalanche search dog owned by Jim Plehn, the Alpine Meadows avalanche forecaster. On this dark and snowy Friday, Plehn was probing with his bare hand into a hollow area beneath the snow. Suddenly he felt a cold nose, then the rough scrape of a dog's tongue and then Mariah's teeth, biting gently into his hand and reluctant to let go until she had been freed from her buried prison.
Aside from that bit of happiness, the day's searching was futile. And before long the accumulation of snow became alarming again. Another 18 inches was to fall that day. When the danger of a second disaster became too great, the rescuers abandoned the ruined site once again without finding the bodies of Kingery and Conrad.
On Saturday, April 3 another 12 inches of snow fell, and the avalanche hazard was as great as ever. No searching was done, no avalanche control either. On Sunday, April 4, 12 inches more would fall. A little control work was accomplished that day: Plehn and Wilson dropped charges from a helicopter, known as heli-bombing. The search of the ruins was resumed briefly, but by midmorning the weather deteriorated even more and everyone left.
On Monday, April 5 it began snowing intermittently, but it was calm enough at 7 a.m. so that two helicopters went up to drop charges in an attempt to control and stabilize the mountain and the roadway. By noon a full crew of 125 searchers—the first since Friday, 72 hours before—descended on the ruins of the terminal building. For an hour and a half they poked and probed methodically. Then, at 1:20 p.m., the searchers were stunned to see a hand amid the wreckage of the locker room. Some assumed that it was that of a dead victim.
But it most assuredly was not. Patrolman Lanny Johnson recalls the moment: "This hand came out between these two lockers. Then we saw the hand was pulled back in. She was reaching for snow to eat, we found out later. For a moment we stared in disbelief. We had found her boyfriend dead in the same vicinity. We said, 'Anna, is that you?' She said, 'Yes, it's me.' "
There were 10 feet of snow and a heap of wooden lockers piled on top of her. Jones, who was also there, says, "Anna was in the locker room on the second floor when the avalanche hit. She stayed alive because the wall of the locker room fell on a bench and that supported the snow load that filled the area above her, and she had air space. She could move her limbs a little. She was in a V position, like a jackknife. She didn't think she had been in there for five full days. She also did not know that an avalanche had hit. She thought it was an explosion in the building."
As the rescuers carefully worked to free her, they gave her oxygen while Johnson held her hand and murmured, "Anna, we love you. We are coming to get you." She replied weakly, "O.K., I'm hanging on."
Johnson recalls, "She was wearing a jacket with two sweaters underneath and powder pants. She had a cross-country ski boot on her right foot and a woolen sock on her left. Her frostbite on the right foot is more severe because it was confined in the boot. I said, 'Do you remember us calling for you on Friday?' She said she heard us when we were only 10 or 15 feet away from her. She had eaten nothing but snow for five days. She had no doubt that she was going to survive."
Last week, on Easter Sunday, Anna's father, Gene, told Verschoth, "When the avalanche hit, she was knocked momentarily unconscious. There wasn't much snow, and she ran out of snow to eat. At first she lit matches to find out where she was. And she did a lot of sleeping. And she thought a lot about her boyfriend. She spent the first few days massaging her feet, then she gave up on that. She knew on Friday that she was close to the surface, that they were getting close to her. She heard them calling; and she screamed and yelled and beat her feet against the walls. They couldn't hear her. They stopped searching."
A bulletin from Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee, Calif. last Sunday indicated that there is some circulation in Conrad's left foot but that her right is still a matter of "greatest concern.". However, doctors hope amputation will not be necessary.
Beyond the miraculous resurrection of Anna Conrad, the Alpine Meadows avalanche was unusual in other respects. First, it's rare that any avalanche deaths should occur within the boundaries of a ski area. U.S. Forest Service records show that in an average year, 150 people are caught in U.S. avalanches; 15 are injured and 13 die. No more than one or two of those fatalities occur inside ski areas. The rest happen in the backcountry or on out-of-bounds slopes.
(The U.S. death rate from avalanches consistently runs far behind that of Europe. Each year Austria alone will have at least 40 deaths, while the Alpine countries combined will report 100 or more avalanche fatalities.)
The second peculiarity about the Alpine Meadows avalanche is the fact that it was triggered by an act of nature—not an act of man. The vast majority of fatal avalanches are unknowingly started by the victims themselves—because their mere presence on skis in a potential avalanche area can set off the slides.
The examples of this are numerous. One of the most publicized—notorious, is a better word—of all fatal avalanches occurred on April 12, 1964 at St. Moritz, Switzerland. The dead were Barbi Henneberger, 23, who had won a bronze medal in the 1960 Winter Olympics, and America's most famous skier, Wallace (Buddy) Werner, 28.
On that warm and sunny spring day, Henneberger, Werner and a dozen or so other crack skiers were cavorting about in front of the movie cameras of one Willy Bogner Jr., then 21, scion of the elegant German ski-clothing manufacturing family. The skiers were performing for some kind of a promotional movie, and the crew had set up on slopes clearly marked with avalanche warning signs. As the group was dashing down the hill, suddenly a vast fracture boomed across the slope, and the mountainside began to rumble down in a swath 500 feet across. Many of the skiers were caught in the flow, and, being as fit and experienced as they were, most of them managed to do the right thing to survive. They discarded their poles and their skis and began "swimming" to stay on top. Henneberger, who was Bogner's fiancée, never got her head above the seething snow and was buried quickly. Werner, however, was in front of the avalanche, and he tried to run for it. Crouched in a tuck, his poles held tightly under his arms, he raced to get out of its path. He was close to safety—some onlookers guessed no more than 15 feet—when he fell and was overrun by the snow. Four hours later they dug him out. Two months later the Swiss officials charged Willy Bogner with negligent homicide in the case, claiming that he had ignored avalanche warning signs and "acted in disregard of the most elementary precautions while serving as manager of the project." He received a suspended sentence of two months.
Chance-taking goes on and on in the Alps. On Jan. 31 of this year, outside Salzburg, 13 people—10 students and three instructors from an Outward Bound course—were buried and died beneath an avalanche that struck them in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. They had been warned that the day and the snow were ripe for slides, but they went out anyway, and a day later the Viennese newspaper Kronenzeitung ran the headline THIS EXCURSION WAS MURDER.
So, for the most part, modern man creates his own avalanches, and if he dies, he has only himself to blame. A few centuries ago, men of the Alps saw avalanches as a horrible product of witchcraft or dragons. They would say, "Was fliegt ohne Fl√ºgel, schl√§gt ohne Hand und sieht ohne Augen? Das Lauitier!" ("What flies without wings, strikes without hand and sees without eyes? The avalanche-beast!"). In the 18th century Immanuel Kant's then-definitive tome Physical Geography explained that avalanches were simply little snowballs that grew in size as they rolled down the mountain. Once upon a time educated men even believed that any sudden sound—cowbells, birdsongs, yodelers, a child slamming a door—might be sufficient to set off a deadly avalanche.
Well, mystical, capricious and lethal as they may still be, avalanches have come under the gimlet gaze of men who do not believe in beasts or monster snowballs or snowslides kicked off by meadowlarks. Technology has moved in on the avalanche witchcraft. There are instruments that can count with photocells the number of snowflakes falling each second on a mountain peak. There is a theory for forecasting avalanche danger that suggests that the changing gravitational pull of the sun and the moon not only affects the ocean tides but also may cause otherwise inert avalanches to break loose.
But for all of that—science and computers and tidal theorizing—nothing could save those seven people at Alpine Meadows.
Das Lauitier still lives.