Literary Review: ‘A Wall of White’ Humanizes One of the Deadliest Avalanches in American History

The list of special places in NorCal is endless, but besides getting out there and forming your own impressions, it’s fun to know a few of the stories, legends and lore of a place before visiting. 

I thought I knew a fair amount about the Lake Tahoe area, but this story had slipped through the cracks for me. Turns out, it’s a quintessential Tahoe story and ought to be required reading for anyone enchanted with traversing her many lovely slopes and snowy white runs. 

Scanning the back cover of A Wall of White (2009, by Jennifer Woodlief) is enough to tell you it’s about the tragic 1982 Alpine Meadows avalanche that killed seven people, and the miraculous survival of another trapped under the snow for five days.

Published in 2009, A Wall of White isn’t a new novel, but the story isn’t as well-known as you’d expect. Author Jennifer Woodlief, a former reporter for Sports Illustrated, did an extraordinary job of researching her topic, the people involved and the fairly new science of avalanche prevention. Who knew that lightning from static electricity is common inside a moving wall of snow, or that moving snow can thunder down a mountain in excess of 200 miles per hour? 

While you’re apt to learn more than you ever thought possible about avalanches, “snow science,” avalanche survival statistics and the fairly new use of dogs in locating victims trapped under the snow, most of the narrative focuses (rightfully so) on the people who were there, some of whom made it and others not. It is a frightful story of the extremes nature is capable of, but also the human elements of courage, tenacity, faith and fear inspired by a killer avalanche that was over in less than ten seconds. A lot can happen in ten seconds.

Expect to get to know victims Frank Yateman, David Hahn, Beth Morrow, Bernie Kingery, Jake Smith and Bud and Laura Nelson. Bud may have survived if he hadn’t tried to save Laura, his 11-year-old daughter. You will also read the story of Anna Allen who survived under the snow for 117 hours before being rescued largely due to the efforts of a German Shepard named Bridget. 

Much more than your typical disaster narrative, Woodlief recounts this story of the deadliest avalanche in American ski resort history with compassion and dignity. She also captures the culture and mood of working ski patrol, avalanche prevention in California in the 1980s. Alpine Meadows was notorious for reporting more avalanches per year than any other American ski resort. 

“I just like blowin’ shit up,” said Casey Jones, Alpine Meadows ski patrol, “and making things move.” The preferred method of preventing large avalanches in those days was to toss two-pound explosives (hand charges) at potential trouble spots intentionally setting off smaller, controlled avalanches before they turn into something uncontrollable. Alpine Meadows also used a recoilless rifle and a howitzer borrowed from the military to reach spots not easily skied to. The work attracted a special breed of character, part ski bum, part munitions expert, who spent their days skiing and blowing things up for next to starvation wages. Most made more money pumping gas during the summer, but it was never about the money. The book recounts the history of avalanche control along with pioneers Monty Atwater and Jim Plehn, as well as what we’ve learned since then and how avalanche prevention has evolved.

From a literary perspective, the novel almost gets bogged down in minutiae when recounting the lives of the people involved. It isn’t until you learn that some of these people died on the mountain that day that you recognize the author’s attempt at showing them honor and respect, as well as how and why they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When you see the big picture, it all makes sense.

The author makes unexpected reference to Saw-whet owls in the beginning and end of the novel, a literary device I’ve always called “bookends.” It’s when the writer introduces something seemingly unrelated at the start of a book (Saw-whet owls), and then circles back to that topic at the end of the story. It’s a device meant to leave the reader feeling satisfied at the conclusion of the story, and it often works pretty well. 

In Chapter One we meet Larry Heywood, Assistant Patrol Director for Alpine Meadows, who spots an elusive, very rare Saw-whet owl. Apparently Saw-whet owls are superstitiously believed to be omens of impending doom or evil, a so-called “witchbird,” and spotting one is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

At the end of the novel, after the disaster, he spots another one, but this time the owl is dead. I suppose this was meant to suggest some sort of supernatural intervention into the lives of men, like “the spirits” knew about the disaster ahead of time. While it was a valiant attempt to satisfy readers and wrap up the narrative with a “bang,” I didn’t quite buy it. 

Fortunately there is plenty of other meat to this narrative, especially Anna Allen’s survival story, and I’d rate this novel as well worth reading. The last chapter is very moving. If you’re interested in the stories, legends and lore of the Tahoe ski scene, A Wall of White will not disappoint. 

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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