Tragic Alpine Meadows Avalanche - March 31, 1982
"We stared in disbelief. Earlier, we had found her boyfriend lifeless only a few feet away." Lanny (Johnson), a fellow patrolman, said into the snow: "Anna, is that you?" She responded, "Yes, it's me."
Finding Anna Conrad alive was a miracle that helped overcome the sense of loss and ruin surrounding one of North America's most fatal ski-area disasters.
Alpine opened on December 28, 1961. The ski area has always won applause for its terrain, which includes some of America's toughest to some of its tamest. The resort's high valley floor (6,835 feet) guarantees abundant snowfall. Even better than the deep snow are the 2,000 acres of glades, bowls, and eye-popping steeps. And the multitude of fall lines offer many peeks of cobalt-colored Lake Tahoe.
The resort is classified within the ski industry as one of North America's few "A" level avalanche areas. It annually records the largest number of avalanches of any ski resort in the United States. Patrolmen tossing hand charges over 24 on-slope routes combat some 300 in-bounds avalanche paths during storm cycles. Military cannons ("Avalaunchers") are also used. Few other mountain resorts need such intense control measures to protect its core facilities as well as its slopes.
But even with such heavy weapons, advanced snow control programs, and diligence, nothing prepared or protected the resort from the titanic, 1982 avalanche which swept down from the upper reaches into the base area, killed seven people and caused millions of dollars in damage to resort facilities.
Five days before discovering Anna Conrad, on March 31, 1982, at approximately 3:45 p.m., a series of massive avalanches released a 3,200-foot ocean of snow along the Poma Rocks, Buttress, and Don's Nose terrain, a steep area high above the northeastern portion of Alpine. A Kong-sized mass swept destructively down some 800 feet, snapping100-year-elder growth trees like toothpicks. Unchecked, the avalanche hit the resort's lower Summit Chair, terminal building.
The torrent of destruction continued its path critically damaging two other lifts, several parked snowcats, and an array of structures, including the main lodge, before finally running out into the parking lot and onto the canyon road. The Summit lift, building frame completely crumbled. Seven people were in the building at the time.
"To this day, unless you witnessed the results of that avalanche, it's hard to describe just how monstrous it was," explains Larry Heywood. Heywood was Assistant Patrol leader at the time. "This was no ordinary slide, but a once-in-a-century catastrophe. It was an event of geological time." Even now after his many years of work in the ski industry, no other experience hits closer to home, or with such emotion.
"...a very powerful moment."
"Finding Anna and the commotion of pulling her out alive was an intense experience," says Heywood." There were probably 100 searchers in the vicinity at the time. Each person stopped and watched her get loaded into a helicopter. You could feel this incredible release and exhilaration from everyone. It was a very powerful moment."
Conrad, a 22-year-old U.C. Davis graduate, lost her right leg below the knee and all the toes on her left foot, from frostbite. Nonetheless, she was one of the lucky ones.
When the titanic slide hit the Summit Chair bottom terminal, Conrad, an Alpine resort lift operator, had been with her boyfriend, Frank Yeatman. They were gathering clothes in the locker room on the second floor of the building; it housed the ski patrol, lift operations, and ski school. She lived through the ordeal because the wall of the locker room toppled over onto the bench she'd been knocked beneath. The wall's strength supported the snow load above her and created a large air space.
Her boyfriend and six others weren't so fortunate. The victims included Alpine Meadows' Mountain Manager, Bernie Kingery. Kingery, 52, an avalanche control veteran since 1959, had been an Alpine Meadow's patroller and mountain manager since 1964. He had been monitoring the storm in the Base 4 Room, headquarters for avalanche forecasting. It was located on the bottom floor. With him were employees Randy Buck, Tad DeFelice, Jeff Skover, and Beth Morrow.
The spring storm that built into the fatal slide began on March 27. By 7 a.m. on March 31, nearly 90 inches of snow had fallen on top of an already-large, 87-inch base at Alpine Meadows. Despite the storm's intensity, each day the ski patrol had completed control routes, combating the avalanche dangers with hand charges. No one noticed any alarming slide-path buildups. The patrol's artillery, a 75mm recoilless cannon and a howitzer were used frequently on areas that ski patrol could not access, including the Buttress area. On-slope control activity continued until mid-day on the 31st.
