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

Ten Years After: A SPACE IN TIME

by James C. Plehn

It was every avalanche forecaster's nightmare come true, a major avalanche, employee building destroyed and seven people killed including my boss of ten years, mountain manager Bernie Kingery. It was like waking up and wondering, "How did I find myself here?"

I moved to the mountains soon after high school during the big winter of 1969, ski patrolling at age 20 in a class A area with over 300 starting zones and a road problem on the Sierra crest with frequent winter storms. I was working for Norm Wilson, one of the best in the business. Three years later Norm left, we were on our own and I became assistant patrol leader. In 1974 the area built a new lift and we had to develop three new avalanche control routes, which caused doubling of the patrol and a major expansion of hill-grooming. Knox Williams of the U.S. Forest Service Westwide Avalanche Data Network visited us to try and figure out why we were reporting so many avalanches. He arrived during a storm and left with a better understanding.

*****
I was called early as a witness by the plaintiffs and spent seven grueling days on the stand. The experience was like giving a dissertation on avalanche forecasting and control.
*****

On March 2, 1974, a major avalanche on High Yellow buried two groomers and pointed to the need for a major upgrade of the avalanche control program. A proposal for formal avalanche forecasting was first turned down, then implemented two years later after three people were killed in an avalanche in Beaver Bowl. I was asked to set up the program and so I became Alpine's avalanche forecaster, but that's a story in itself.


Wednesday, March 31st, 1982, 3:45 PM
I surveyed the wreckage and I was in shock. I could not believe this could have happened after all our control work and I was thinking that no one could have survived. All my training did not prepare me for what I saw. We had to pull off a rescue with little equipment, the access road was blocked, it was getting dark and it was still snowing.

We worked until after dark, pulling three bodies from the snow and then called it off to reorganize for the next day when we could see. In the morning we bombed along the road and above the rescue site with a helicopter and artillery, then resumed searching. We worked for two days finding three more victims and then were forced to stop on Friday afternoon in worsening storm and avalanche danger. We had lost track of what was happening up above because we could not see and we were worried about Beaver Bowl making a return trip to the lodge as it had in 1965.

Norm Wilson showed up to help but we sat for two agonizing days before we got a break. I'll never forget the look on Norm's face when he saw the destruction of the summit building for the first time. Norm and I tried to do some heli-bombing on Saturday but got stormed out. On Monday morning with two helicopters and artillery we bombed again using 8 lb charges and released several large slides with 15 to 20 ft. crowns. It had snowed as much after Wednesday as it had before. Later Anna Conrad was found miraculously alive and Bernie's body was recovered last.

Norm and I took a quick look at the crown lines to see what happened. Poma Rocks, the Pond Slide, the Buttress and Don's Nose had all slid sympathetically, with a continuous crown line half a mile wide. We were able to excavate the snowedover fractures and determine that the avalanche broke below an old melt-freeze crust into old snow.

It had been one of the most difficult rescues ever performed in the United States, but the nightmare was not over yet; now, I had to live with the questions and doubt.

Questions

For seven years I had worked closely with Bernie and Bob Blair in a three-way partnership, with myself as forecaster, Bob as patrol leader and Bernie overseeing the control work and coordination with other mountain operations. Because Bernie was killed, much of the responsibility for the questions that followed fell on my shoulders. I spent the next few years working with Alpine's lawyers reviewing what happened and preparing for the inevitable law suits. Two suits alleging negligence were filed by the families of the three victims that were caught in the parking lot.

I was lucky to work with John Fagan who prepared the defense, teaching him all I know about avalanches. This process became my therapy for a good case of posttraumatic stress syndrome. As we reviewed what happened in great detail and consulted with our expert witnesses I came to feel that we had not done anything wrong. I also don't believe that Bernie would have thought so as he never said anything that day that would have led me to think otherwise.

In August 1985 we went to trial. Expert witnesses for the plaintiffs were Ed LaChapelle and Art Mears with Ron Perla and Fred Schliess consulting. For the defense Andre Roch, Liam Fitzgerald and Chris Stethem with Norm Wilson and Dave McClung consulting. I was called early as a witness by the plaintiffs and spent seven grueling days on the stand. My job was to help educate the jury about avalanche control and events leading up to March 31 st by using the plaintiffs' questions and our crossexamination. The experience was like giving a dissertation on avalanche forecasting and control.

We were fortunate that we had recovered some of our logbooks, weather and avalanche records, control plans and the avalanche atlas that I had written. Many of these were introduced as evidence during my testimony.

The plaintiffs' questions ranged all over but they began by asking me about my background and work experience on ski patrol. I was asked about avalanche control work, the different kinds of control and how they are done. We talked about different aspects of avalanche hazard and forecasting. We also talked about the differences in forecasting the hazard to a skier on a slope and the hazard to a road, about the weather, snowpack and other inputs that go into making a hazard forecast. We talked about forecasting for the slopes in question and how they are different from other areas. Located below and east of the Sierra crest, these flat open faces do not have cornices and are cross-swept by strong down-canyon winds, unlike Beaver Bowl and KT-22's windloaded gullies.

We reviewed the progression of the storm and the control work each day. The storm began on a typical springtime Sierra snowpack. During an intense period on the 29th, Beaver Bowl and these slopes had been controlled by artillery both morning and afternoon with results observed. Then the storm eased somewhat on the 30th with precipitation averaging .06" per hour. That morning Beaver Bowl and Poma Rocks were shot with negative results. The ski area was closed on the morning of the 31st after winds of 60 to 120 mph and heavy snow.

Along with Beaver the slopes were tested again, this time with shots both high and low in the starting zones. With negative results and good settlement rate observed, we felt the slopes were stable for now and moved on down the road to shoot KT-22 with the howitzer. Even on these more active slopes the results were negative. The winds died down and the storm eased to a low density snowfall, so four and a half hours later a group of us drove out under the Buttress on our way for a closer look at KT from the Squaw Valley chair lift, just one half hour before the avalanche. We were in Squaw when we got word of the slide.

In all my testimony filled 600 pages.

Testimony by other witnesses later in the trial brought out that this was not the largest storm in Alpine's history, that there had been others with higher precip rates and totals. But this was the largest and only sympathetic, deep slab avalanche release on these slopes. The victims also had all been warned that morning by Bernie that the area was closed and travel on the road not recommended.

We were lucky to have had the involvement of some of the best minds in the business as expert witnesses on both sides of the case. Their arguments were reviewed by Dick Penniman at the 1988 International Snow Science Workshop. I think this allowed the jury to make a truly informed decision about a complex and tragic event. The trial lasted for three months. With the verdict of not negligent, the nightmare was over and is now a memory-still the most significant event in my life.

For most of the 70's and the early 80's we had been struggling with large storms and too much snow. Now, when many areas don't have enough it is important to remember what can happen. It will always be another reminder that avalanche control will never be 100% effective.

James C. Plehn is an avalanche consultant. In 1982 he was an avalanche forecaster at Alpine Meadows and a member of the Squaw Valley Control Team.

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