The Avalanche Review, VOL. 10, NO. 5, MARCH 1992
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

The Alpine Meadows Avalanche:


by Art Mears

For the victims, ski-area personnel, and witnesses in the Alpine Meadows base area, the March 31, 1982, avalanche was unpredictable, unprecedented in magnitude, and tragic. For the lawyers, consultants, and others who became involved subsequently, the avalanche and the events surrounding it were controversial, frustrating, interesting, lucrative to some and sad to all.

Nature, however, must view the avalanche as a natural, predictable and regular event. If a 100-year return period is assumed, at least 100 similar events must have occurred in the Poma RocksButtress area above what was to become the base area and parking lot since glaciers retreated from the Sierra some 1020,000 years ago. The avalanche was nothing unusual to nature, had occurred many times in the past, and will certainly occur in the future, in spite of our attempts to prevent it.

In addition to being an unexpected and tragic event, the avalanche also illustrated a typical conflict in time scales between humans and nature. Our expectations about avalanche potential here developed over the short time scale of years and decades. Our expectations reflect a typical optimism about our ability to control nature. In contrast, geophysical processes often operate regularly over a time scale of centuries or longer. This contrast in time scales often becomes a conflict as our population expands and human needs receive top priority in spite of natural constraints.

Alpine Meadows began operations in 1961, only two short decades before the notorious avalanche occurred. Abundant snowfall and steep terrain quickly earned the ski area the Forest Service "class A" avalanche designation. Within even a short time span (by nature's standards), avalanches were regarded as a serious threat to the public, and the ski area developed one of the most competent and experienced snow-safety programs in North America, a tradition that continues to the present. Experience, of course, must be gained through responding to observed conditions, learning what works and doesn't work, and making the appropriate adjustments and corrections. The snowsafety program at Alpine Meadows matched or exceeded "industry standards," but since it was based primarily on avalanche conditions observed at the ski area over a 20-year period, only a thin slice of nature's time scale could be considered. Nothing approaching the 1982 avalanche had ever been observed simply because a sufficiently long time period had not been experienced.

Snow avalanches are but one of many similar geophysical processes such as floods, earthquakes, landslides and meteorological events. However, all geophysical processes, including avalanches, have at least one thing in common: the longer one waits, the larger the event will be. Avalanches have been largely overlooked by the scientists, engineers, planners, and developers who have traditionally been called upon to analyze, map, and describe potential risk from geophysical hazards. In the United States this is understandable because avalanches affect only a small percentage of our population. They are not a "national problem" like floods, hurricanes or earthquakes and the "control" of avalanches is usually left to the skilled snowsafety specialists who learn their trade through the trial-and-error process
mentioned above. This process serves the specialist well when he or she is confronted with the conditions that have previously been encountered or can reasonably be expected. Alpine Meadows' perspective of avalanche potential in the Poma Rocks-Buttress area before 1982 is typical throughout most North American mountain areas. People tend to believe what they previously have observed and base current behavior, including avalanche control and safety procedures, upon past experience.

The four-year long litigation process following the Poma Rocks-Buttress avalanche focused, as might be expected, on who was "right" and who was "wrong" and on how much money one side owed the other. It certainly was not a proper forum for deciding philosophical or technical issues, for understanding avalanche potential in the Poma Rocks-Buttress path or more importantly, in other similar paths. The result of the trial (Alpine Meadows and other defendants were exonerated because they had followed the "industry standard" in avalanche control), had nothing whatever to do with man's duty to understand and respect nature. Although Alpine Meadows has made substantial modifications to its snow-safety program since the avalanche, the trial results could be interpreted by others as a recommendation by society to continue to do "business as usual" until one of these unavoidable conflicts in time scales occurs again somewhere, as they always will. Understanding and respect for nature's time scale, however, must improve if we are ever to become responsible residents of our planet or develop an adequate understanding of avalanche potential. Who is to blame and what can be learned from the tragic event that cost so many so much? The Alpine Meadows' mountain management and snow safety crew certainly did nothing wrong. They were practicing what they had learned previously in avalanche control at the ski area. The record clearly shows that numerous additional rounds were delivered to the starting zone. Mountain manager Bernie Kingery died in his Summit Building office as he continued to direct operations.

We all failed because nature's potential was underestimated and our ability to control her was overestimated. This failure occurred in spite of more than a century's experience with avalanches in the Sierra. Alpine Meadows now has direct experience and there is little question that they have learned from the avalanche. But the human tragedy of this event will be compounded if man's direct experience with one of nature's typical events cannot be applied at other locations to avoid another conflict in time scales.

Art Mears is an avalanche consultant in Gunnison, Colorado. In 1985, he was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Alpine Meadows case.

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 10, NO. 5, MARCH 1992
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA