In the 70’s and 80’s, ski resorts were rated for their avalanche danger with a scale of A through F – with A being the most dangerous. That’s what Alpine Meadows, sitting on the northwest shore of Lake Tahoe was rated, although many workers at the resort knew its true score to be an A+.
That didn’t stop hoards of skiing enthusiasts from hitting slopes and the resort developed a revolutionary system for mitigating avalanches, led by Jim Plehn. One of the most thorough programs in all of Tahoe, and much of North America, avalanche mitigation was done daily on the slopes of Alpine Meadows to protect the skiers from a natural disaster.
The avalanche safety team took their job very serious, but nothing could stop Mother Nature from its actions on March 31, 1982 – a day that lives in infamy in Tahoe and the greater skiing community. It was a perfect storm that led to a devastating tragedy that left 7 people dead under the deep snow of the Sierra.
Avalanche – A Worthy Foe
During World War I, battles engaged on the snowy slopes of the Italian Alps between Italian and Austrian armies. Both armies would attack their foes with artillery shots into the hills above, creating large avalanches that would bury their opponent. It’s estimated that 40,000 soldiers were killed by avalanche during the war, including 10,000 over just a couple days known as White Friday. The devastating tactic became the foundation used in the decades after as how to trigger avalanches, and eventually how to stop them from hitting innocent skiers, throughout the United States.
These tactics were adopted at Alpine Meadows, which used a World War I-type bunker of explosives and artillery to battle avalanches every day. The brave avalanche team took to the slopes every morning to drop different iterations of dynamite with the hopes of starting smaller avalanches. When that didn’t work, or the slopes were too dangerous to access, they used a howitzer gun positioned on a tower to attack the unstable snow. Avalanches were a dangerous enemy that always needed to be battled.
Much like how small earthquakes release tension along a fault line, forcing small avalanches to drop onto the mountain would help avoid the big one. With changing temperatures through a storm or series of storms, heavy snow would fall on light snow, or vice-versa, creating unstable conditions. Although the science behind avalanches was a moving target, Alpine Meadows was one of the best in the world at calming their foe sitting on the mountain.
The Perfect Storm
Beginning on March 25, 1982, a late-winter storm began dropping heavy amounts of snow on the Sierra. In a time before complex snow measuring lasers and webcams, storms were measured the old fashion way using a large stick jammed into the snowpack. Throughout that particular week, the snow accumulation was about 1-2 inches per hour, or about 3 to 4 feet of snow a day. This lasted for almost a week until the storm ratcheted up on March 30, with winds reaching 120 mph on the peaks of the Sierra. The snow was dropping fast and visibility was essentially non-existent.
Throughout the storm, the Alpine Meadows avalanche team worked daily to bomb the slopes and relieve the new snowpack. Once the snow began dropping at maximum pace, they doubled their efforts. They began dropping double and quadruple-sized dynamite packs on the mountain, on top of a near constant barrage of howitzer blasts. They knew the avalanche danger was increasing by the day and the lack of visibility made it impossible to see if their efforts were helping to relieve the deep snowpack.
On March 31, the storm reached its dangerous peak. Intense winds, zero visibility and road closures forced resort management, led by Bernie Kingery, to close for the day. With no skiers on the slopes, the avalanche and ski patrol teams still reported to the mountain to continue their work providing storm cleanup. Other maintenance, management and trail crews also reported to work to complete various tasks. In the morning, Plehn made his daily measurement of snowpack from the storm, recording in his logbook an exact number of 100 inches. He wouldn’t make another measurement that day.
10 Seconds That Changed Everything
The workers who reported to work that day continued their tasks with enthusiasm. The most die-hard mountain lovers lived for this type of storm, with dreams of riding bluebird powder days in the near future. The avalanche team worked furiously to relieve the dangerous snowpack on the slopes, with a team heading over the Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe) to drop into the back of the mountain and bomb hard-to-reach areas. Only a handful of employees were working on that stormy day, many of them based in the headquarters of the Summit Terminal Building.
Beloved ski patrol worker Jake Smith was waiting near Alpine Meadows Rd. to block any traffic from the impending bombing of the slopes above so any potential slides wouldn’t become a danger to people on the road. At 3:45 pm, he saw anyone’s worst nightmare right in front of – a 40-foot wall of white barreling down the mountain. “Avalanche!” he yelled over the radio. Those were the last words anyone heard from Smith.
What Smith witnessed was a once-in-a-century avalanche rumbling down the mountain at an unimaginable speed. Even with all the mitigation done that week, three different avalanche areas were triggered at once, dropping thousands of tons of snow in unison. It was an occurrence not even the expert avalanche forecasters could have predicted in their wildest dreams.
The avalanche hit multiple lifts, buried the Summit Terminal Building and slid all the way down to the parking lot. Due to the lack of visibility, the avalanche wasn’t seen by many people who survived the slide.
A Community of Heroes
After the avalanche settled in its final resting place, calls on the radio began pleading for all hands on deck for a rescue mission. Anyone working that wasn’t buried in the snow immediately began digging for survivors.
The first rescue missions began in the parking lot, where Smith, along with three visitors staying at a nearby condos were buried. Rescuers were able to dig out Smith within 35 minutes, but he had already succumbed to asphyxiation, the most common form of death in an avalanche. Subsequent parking lot searches also found David Hahn, Bud Nelson and Laura Nelson, who were all on vacation and hiking to the lodge to shake cabin fever and find some food. Witnesses indicated that Bud may have survived the ordeal if he hadn’t attempted to save Laura, his 11-year-old daughter.
