Looking back at Alpine Meadows avalanche
Bob Moore’s weathered face and bright blue eyes gaze straight ahead as he pulls open a wooden cabinet in his Truckee Forest Service office and grasps a ledger recording the story of The Big One.
The weighty, brown notebook tells in minute detail the 25-year-old story of one of the deadliest ski resort avalanches in U.S. history – the avalanche that launched innovation in avalanche control and helped build a local team of career avalanche professionals.
It’s a story of disaster, courage, loss – and one improbable miracle of survival. And a quarter-century after the fact, it’s a story ski resort managers and avalanche scientists study as a lesson of the destructive power of Mother Nature.
More than 35 years into Moore’s Forest Service career studying ski resorts and avalanches, and months away from his retirement, the Alpine Meadows avalanche of 1982 still looms large in his mind.
The morning of March 31, 1982, broke cold and windy. Amid the biting gusts typical of the biggest of Sierra storms, Moore grasped the 75mm howitzer and fired shell after shell into the shrieking wind, blindly aiming at the snow-laden slopes of Alpine Meadows lost in a swirl of snow.
Training the howitzer at Beaver Bowl, Buttress and the Poma Rocks with an accuracy honed by years working the mountains, Moore shelled the storm by memory, hitting points that could potentially build into a disastrous slide.
“In Beaver Bowl, we peppered it,” Moore says of that morning. “And you couldn’t see a thing.”
After the early morning work and seated back in his Truckee office, he heard the first indication that one of the worst ski disasters in U.S. history had just taken place.
The words he still remembers – “major avalanche at Alpine Meadows” – crackled over his radio.
The spring storms of 1982 produced some of the most extreme avalanche conditions anyone can remember. Squaw Valley homes near Sandy Way were ripped apart by avalanches. Donner Lake homes were hit by a slide. Highway 89 closed.
But those events are all lost to memory, overpowered by the gargantuan snow slide that peeled off a ridge at the northern edge of Alpine Meadows at 4:45 p.m., tossing cars and shredding buildings in front of it. The slide dropped more than 700 vertical feet, according to Gary Murphy, a weather forecaster at Alpine Meadows and a resort employee at the time. The fracture line extended over a quarter-mile.
Seven people died and five were severely injured.
“That event was far and away the most destructive, deadly event in ski area history in North America,” says Larry Heywood, a Homewood resident who was the resort’s assistant patrol director at the time.
Tom Moler, a maintenance worker at the resort in 1982, heard the warning over the radio minutes before snow engulfed the resort. His thoughts are recorded in the Forest Service’s report on the incident.
“I heard on the radio Jake … and he said something in a sort of a panic, ‘Oh my God what’s happening’ – or something to that effect – very loud and shrill.
“…Then a voice came on the radio, and I’m very sure it was Bernie saying, ‘Jake are you all right?’ There was no response.
The next thing was the lights flashed twice, they went off and back on, and probably five seconds later, they flickered and went out entirely.
That was our clue that something was up and what prompted us, I guess, to look toward the hill, and as soon as we turned around and looked out … the snow was breaking over the top of the deck.”
Jake Smith was the resort employee who courageously radioed in the avalanche even as a wall of snow was bearing down on him and his snowmobile at the edge of the parking lot.
Smith was found, buried standing up under six feet of snow. He died of his injuries.
Moore has studied Sierra avalanches since 1969, but the 1982 disaster still boggles his mind.
“That’s one of those things, you look at the pictures, you read the articles and you say it will never happen here, but it happened here,” Moore says.
No longer the man behind the recoil of the avalanche howitzers, Moore has spent the two and a half decades since the Alpine Meadows avalanche working to forecast and avert avalanches around Truckee and Tahoe.
He has built up the Sierra Avalanche Center, a nonprofit that is affiliated with the Forest Service, and uses science to predict avalanche danger for backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers.
He’s also worked with Alpine Meadows to build earthen berms to shield the parking lot and lodge from future slides.
Deaths, then survival
Larry Heywood was weathering a windy ride up the KT22 lift at Squaw Valley, his backpack full of dynamite, about the time the Alpine Meadows avalanche let loose.
Heywood and another five Alpine patrollers planned to drop their explosives one by one in avalanche paths above Alpine Meadows Road to keep a large avalanche from coming down on the primary access to the resort.
But when they got to the top of KT, they knew something was wrong. Somebody had already come running up to them, telling them that an avalanche had ripped into the homes along Sandy Way in Squaw Valley.
When they radioed back to Alpine Meadows headquarters and got no response, they skied down to the road, the dynamite still in their packs.
Heywood remembers the ominous signals transmitted through his skis on the way down.
“The snow was alive – truly alive,” he recalls. “Every road cut and gully was avalanching. We were certain we were going to get big avalanches.”
Heywood entered the Alpine Meadows parking lot on his skis, towed behind a snowcat.
He remembers first noticing the parking lot was “gone.” Then looking across the rubble of snow and seeing huge trees, twisted and broken on top of the avalanche field.
The next days were a blur of digging and probing. The search teams, hamstrung by the fact their avalanche gear was buried under tons of snow, used anything available for the searches.
After a couple initial rescues, the searches began turning up only victims.
Then, after five days of searching, the unthinkable happened.
Heywood and Forest Service snow ranger Don Huber arrived at the resort early in the morning. The area was desolate. The ruins of the Summit lift and the terminal building sticking out from the avalanche debris in the early morning light. Heywood got a strange feeling.
“There was no one there,” he says. “It was kind of eerie.”
But, unknown to Huber and Heywood, there was one person still there – Anna Conrad, a 22-year-old lift operator, alive under the rubble of the Summit building, shielded by a miracle of collapsing walls and furniture.
After chainsawing holes in the building “we lifted up this piece of plywood and there was her hand,” Heywood says.
Conrad, alive and “speaking, just barely,” had been trapped under the snow for five days. The searchers were elated.
Conrad recovered from the accident after spending weeks at Tahoe Forest Hospital, although she lost her right foot and the toes on her left foot to frostbite.
A lesson learned
March 31, 1982, replays often in Heywood’s mind.”For several years there wasn’t a day I didn’t think about it,” he says.
He lost a “friend and mentor” in Alpine Meadows Mountain Manager Bernie Kingery in the slide.
But the tragic event solidified his life’s work. Heywood went on to become the Alpine Meadows ski patrol director for 17 years and then the director of operations for the next five.
Today, he advises builders where to locate structures in snow country to avoid avalanche problems.
When he looks up at the mountain and the building site, he often pictures the mammoth avalanche that changed his life.
“I kind of scale it in my mind [and picture it] similar to ’82,” he says.
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