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

A Personal View of the Disaster

by Tom Kimbrougb

The Greeks called it hubris. Our dictionaries define hubris as arrogance, excessive pride or self confidence. But that's not quite it. To the Greeks, hubris had an element of defiance. Defiance of the gods, defiance of one's fate. In mythology, a person thus afflicted is sure to be brought low. Challenge the gods and they will make certain you learn your true place in the big picture. We have lost touch with the old gods, but the natural forces, which inspired our predecessors to develop religion, are still around.

"This looks like a big storm," I wrote in my journal. And so it was! For days, the snow poured down and the wind howled. Along the ridges accumulations were many feet deep. But we were tough, hard ski patrollers and we fought back with our bombs and cannons. This was what we lived for. I was brave and cool. Oh, so cool... One of those days, volunteering my team to shoot our way down a dangerous ridge, I flippantly said, "This is as good a day as any to get the chop."

Yeah, I had a classic case of hubris. Comeuppance was overdue. In fact, I was already getting it. My life was coming undone. My father had been recently disabled by a stroke. My wife, finally fed up with being treated like dirt, had walked out and, to rub it in, she was living with another patroller. The year before, I was drenched in the blood of my climbing partner when she was smashed by rockfall. After 15 years of patrolling, I was thoroughly burned out. But during the Big Storms, I could come alive.

In the little hours of the morning, the storm was still pounding hard. Yesterday, we had shot some slides with 4 and 6 foot crowns and now there were several more feet of snow. I had an idea that I wouldn't get home that night so I shut off the water and drained the pipes.

The area couldn't possibly open but we could still have fun with our firecrackers. Heywood and I drew Scott, a good, safe route, not heavily windloaded and without any exposure to slopes above us. We got some nice slides, worked our way down and back to the patrol room. Don, the snow ranger, used the howitzer on the slopes above the base. Hard to see, but it looked like there was some debris. Really just a casual situation that we had faced many times before... Give us enough explosives and we could take on even the biggest storms.

Sitting around the patrol room, I was actually reading Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff. Yeah, all about tough dudes, just like us, able to handle the worst scene without losing our cool. Finally most of the guys got to go home. As Lanny was going out the door, he asked me if I wanted a ride. No, I would stick around. "Something exciting might happen," I said.


Mid afternoon. Time to shoot above the access road. I walk out under the Poma Rocks to get the shots, load them in a pickup and we drive through the parking lot. There are several people playing in the snow. In fifteen minutes they'll be dead.

At Squaw, just before we get on KT-22, Jim hears strange stuff over his radio. Something about the lodge getting hit. We abort and head back to Alpine but the road is full of snow. A Cat comes down, picks us up, and carries us up into a White Hell.

There are huge debris piles everywhere. There is the end of Jake's snowmobile. Where is Jake? Where are those people that were playing here a few minutes ago? We round the corner. I know the building has been hit and I imagine that the windows are smashed in-

Holy shit! It's gone! The building is gone! Some big steel I-beams are sticking out of the snow, but the rest is just gone! My friends, the building, the other people-gone!

But that's not all that's gone. My youth is gone. My life at Alpine is gone. Any chance of getting back with my wife is gone. Even a little of my hubris is gone...


Of course, I didn't know all that then. I soon knew I shouldn't stay around Tahoe. I headed to Utah and got on the patrol at Alta. At least I had a new setting and much to learn about my new mountains. But I was unhappy, at war with myself. I now know therapy would have helped me deal with the stresses of the last several years and the Alpine disaster in particular.

Alpine Meadows Ski Resort in Bear Creek Canyon

After some years I got married again and even decided I was grown up enough to have a child. Growing up didn't come easy; the 80's were hard years for me, but the Alpine avalanche didn't leave me a choice. That slide kicked me out of my extended adolescence. I matured more in those years than in the previous 40.

Maybe I never will grow up completely. I still ski and climb for a living. But I have tried to clean up my personal life. I try to have more concern for the people I love. I try not to be as arrogant as I used to be. The disaster marked a major turning point in the lives of all of us that were there. None of us could ever be quite the same after that March afternoon.


Would Perla or LaChapelle or Atwater or Ferguson still have been occupying the employee building that afternoon? In my view, the history of avalanche work at Alpine is one of slowly dawning awareness of just how serious conditions can get. Atwater didn't pick it upright away. Alpine was listed as a Class "B" area initially. The short paths are deceptive. I didn't realize that a slide off the Portia Rocks could do that much destruction. Beaver Bowl sure, but not the Poma Rocks.

Another deceptive factor is the weather. Alpine has a micro-climate favoring tremendous snow accumulations and amazing velocities and duration of wind. It is like Alta in regard to the enhanced precipitation. But, unlike Alta, wind is also accentuated. The canyon on the backside funnels the wind, which then strikes the ridge line at a 90-degree angle. Both orographic precipitation and windloading are maximized. If Little Cottonwood had the climate that Alpine does, or did, in the "old days," I don't think Alta and Snowbird would exist.

I would be comforted thinking that the great avalanche gurus would have had the technical skills to have made a difference. But I'm not confident they would have. However, there is a lesson that perhaps the best-or the luckiest-avalanche workers learn early. That lesson is the danger of hubris. The gods, or if you prefer, natural forces, have ways of humbling even the best. Our failure was in being too proud, too confident. Too ready to challenge the gods of Storm and Winter.

Tom Kimbrough is an avalanche forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center. In 1982 he was a ski patroller at Alpine Meadows Ski Area, and a member of the Squaw Valley Control Team.

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