At the end of March 1982 snow was piling up so fast and furious that the Lake Tahoe region had come to a standstill. Alpine Meadows was closed when an enormous avalanche struck the Ski Area destroying the ski patrol building and burying much of the ski area parking lot. It was a monster slide bigger than any seen in the ski area’s history and it killed seven people and initiated the “most difficult avalanche rescue ever performed in a ski resort,” said Jim Plehn, Avalanche Forecaster for Alpine Meadows at the time.
The rescuers included ski area employees and volunteers who made it through the blizzard to do whatever they could to find and rescue those who were in the building. Eventually, a miracle occurred when on the 5th day of the search they found an injured but alive ski area employee Anna Conrad stuck underneath a piece of furniture. Finding Anna, the lone buried survivor, amongst the devastation, was a beacon of good news for the searchers and community.
“Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche,” in dramatic and spectacular fashion tells the story of the devastating avalanche through the eyes of the ski patrol and volunteers who were there on the scene. It also delves into the emotional trauma still suffered by those caught up in the event 40 years ago. Through footage from news media and personal photo collections as well as lengthy and powerful interviews with the key characters, the movie will make you cry, but also feel overpowering admiration and pride for the ski patrol and other ski area employees who were true heroes. Hopefully, the movie will also be a profound educational experience for all those who spend time in the snow.
Avalanche forecaster Plehn was up to his neck in deep snow and avalanche danger throughout the enormous winter of 1982. His Alpine Meadows ski patrol crew knew the mountain and avalanche prevention well. All winter they had tossed thousands of pounds of explosives to set off little avalanches to prevent the big one, but in the end, when it snows as hard as it did in March, they were finally beaten by the avalanche monster. Plehn’s lengthy interview forms the true spine and crux of the movie: Is it possible to 100% protect a ski area with avalanche control?
In addition to telling his story, Plehn was instrumental in making the movie happen. He met “Buried” co-writer and director Stephen Siig years ago when Siig was buying a house on Alpine Meadows road and spoke to Plehn about its avalanche danger. “At the time it was the only house he could afford but it was in an avalanche zone. He wanted to learn about the avalanche problem and the risk he was facing. We got together and I told him everything I knew.”
Everything he knew included a memory as a 12-year-old of getting a Weasel snowcat ride up to Bear Creek in the winter with his father, an engineer, who was meeting with the original developer of Alpine Meadows, John Reilly. His father could see the enormous avalanche potential of Alpine Meadows. “My father told Reilly, ‘you shouldn’t be putting the road here and selling lots of houses. I can’t do it, I’m a licensed civil engineer and can’t put my name on the plans.’ I ended up inheriting the problem working for Alpine Meadows.”
Plehn suggested to Siig, who had worked on ski movies for Warren Miller, that he should do the movie. Siig at first said it was “way beyond me,” A few years later Jared Drake, who was in the film industry in Los Angeles, moved to Alpine Meadows, read the book “Wall of White” by Jennifer Woodlief about the avalanche, and he and Siig eventually were convinced to make the movie together.
“Quite honestly, the movie went beyond expectations. It was a monumental task,” said Plehn. There are over a half dozen main characters interviewed for the story, and Plehn alone was interviewed for 16 hours over 4 days. “The editor they hired did a phenomenal job.”
The experience of friends buried in the avalanche, the grueling search for survivors, and in Plehn’s case, many hours of testimony in court to fight a lawsuit filed by several of the victims, all combined to have a devastating impact on all of those involved. “The moviemakers wanted to illustrate how hard it was on us,” said Plehn.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, Mike Alves relates his experience on that day. He was standing at the entrance to the equipment yard and saw people walking through the parking lot towards the closed ski area. Then the avalanche hit, and he saw them instantly disappear under the massive onslaught of snow. “He has lived with that vision and had nightmares since,” said Plehn. That scene for Plehn is a reminder of the most important educational lesson of the film: Make good decisions because what you do has an impact on others. In this case, the decision to ignore warnings to stay away from Alpine Meadows and walk across the parking lot meant they not only lost their lives but had a dramatic impact on the rescuers and witnesses who had to search for them.
For filmmaker Jared Drake the goal for “Buried” was to tell the story with an ensemble cast, with Plehn as a key character. There was also Larry Heywood, ski patrol assistant director whose different style and approach sometimes led to conflicts with Plehn, and other ski patrol members Lanny Johnson, Casey Jones, and Meredith Watson. Sandy Harris represented the lift crew. Troy Caldwell and Dick Tash were champion volunteers joining the hefty crowd of folks shoveling and probing, hoping to find someone alive. It was truly a story of ordinary people doing extraordinary acts.
One of the heroes was Roberta Huber, who brought her trained dog to the search in a long shot hope that they would locate someone still alive. This was a task for dogs that at the time had never been done before. Eventually, after several days of dogged effort, her German shepherd Bridget located Anna Conrad, carrying out the first live rescue with an avalanche dog in North America.
Ski patroller Meredith Watson ended up at the top of the Summit Chair ski patrol shack for three days because once she and her two partners got there it wasn’t safe to ski back down or run the lifts. Blasted by wind-driven snow they remained safe inside but were down to the last of the food when a break in the weather allowed them to return to the lodge, where they quickly jumped in with the rest of the volunteers to search for survivors and victims.
Drake says, “I hope the movie elicits more respect for the ski patrol and for what they risk physically and emotionally. I hope it also scares the shit out of a lot of people. And on a wider scale, we hope this movie can be a source for all of us who are struggling with grief and trauma.”
“I really wanted to make this film,” said Plehn. “I’m really proud of my ski patrol crew they did a phenomenal job. The support for the rescue was phenomenal as well. It was the first time that the incident command system was ever used for something other than a forest fire. We had tremendous support from all of the public agencies.”
In the last 40 years, Plehn said he has told the story of the avalanche many times, starting with setting a Placer County record for the longest testimony in a trial. “The trial was an amazing experience in a lot of ways, and it turned out in the end that it became my post-traumatic stress therapy, even though it was really difficult, I was able to work through a lot of shit.” He also said perhaps part of the reason it was helpful was that the court found that they were not negligent.
In the end, for Plehn what made the process of spending all that time under the lights worthwhile was his hope that the story will have a powerful educational message about the importance of understanding the danger of avalanches. While he encourages people to take avalanche courses as an important first step, there is no substitute for reading the avalanche forecasts and listening to what they tell you: especially if they tell you not to go ski in the backcountry. But of course, if you really want to understand avalanches, Plehn says, join a ski patrol. “In one day on the Alpine Meadows ski patrol, you will see more avalanches than you will ever see in the backcountry.”
For information on “Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche” and where to see potential showings go to buriedfilm.com. This winter the movie will appear in 100 cities, at which local avalanche centers will raise money for the crucial work to keep people safe who are out enjoying the snow.
Tim Hauserman is a nearly life-long resident of North Lake Tahoe. He wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the recently published 4th edition. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and writes frequently on a variety of topics. In the winter, he runs the Strider Glider after-school program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. Support Tim’s work in the Ally.
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