Squaw Valley's '82 Avalanche in Close Detail - San Francisco Chronicle
San Francisco Chronicle
IT TOOK BAY Area writer Jennifer Woodlief more than two years to reconstruct one of the Sierra Nevada's worst tragedies, the 1982 avalanche at Alpine Meadows ski resort. In interviews reviving memories that most people would rather forget, Woodlief uncovered fine details about how the mountains of Bear Creek Canyon, 5 miles north of Tahoe City, defied expectations and roared on March 31. Her book, "A Wall of White: The True Story of Heroism and Survival in the Face of a Deadly Avalanche," was released last week by Atria, a division of Simon and Schuster.
At 3:30 p.m. on March 31, 1982, a storm had layered the region with more than 8 feet of snow over four and a half days. "It was the storm of the century in that it was so unusual, a unique confluence of events," Woodlief says from her home in Tiburon. By that afternoon, most resort employees had gone home, and most vacationers were snug in their cabins. Only a few people bustled around the resort, including a handful of employees clearing new snow off the roads and buildings. Inside the Summit Terminal Building, a few remaining ski patrol members monitored the storm. As the clock ticked toward 3:45, the workers pitted their need to finish tasks against their instinct to go home.
The next few minutes would challenge a prevalent local tenet of the time, the certainty that human beings can control nature's deadliest forces. Several of their names are now forever linked with resort history: Bernie Kingery, beloved rough-spoken mountain manager, often seen wearing a favorite leather and sheepskin hat; Beth Morrow, the reliable, friendly scribe who recorded radio traffic at Kingery's side; college student Frank Yeatman and his girlfriend, Anna Conrad; and the affable Jake Smith. Not far away, trudging through parking-lot snow, were Bud Nelson and his young daughter, Laura, and Dave Hahn, who'd left their cozy condos for some fresh air.
"It's fascinating to see how events played out, and who was where, when," says Woodlief, who conducted more than 100 interviews. "How someone called someone else in for a coffee break, and that saved the person's life, or how the life (of one of the patrollers) potentially was saved when at the last minute he went to Squaw Valley for avalanche control." The incidents that influenced the progress of various people put everyone into place at 3:45 to live or die. The three walkers paused to watch a snowplow, an action that put them directly into the avalanche's path. When Conrad dropped by the Summit building to greet Kingery, he lectured her for entering the resort in such a storm. She went into the second-floor locker room, a move that sealed her fate - but also saved her life.
At 3:45 the mountain let go. "The mountain unzipped itself all the way around," Woodlief writes. Kingery and others had worried about a slide in Beaver Bowl, but they hadn't imagined that three adjoining slide paths would release together, hurling down enough snow to consume the building where they worked. The slides hit the Summit building, the main ski lodge, several small buildings and two chairlifts, filling the parking lot with 20 feet of snow. Miraculously, workers near a maintenance building survived, but the snow buried eight others, including Kingery, Morrow, Smith, the Nelsons, Hahn, Yeatman and Conrad.
To this day, at any large local gathering, it's easy to find at least one person who scrambled into the canyon with shovels and snow probes to locate those lost. Tragically, at first all they found were broken and frozen bodies. After two days, when a new snowstorm moved in, enhancing treacherous conditions on the slopes above, the search was suspended. Three days later, searchers doggedly returned. Spirits soared when they found one person alive: Conrad, near death from dehydration and frostbite and trapped in a cocoon of debris. Miraculously, the wall of lockers had fallen over and created an air space for her beneath the snow. Nearby, they soon located the body of Kingery.
That avalanche not only extinguished lives but also devastated nearby communities - Tahoe City, Homewood, Truckee, Squaw Valley, Kings Beach - places where residents today still recall the odd squeaking sound the snow made that day in March, and the way the oversize snow-banks sloughed ominously onto the roads.
Avalanche-control procedures have progressed over the years, and now Alpine Meadows has an additional option for handling hazards - Plan E for evacuation. That plan has never been used, according to Larry Heywood, who became Alpine Meadows' ski patrol director in December 1982 and stayed with the resort for the rest of his career. When the tragedy occurred earlier that year, Heywood was a 32-year-old ski patroller. He says the March storm presented conditions that were extremely difficult to assess, a never before seen pattern of wind and snowfall.
"I always wonder if, were that same sequence to occur again, I would have recognized the danger," he says. "I don't know the answer to that. The sequence hasn't occurred since then."
Occasionally, in some houses around Lake Tahoe, you'll find a faded 1980s photo of Kingery, his favorite hat hugging his ears. No one who was around in 1982 has forgotten the Alpine Meadows avalanche.
Jennifer Woodlief: Discusses "A Wall of White." 7 tonight. Book Passage Bookstore, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. (800) 999-7909. www.bookpassage.com.
Excerpt from 'A Wall of White'
"In the biggest avalanches, the snow is preceded by a massive air blast, a shock wave caused by the force of the avalanche slamming faster and faster against nothing more than the air in front of it. The buffeting effect is analogous to, but much more powerful than, riding in a convertible on the highway when an 18-wheeler whizzes by in the opposite direction. Displacing enormous quantities of air, creating winds of hurricane force around it, the air blast can be destructive beyond its boundaries. Anything in its way - buildings, vehicles, trees - is blown apart rather than crushed.
"The air blast is immediately followed by the screeching of the wind - wind vicious enough to toss trucks, implode buildings, and obliterate anything in its path. Then there is the sound of the snow mass itself, a noise that, as described by the few people who have been that close to an avalanche and survived to talk about it, sounds like a freight train passing inches away from their ears. The train sound is indeed the sound of snow moving, but it is also the noise of whatever that snow has destroyed and carried along with it as it travels down the mountain - trees and rocks, certainly, but in some cases, also buildings, power lines, and people.
"And that movement down the mountain is fast, faster than anyone expects, faster than any human could outrun, or, except in the rarest of instances, even out-ski. That movement, in a massive slab avalanche, can reach speeds of more than 200 mph. At high enough speeds, the snow is basically sucked ahead into a powerful vacuum, and the resulting pressure imbalance can actually cause the snow to accelerate more quickly than gravity is moving it." - Jennifer Woodlief