Alpine Meadows 1982
Finding Anna: Disaster, Heroism, Triumph And Remembrance
March 05, 2007
After twenty-five years, Alpine Meadows' patrolman Casey Jones still recalls the moment when Anna Conrad was safely rescued.
"This hand came out between all the debris. Then we saw the fingers pull back into a fist. As it turns out, she was trying to grab snow to eat," remembers Jones. "We stared in disbelief. Earlier, we had found her boyfriend lifeless only a few feet away. Lanny (Johnson), a fellow patrolman, said, '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 deadliest ski area disasters.
The Alpine Meadows resort opened on December 28, 1961. Located on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, four miles from Lake Tahoe at the top of Bear Creek Canyon, the resort shares its northern ridge with Squaw Valley. The ski area has always won applause for its terrain, which includes some of America's toughest to some of the tamest. The resort's high valley floor (6,835 feet) guarantees abundant snowfall. Even better than the deep snow is the terrain it covers: 2,000 acres of glades, bowls and eye-popping steeps. Its multitude of fall-lines offer views of cobalt colored Lake Tahoe from nearly every run.
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. Also used are military cannons, and Avalaunchers. These safeguards have always been necessary. Few 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 avalanche which swept down from 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 the Alpine Meadows Ski Resort. Uncorking a monstrous slide, the Kong-sized mass swept destructively 800 feet below, 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 canyon road.
The Summit housing 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."
Heywood began his patrol career in 1970. He'd eventually take over as the resort's patrol director for 17 years. He is a charter member of the American Avalanche Association, and today remains an avalanche consultant for snowsport resorts throughout North America. In his many years of work within the ski industry no other experience hits closer to home, or with such emotion.
"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, would lose 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, gathering clothes in the locker room on the second floor of the building that housed the ski patrol, lift operations, and ski school. She stayed alive because the wall of the locker room toppled over onto the bench she'd been knocked underneath. Its 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 ninety inches of snow had fallen on top of an already 87-inch base at Alpine Meadows. Despite the storm's intensity, each day the ski patrol had completed control routes, combating the storm with hand charges. No one noticed any alarming slide path buildups. The patrol's artillery, a 75mm recoilless cannon and howitzer were used frequently on areas that ski patrol could no longer access, including the Buttress area. On-slope control activity continued until mid-day on the 31st.
By afternoon on Tuesday, March 30th, the resort 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 base 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 Squaw Valley. 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.
"Avalanche!" was all that was heard from Smith's garbled message.
"About five seconds later the avalanche hit us," Randy Buck said later to reporters. "You could hear a rumble and then the building started to shake violently. 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 room's 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 across the parking lot, killing 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 in hopes of discovering an open restaurant within the resort. They had nearly reached the base lodge when the fast moving snowfield overwhelmed them.
Amongst the building's debris, Buck and DeFelice spotted Jeff Skover's hand sticking out of the snow. With the help of arriving rescuers, they safely dug him out.
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 Smithâ€™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 snowcatted 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 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 within remnants of what had once been the resort's central headquarters for mountain operations. It now was nothing more than naked I-beams and twisted wreckage wrapped around a derailed bullwheel.
"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 patrol to control surrounding slopes. Early afternoon, a battalion of rescue teams returned to the Summit building location and resumed a methodical search.
At 1:10 p.m., Bridget, US Forest Service worker Roberta Huber's avalanche rescue dog became animated. Her 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 hadn't realized 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 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 careflight 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. His lifeless body was found under six feet of snow. 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 percent of all currently employed patrolmen in the country, all ski industry people for that matter, were in their cribs or gradeschool 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 vindicated after a 5-month jury trial in 1985 from any negligence. The jury deliberated for two and one-half weeks.
"They fired in the Poma Rocks, Pond and Buttress direction twice a day on both 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 case was felt throughout the ski industry, including ski resorts in Europe and around the world. The court's decision made it clear that the use of resort explosive programs is not subject to ultra hazardous, post-control releases.
"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 found despite the best efforts of highly trained professionals an event like this can occur. We argued that it was a precedent storm that yielded an unprecedented avalanche," says John Fagan, who along with Gary Bunshoft of Hancock, Robert, and 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 was this event. Our mindset was that we controlled it."
During the 1990s Alpine Meadows employed a 106mm recoilless rifle to control the heights above its resort. The gun throws a 7.7-pound bomb versus the 2-pound payload of the 75mm. Two years ago, the U.S. Army commandeered the weapon for use in the Iraqi War. Alpine Meadows replaced the gun with a powerful 105mm howitzer.
"The 106mm wasn't available to resorts back then in 1982. Who knows what would of happened if we'd had it," says 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 she has remained ever since. Now 47 years old, she skis 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 13 and Carissa, 10.
"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. The other day 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."
Written by J.D. O'Connor on March 5, 2007 01:00 AM
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