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

Alpine Meadows:
March 31,1982

THE STORY
by Larry Heywood

PHOTO: Bernie Kingery, mountain manager of Alpine Meadows Ski Resort in 1982. Kingery was one of the seven killed by the March 31, 1982, avalanche at Alpine Meadows- photo by Tony Aloi

On March 31, 1982, at 15:45 a large soft-slab natural avalanche released at Alpine Meadows Ski Area. The avalanche, releasing from the Buttress, Pond and Poma Rocks slide paths, swept down into the base area and parking lot of the ski area. The avalanche hit the Summit Chairlift Terminal building, the main ski lodge, several small buildings, and two chairlifts, and it buried the parking lot under 10 to 20 feet of snow. The Summit Terminal Building, which housed the ski patrol, avalanche control headquarters, lift operations, ski school and the main avalanche rescue cache, was completely destroyed. The day lodge sustained superficial damage, the two chairlifts were extensively damaged, and several small buildings were destroyed, as were several over-the-snow vehicles.

Of the seven people in the Summit Building at the time of the avalanche, three were killed. Three were recovered alive almost immediately, and one young woman was recovered alive after a five-day burial. Four people were buried in the parking lot and were killed. Altogether twelve people and one dog were victims of the avalanche. Seven of those twelve were killed. The dog survived a one-day burial. Total monetary loss was approximately 1.6 million dollars.

Alpine Meadows Ski Area is located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. It is situated five miles north of Lake Tahoe at the head of the Bear Creek Canyon. It shares its northern ridge with Squaw Valley Ski Area, which is located one valley to the north. The ski area is on National Forest and Southern Pacific land. Alpine is classified as a Class "A" avalanche area and annually records the largest number of avalanches of any ski area in the United States. The ski area includes approximately 2000 acres with elevations from 6800 to 8600 feet.

On the morning of March 31 the Tahoe area was snowed in. It had snowed 17" overnight at Alpine Meadows. It had been snowing for 4-1/2 days and had snowed six to seven feet throughout the area. Most roads were impassable due to the county's snow plows' inability to stay ahead of the snowfall. Many of the avalanche control crew arrived late that morning due to poor roads and buried cars.

It was obvious from the ridgetop wind graph that the avalanche control crew would not be riding any chairlifts to do control work. The winds had been very highover 100 mph-and were still high-too high to ride chairlifts. Avalanche Control Plan D was in effect. Plan D is for intense storm conditions with little or no lift operations. It included control measures to protect the base area, parking lot, access road and Scott Chairlift using a 75mm recoilless rifle, a 75mm pack howitzer and hand charges. The rifle was used to control the Wolverine Bowl, Beaver Bowl, Kangaroo and Poma Rocks slide paths. The howitzer controlled the area above the parking lot including the Pond, Bernie's Bowl, and Buttress slide paths. Results in all these areas were not visible due to poor visibility. Hand charge teams on Scott had few avalanches, but did produce one large class 4 slide.

The decision to keep the area closed for the day was made at 7:30 by Bernie Kingery, Mountain Manager, and Howard Carnell, General Manager. After avalanche control, most patrollers went home. Most other employees had been called to stay at home. A few of the A.C. crew were to remain to do control on the ski area access road in the afternoon and then spend the night in the Summit Terminal Building. By early afternoon the ski area was deserted. The main day lodge was open but only a handful of employees were in the lodge area. There were 7 or 8 mechanics working in the maintenance garage.

The A.C. crew left the ski area at 15:00 for Squaw Valley. Alpine's control teams ride Squaw's KT-22 chairlift to gain access to the slidepaths affecting the Alpine Meadows road. Bernie Kingery was at Base 4, avalanche control headquarters, located in the Summit Terminal Building, to coordinate the closure and sweeping of the road prior to control work. With him were Beth Morrow and Jake Smith. Beth was acting as scribe and Jake was preparing to act as a road guard for the control team.

The four members of the control team were driven to Squaw Valley in a pickup truck. On the way they were impressed with the instability of the new snow. It was very low density cold snow and contained considerable graupel. Every knoll, small gully and depression along the road produced surface slabs as the truck went down the road. The crew looked forward to good results on their control routes and expected to bury the access road.

As the crew went through the parking lot and down the access road they noticed many people out cross-country skiing and walking, people who just wanted to escape their snowbound houses. Certainly within this group were Anna Conrad and her boyfriend, Frank Yeatman. Also on their way to the parking lot were Dr. LeRoy Nelson, his daughter, Laura, and David Hahn.

During the time it took the control team to get to Squaw Valley, Conrad and Yeatman arrived at the Summit Terminal Building, Jake Smith left it to prepare to road guard, three more employees, Randy Buck, Tad DeFelice and Jeff Skover, joined Kingery at Base 4 and the Nelsons and Hahn arrived at the Alpine Meadows parking lot.

At approximately 15:30 the control crew arrived at the base of Squaw Valley and made contact with Kingery via radio. They reported they would soon be loading the KT-22 chairlift. At some time shortly after 15:40 the message "Avalanche!" was yelled into the radio. The voice was that of Jake Smith, who, in the lower parking lot, must have seen an avalanche from the Buttress slidepath coming at him.

