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Anna Conrad Allen
was more than lucky: Her survival defied all odds. In 1982, she was 22 years old and working as a lift operator at Alpine Meadows, California. A huge Pacific-style blizzard had been dumping more than a foot a day. The storm, which dropped 186.6 inches of snow in two weeks, still stands as the region’s largest recorded snowstorm in modern times. While Alpine Meadows’ avalanche-control program is the nation’s second biggest (right behind neighboring Squaw Valley USA), no amount of explosives could keep up with that deluge of snow. On March 31, avalanche danger was so high that both the ski area and the road up to it were closed. But Allen and her boyfriend were unaware of the extent of the risk. They decided to cross-country ski the mile and a half from her divey digs to Alpine’s base area to get some gear from Anna’s locker, located in an A-frame at the base of Alpine’s Summit chair.
“While I was walking down toward my locker,” Allen says, “suddenly everything was gone. I have no idea what happened, because it happened so fast. I woke up a long time later with an excruciating headache and underneath a patch of rubble. It was pitch black. I had no idea where I was.”
What happened, in fact, was that a fracture line more than 1,000 feet wide had cracked open on a slope directly above the building, and the ensuing massive avalanche barreled through Alpine’s base area, devastating everything in its path. At the precise moment the deluge smashed into the A-frame, Allen happened to be aligned with one of the steel girders supporting the building. The girder was bent by the rampaging snow, but nevertheless split the deadly tide in two. The diluted force of the avalanche didn’t blast apart the lockers that stood immediately behind the girder, but just knocked them over. The lockers stopped short of the floor-and short of crushing Allen-because they landed on top of a rickety wooden bench, which somehow held firm (despite the 10 feet of snow that quickly slid on top of the fallen lockers). “If I had been outside of the five-foot space I was in, I would have been smashed like the other people in the building,” Allen says.
When Allen awoke, she found herself laying crumpled in a cold, dark cave approximately five-feet long, three-feet wide, and two-feet high. “I had no memory of where I was, what I had been doing, anything,” she says. “It wasn’t scary so much as it was dumfounding. I was in a hole and didn’t know where the heck I was.” Only after she crawled into one of the lockers and found skis did she realize where she was; she still had no memory of how she got there. After exhausting the search for a way out, she began simply trying to stay warm. She had plenty of time to work at it: In the end, Anna Conrad Allen was buried for five days.
“To me, there was never a question in my mind that I wouldn’t be found,” says Allen, who heard the searchers calling her name one day early in the ordeal. The fact that Allen was not actually buried in the snow itself saved her both from suffocation and death by freezing; her remarkably even-keeled nature carried her through an experience that would send most people straight into freak-out. “I had complete faith in the system that somebody was looking for me. I thought I would be sick and that I might not be conscious when they found me, but I never even considered that I would die.”
Those searching through the rubble at Alpine Meadows, however, were of a completely different mind. Allen’s boyfriend and Bernie Kingery (Alpine’s longtime director of mountain operations) had been in the building and both were dead. Three people who had been in Alpine’s parking lot were also dead. Rescue efforts were being hampered by the volume of new snow; 10 more feet fell on top of the avalanche debris before Allen was found. And no one in North America had survived any kind of live burial for more than two and a half days.
Allen knew that pro patrol normally ran control routes in the morning, so she marked time by the sound of the avalanche bombs. She ate the snow inside her cave until it ran out and rubbed her feet to try to stay warm. “It was very cold,” she remembers. She thought about her loved ones. She waited. She prayed. On day three, she lost all feeling in her lower extremities-but didn’t realize it. “I felt warm,” she recalls.
On Monday, April 5, a search-and-rescue dog named Bridget acted incredibly excited above the spot where Allen lay. The German shepherd’s handler, Roberta Huber, commented later that she had never seen her dog react so strongly. Rescuers focused on that spot. “They pulled off this one piece of board, and all I saw was the snow falling in,” remembers Allen. “I grabbed at the snow, and they saw my hands. At first they thought I was one of the searchers coming up from the other side. They didn’t expect to find someone alive. It was probably a full 10 seconds before one of the guys said, ‘Anna, is that you?’ I just called back, ‘Of course, it is!'”
Forty-five minutes later, Anna had been unearthed and airlifted to the hospital in Truckee, where she spent the next two months. “My toes were little black raisins,” she says. After several surgeries to reintroduce circulation to her legs and a subsequent battle with gangrene, during which her kidneys almost failed, Allen underwent amputation of her right leg from below the knee and of the front half of her left foot. With the aid of a prosthesis, she resumed skiing the December after the accident. Now 40, Allen is a happily married working mother who founded and continues to manage the host program at Mammoth Mountain. Like Eckland, she is both awed by her experience and completely matter-of-fact about it. “I give God credit for giving me the personality and the strength to pull through,” she says. “But for me to be at the right place at the right time, I don’t know if that was anything but just pure luck.”
Whether inbounds or out, your best protection against avalanches is to learn as much as possible about snow safety and proceed with humility and caution. For information on avalanche-safety courses, log onto www.csac.org/Education or contact the ski patrol at your local ski area.