Then, the rescue crews set their sights on the completely demolished Summit Terminal Building. They knew workers were in building during the avalanche, but didn’t know how many. The wreckage of bent steel beams and collapsed rooftop made the rescue extremely dangerous. They knew air pockets existed in the rubble, but they didn’t want to collapse any of the material and crush any would-be survivors. The snow continued to fall furiously, thwarting many rescue efforts on that first night. As darkness fell, management made the decision to suspend the search for the night.
When the morning came, hundreds of members of nearby ski patrols and community members showed up with shovels to help the efforts. Word had spread about the deadly incident, and everyone wanted to assist with the rescue. The body of Beth Morrow was pulled from the demolished building that day, but the snow continued to fall fast and fears of another avalanche burying the search and rescue team became a source of anxiety.
With very little chance of survivors and growing fears of another avalanche, Plehn made the excruciatingly tough decision to suspend the search and rescue operation. It was a decision grounded in the age old theory that losing more people isn’t worth the slight prospect of finding a survivor. The operations would not resume for two days while the storm continued its historic barrage of snowfall on the mountain.
Before the search operations were suspended on the second day, avalanche dog Bridgette was alerting to a live human in a tiny hole within the rubble. Her trainer was sure of the alert, although the practice of trained avalanche dogs was rare in those days, and the dog’s alert wasn’t enough for the operations to continue. But to some, it signaled a hope for the conitnued search.
The team resumed the relentless digging at the Summit Terminal Building five days after the avalanche. Upon arrival, Bridgette had once again alerted of a live human at the exact same spot. The team carefully ran chainsaws through the wreckage to access the area and began removing large pieces of wood and metal. Once a piece was moved, a small hand reached out and grabbed a piece of snow. Under complete shock of what they had just witnessed, one of the searchers yelled “is that Anna?!”
“Of course it is!” a voice from the rubble replied.
Survival At Its Finest
Hours after the avalanche hit the building on March 31, 22-year-old lift operator Anna Conrad awoke in a dark, coffin-sized hole amidst the wreckage. In a case of extreme luck, a set of lockers had fallen over her and landed on a bench in the hallway, creating a perfect space where she wasn’t crushed by the snow. Her head was pounding in pain and she didn’t know where she was or how she got there. Cold and afraid, she spent much of the initial hours sleeping after suffering a serious concussion.
She awoke to the sound of the howitzer shooting at the mountainside and knew she was at Alpine Meadows, but had no idea how she’d arrived there. In a building full of avalanche dynamite, she assumed it was the impact of an explosion that destroyed her surroundings. With zero memory of the day which led to the disaster, she spent her days trying to stay warm and thinking of reuniting with her loving boyfriend, UC Davis student Frank Yateman. According to Conrad, it was getting back to Yateman that kept her spirits high during her five-days of agony under the destroyed building.
What Anna couldn’t remember is that Yateman had gone with her to work that day. During the storm, they had decided to cross-country ski to the building to see if management needed help. Unfortunately, Yateman was also caught in the avalanche and his body was found in the rubble days before Anna was discovered.
Her physical injuries were initially mild, but after days under the snow Conrad suffered from severe dehydration and frostbite. When rescuers cut a hole into her location, she reached out quickly to grab a handful of ice to hydrate herself. It was all she could think of. She was responsive as the crowd cheered in elation. Their rescue efforts were worthwhile and a life had been spared.
Later that day, the body of the resort’s fearless leader, Kingery, was found deep in the broken building. His hand clinched in a strong fist, he had fought until the bitter end. And as many people have said, he would have wanted to be found last.
How does one recover from one of the most deadly avalanches in U.S. history? The community mourned its fallen brethren by reopening the ski resort for spring skiing. Because, of course, that’s what the victims would have wanted.
The families of David Hahn, Bud Nelson and Laura Nelson sued Alpine Meadows for negligence in their deaths. After a grueling trial in which Plehn was questioned on the stand for a record 11 days, a jury found that the tragedy was an Act of God and relieved resort management of any wrongdoing.
Jake Smith’s brother petitioned the U.S. Forest Service to rename one of the Sierra peaks after the brave ski patroller. Today, hikers can summit the top of Jake’s Peak above Emerald Bay.
Living with the emotional pain of the tragedy, Plehn left the avalanche business shortly after the avalanche. Many ski resorts around the world still use his revolutionary tactics in forecasting and avalanche mitigation.
Bridgette the dog was awarded a steak dinner the night she found Conrad, but her triumph lasted well beyond that day. Her discovery in the collapsed Summit Terminal Building was the first live rescue of a person buried in an avalanche by a dog. Today, many ski resorts employ full teams of avalanche dogs to assist with rescue operations.
Anna Conrad still lives with the physical and emotional scars of her five-day ordeal under the avalanche. Her story has been told by books and films as a shocking story of survival. She currently lives in Mammoth Lakes, California where she works at a ski resort.
Alpine Meadows was purchased by the owner of Squaw Valley and a plan for the gondola connecting the two resorts is expected to be finished in 2022. The combined ski area will be the largest in North America and the avalanche team will be one of the most distinguished in the world.
Today, a plaque sits at the base of Alpine Meadows, where the original Summit Terminal Building once stood, memorializing the seven victims – Frank Yateman, David Hahn, Beth Morrow, Bernie Kingery, Jake Smith, and Bud and Laura Nelson.