"A Wall of White" - review
A Wall of White, by Jennifer Woodlief, is a story about the deadliest avalanche to ever occur at a ski resort in North America. In late March, 1982, a once-in-a-century snowstorm hit California's Alpine Meadows ski resort, dropping over four feet of snow in three days. Despite efforts by avalanche control workers, the freak storm released a catastrophic slide that destroyed the base area, killing seven people and burying one alive for five days. Tourists and resort workers alike were swept away as the avalanche demolished buildings, crushed snowcats and buried cars under 20 feet of snow.
Exhaustively researched, A Wall of White centers on the ski patrol, and their seemingly unending efforts to control avalanches during a storm unlike any they had ever dealt with. The book also revolves around the lives of the avalanche victims. Their histories are meticulously spelled out as every event and decision they make eventually leads them to the base area of a ski resort about to be wiped away.
In her quest to explore all she can about that fateful day, Woodlief leaves no stone unturned as she uncovers every detail about the avalanche, the history of Alpine Meadows, the science of avalanches, the lives of the victims and survivors, and the way irony puts people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Unfortunately, this attention to detail at times bogs the book down. Woodlief, a former CIA case officer, seems to get so caught up in her research, the book reads as if she's writing a case report. No small detail is left out as she recounts the history of almost everyone involved, introducing so many names to keep track of that I found myself having to go back to earlier pages to remember who's who.
But despite the flood of biographies at the beginning of the book, Woodlief still finds ways to keep the reader motivated. She skillfully weaves foreshadowing into early chapters that remind us of the danger lurking in these people's future. And when the avalanche finally comes crashing down more than halfway through the book, the story comes into sharp, compelling focus.
The most engaging part of the story is the rescue of Anna Conrad, a 22-year-old resort employee who survives the avalanche but is buried alive for five days before being dug out. Her story is so amazing that I couldn't help but think that the book could have revolved around her. As a history of the avalanche and the people it affected, the book is a triumph. But it is sometimes emotionally detached, as if the event is being observed rather than experienced. Anna Conrad, the one who survives, provides the catalyst of experience, but her incredible story only appears in the final chapters of the book.
Ultimately, when I picked up A Wall of White, I expected to read about Anna Conrad's harrowing tale of being buried in a tomb of snow and debris for five days. But this book is much more than that. It is about the avalanche itself, the place where it happened, the people who were killed, and the rescuers who risked their lives to save anyone they could but ended up mostly recovering the bodies of friends and co-workers. And on that level, A Wall of White works perfectly.
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