By afternoon on Tuesday, March 30th, Alpine had closed to the skiing public. The next morning, with the storm intensifying, Mountain Manager Kingery kept the resort shut down. By noon he ordered the majority of employees to go home, including most of his exhausted ski patrol. Winds of over 100mph made riding chairlifts impossible.
By mid-afternoon the ski area was mostly deserted. Only a handful of employees remained behind working in the lodge area.
At 3:45 p.m. Kingery suddenly received a radio message from mountain operation assistant Jake Smith. Smith, riding a snowmobile through the lower parking lot, had left Base 4 earlier to stop any motorists trying to drive down Alpine Meadows Road. Earlier, five Alpine Meadows patrolmen had driven next door to Palisades Tahoe. They hoped to ride the neighboring resort's KT-22 Chairlift and ski off its backside in order to bomb slide paths threatening Alpine Meadows Road that goes out to Highway 89.
"Avalanche!" was all that Kingery heard in Smith's garbled message.
"About five seconds later the avalanche hit us," Randy Buck told reporters later. "You could hear a rumble and then the building started to shake violently. Then there was a powerful air blast."
Buck remembers hitting the floor and curling up in a ball before being completely engulfed in snow and pushed across the floor.
"When the snow stopped moving, I was about one and a half feet under," said Buck who suffered broken ribs and a fractured vertebra. "I heaved my body up and got my head and shoulders out of the snow. I realized Tad was next to me. His head and shoulders were also free. I looked around. I was still in the room, but it no longer had any walls."
Besides destroying the three-story building, the avalanche swept down across the parking lot. It killed Jake Smith and three others: Dr. Leroy Nelson; his daughter Laura, and David Hahn. The three visitors from the Bay Area had only minutes before left their nearby, snowbound rental home in hopes of discovering an open restaurant within the resort. They had nearly reached the lodge when the fast moving snowfield overwhelmed them.
Back in the building's debris, Buck and DeFelice spotted Jeff Skover's hand sticking out of the snow. With the help of arriving rescuers, they dug him out. He was safe.
Response: Search and...
Word spread quickly. Within a short time Alpine Meadows' patrol and local rescue units made their way to the resort. In the dark, Jones and several other patrolmen found Smith's lifeless body in a roadside creek bed. Later that evening searchers found the bodies of David Hahn and Leroy Nelson.
"There was 15 feet of snow mixed with debris across the whole area," remembers Gary Murphy, the initial probe-line leader for the parking lot search. Murphy, currently Alpine Meadow's weather forecaster, was a member of the ski patrol. "I was eight years on patrol and thought I knew a lot. Nothing compared to the magnitude of the slide. The road was gone. We had to be snow-catted into the area. We were working the site with only headlamps. It was difficult to recognize what was what because of the amazingly huge amounts of snow."
Ray Belli, one of initial rescuers to arrive at the site of the disaster, was also staggered. "It resembled moonscape," says Belli. "Telephone poles were down, power lines, too. It was difficult to probe because of all the debris."
The following day the weather softened and it turned bright and clear. Searchers discovered Laura Nelson in the parking lot and Frank Yeatman within the destroyed terminal building. Over ninety people continued searching. There remained nothing more than naked I-beams and twisted wreckage wrapped around a derailed bull wheel.
"We were digging trenches by hand," recalls Belli. There was so much debris and material littering the search area. After clearing a heavy load of mangled plywood we picked up a signal from an avalanche beacon. Following the signal we found Beth's body. She'd been wearing her transmitter at the time."
Friday, more snowy weather invaded the Sierra Nevada. Despite the storm's high winds and heavy snowfall searchers continued their work. Their dedication paid off.
The missing had included an avalanche search dog belonging to Alpine's avalanche forecaster, Jim Plehn. Incredibly, Plehn, while probing a hollow amid the wreckage, found his beloved German Shepherd, banged up but alive.
The resulting elation and heightened hope of finding others was short-lived. Heavy snowfall continued the next three days dropping nearly 40 more inches of snow. The increasing avalanche danger from above the search site forced a temporary halt to rescue efforts.
Monday, April 5, the unwelcome weather subsided; at least enough for patrols to control the surrounding slopes. Early that afternoon, a battalion of rescue teams returned to the Summit building location and resumed a methodical search.