From survivors we know Kingery, at Base 4, immediately asked Smith's position. Moments later the building began to shake uncontrollably and moments after blew apart from the avalanche's air blast. Survivors reported the wind picked up entire walls and blew them away. Kingery's and Morrow's bodies would be found later 100 feet from Base 4. At the same time, an employee near the parking lot heard trees snapping and watched as a cloud of snow engulfed three figures running from the avalanche. The bodies of the Nelsons and Hahn would be found later in this area.

The normal people to take charge of a rescue were not immediately available. Bernie Kingery was a victim of the avalanche. The other possible rescue leaders were either at home or on the control mission to Squaw.

Quick-thinking employees immediately started a search of both the Summit Building area and the last-seen point in the parking lot, using whatever was available for probing. The three young men who were in Base 4 when the avalanche struck were quickly recovered with few injuries.

Since the control crew at Squaw Valley was called back before completing their mission, there remained a considerable avalanche hazard on the ski area access road. The local fire department and Sheriff .s department set up a road block and rescue staging area at the base of the road. It was now necessary to use the unplowed back road to gain access to the ski area. The first organized rescue teams with search dogs reached the ski area at approximately 17:30, one hour and 45 minutes after the avalanche. It was necessary to use snowcats to reach the ski area. As the trained rescue personnel reached the ski area, the search became more organized. The devastation to the Summit Building and the loss of the rescue cache was a shock to the rescue leaders. Years of training had been under the assumption that rescue headquarters and rescue equipment would be intact and available.

After assessing the accident site, the rescue leaders established a command post at the bottom of the access road in a county office. Both power and telephone service were out at the ski area as a result of the avalanche. With the county office as a communication center, ski area personnel called in off-duty ski patrollers to assist in the rescue. Additionally, neighboring ski areas and friends of Alpine responded immediately, providing needed personnel and equipment.

The search continued that first night, March 31, until 23:00 hours. It was suspended for the night due to rescuer fatigue and concern about safety. Recovered that night in the parking lot were the bodies of Jake Smith, LeRoy Nelson and David Hahn.

Thursday, April 1, blessed us with blue sky. Daylight provided searchers with a clearer picture of the magnitude of the destruction and the size of the avalanche. After control work with artillery and helicopter hand charging, the rescue operation resumed. Recovered that day were the bodies of Laura Nelson in the parking lot, Anna Conrad's boyfriend, Frank Yeatman, in the Summit Building, and Beth Morrow 100 feet southeast of the building. Conventional avalanche probing located all victims in the parking lot. Since probing around the Summit Building was impossible due to all the debris from the building, trenching with shovels and snowplows was employed. Chainsaws, wrenches, and cables were used to gain access into the destroyed building. As the rescuers were tired and wet, and the avalanche hazard was again increasing in the approaching darkness, the search was suspended at 18:00.

Friday morning, April 2, it was snowing heavily. Efforts went into controlling the access road which had been closed since the slide. Opening the road would ease the transport of searchers and equipment to the accident site. A small contingent of searchers with dogs were transported to the ski area early in the morning.

Hand charge teams got inconclusive results along the road. It was decided around noon the avalanche hazard to the base area was too high to continue the search. The Beaver Bowl and Kangaroo paths had not yet released. All searchers left the ski area at 13:00.

Attempts were made the next two days to return to the ski area. Intense snowfall kept helicopters grounded and made safe return to the area impossible. Jake Smith's funeral was held in Tahoe City on Saturday, April 3. Jake's many friends, fellow employees and would-be rescuers attended.

Monday morning, April 5, the storm abated enough to allow artillery and helicopter hand charge control work. All efforts were to be put into locating the bodies of Bernie and Anna. At shortly after noon rescuers were excavating the northwest side of the Summit Building. They noticed a hand move. When rescuers saw her hand move, one shouted "Anna, is that you?" "I'm OK, I'm alive," Anna called back. She had been buried five days. The surge of emotions, relief and joy spread through the gathered rescuers. As Anna was evacuated by the medical helicopter the searchers let out a tumultuous cheer.

With grim resolve the searchers turned their efforts to finding Bernie. Using trenching techniques Bernie's close friends and fellow avalanche hunters located his body 1-1 /2 hours after finding Anna. This was the last of all known missing persons and rescue operations were terminated.

Of course the story doesn't end here. The avalanche had profound effects on the lives of many people who survived. Family members of the victims, friends of the victims, rescue leaders, ski patrollers, ski area managers and many others were all touched in their own way. Lawsuits were filed and fingers were pointed. The litigation lasted for years. Plans and procedures were revised, and changes to the control program were implemented. Mother Nature taught a hard lesson with this tragedy. She also sent out a warning. We should not forget the lesson or the warning. Perhaps the story never ends.

Larry Heywood is currently Ski Patrol Director at Alpine Meadows. In 1982 he was the Assistant Director. He was the Accident Site Commander during the rescue operation, and was a member of the control team sent to Squaw Valley.

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