At 1:10 p.m., a U.S. Forest Service worker, Roberta Huber's, avalanche rescue dog became animated. Bridget's wagging tail, barking and nose in the snow alerted teams to a spot amid the debris where Casey Jones and Lanny Johnson soon spotted Anna Conrad's hand. She was conscious, talking, and alert.
Anna Conrad didn't realize she'd been buried alive for five days. She thought it was an explosion, not an avalanche that had trapped her.
"I had absolutely no idea what had happened, it was so instantaneous," recalls Anna. "I did a lot of sleeping and thinking about friends. I just kept telling myself I could do it, I could do it. They'd find me."
She'd eaten nothing except snow. A little bit of light provided her with some comfort. She couldn't tell where she was. At one point, possibly during her third day of captivity, she heard rescuers above her, but no one responded to her screams. Luckily, she had been wearing two sweaters, a ski jacket, and powder pants when the slide collided with the building. Although she'd been wearing cross-country ski boots and woolen socks, both her feet had become extremely frostbitten. She also suffered from dehydration and numerous contusions. Her discoverer, canine Bridget, a nine-year old German Shepherd, became the first trained search and rescue dog in North America to locate a human avalanche victim.
Every anniversary of her remarkable survival, Anna Conrad recalls an argument she overheard in the care-flight helicopter during her evacuation from Alpine Meadows.
"The pilot was arguing with an attending nurse as where to transport me," remembers Anna. "I was totally awake. They finally asked me what I wanted. I told them I really wanted to go to Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee. It was the closest hospital to Alpine Meadows, and therefore the closest to my friends. It was my friends who found me. It was my friends I spent time thinking about while buried."
At 3:30 p.m. shovellers found Bernie Kingery's body 100 feet from the Summit Terminal Building beneath the ski school bell tree. He was under six feet of snow. Then, with all victims accounted for, rescue efforts ceased.
"It was an extraordinary event and something I believe needs to be recalled from time to time, even after all these years," says Heywood. "When you think that 70% of all currently employed patrolmen in the country, all ski industry people for that matter, were in their cribs or grade-school at the time... They don't even recollect this happening. That is unfortunate because the biggest thing that changed after that slide was the fact that we'd discovered a frightening knowledge about Mother Nature."
In subsequent lawsuits, Alpine Meadows was eventually vindicated in 1985 from any negligence. The jury deliberated the case for two-and-one-half weeks.
"They (Alpine patrol people) fired in the Poma Rocks, Pond, and Buttress direction twice a day on both the prior days. 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," snow scientist Norm Wilson told Avalanche magazine in 1982. "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."
The impact of the legal case was felt throughout the ski industry, including ski resorts in Europe and around the world. "There were over 100 witnesses called. The leading snow experts argued for both sides, but the jury correctly ruled that Alpine Meadows was not negligent. Basically, they (the jury) found that despite the best efforts of highly trained professionals, an event like this could occur. We argued that it was a precedent storm that yielded an unprecedented avalanche," says John Fagan, who along with Gary Bunshoft, defended Alpine Meadows at the trial.
"There was certainly some sentiment throughout the industry at first, that somehow we had messed up," says Heywood. "People later learned just how unusual this event was. Our mindset was that we controlled it."
Gary Murphy: "No one to this day knows what really happened, where it started and what triggered it. We've yet to ever see a storm cycle like that one even though we receive big storms each season. All I know is that it's a lesson we should never forget."
Anna Conrad started skiing again in December of 1982. After teaching high school science in the Bay Area she returned to the mountains, moving to Mammoth Lakes where, as last reported, she skies often when not at work for Mammoth Mountain as a director of their Mountain Host program. Her main focus in life is taking care of her husband Brent, a Mammoth contractor, and her two children Keith and Carissa.
"It certainly was a life altering incident and initially overwhelming," she says. "But I have been a positive person. I believe you have to move forward. I don't dwell on what happened, but it's not something ever far from my mind. Not so long ago I was coming home with the kids from skiing. The sun was shining on the white mountains all coated with new snow. It was incredibly beautiful and impressive. I smiled all the way home. I felt like the luckiest person in the world."
Editor's Note: Photos are courtesy of Mark McLaughlin, North Shore weather/historian. Photos are copyright 1982 by Jay Seffern.