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An avalanche in Wolverine Bowl set off by a ski patrol bomb. Photo courtesy of Jim Plehn.
On March 31, 1982, a massive avalanche tumbled down California’s Alpine Meadows, killing seven people in the most devastating slide ever to hit a ski resort. Why nobody has written a book about this until now is a mystery to us. But when California-based writer Jennifer Woodlief—a former lawyer, Sports Illustrated reporter, and author of a biography of skier Bill Johnson—stumbled across the now 28-year-old story, the book deal was inevitable. A Wall of White: The True Story of Heroism and Survival in the Face of a Deadly Avalanche, comes out in paperback this February.
The story, much like the avalanche it documents, starts out slow, adding layers and building momentum. And then, suddenly, it comes crashing down. What Twilight novels are to teenage girls, A Wall of White is to skiers: an engaging tale with a heroic, made-for-Hollywood ending. (Woodlief is currently in negotiations to sell the story to a film studio.) It wasn’t all tragedy: A woman named Anna Conrad was rescued after spending five days buried in a building collapsed by the avalanche. To report the story, Woodlief conducted extensive interviews with the victims’ families, the rescuers, and the lone survivor. “The hardest part of it all,” Woodlief says, “was the initial reluctance of people to talk to me this long after the incident. I had to persuade them that I wasn’t going to exploit them or sensationalize what happened to them.” Sure, the cover and title are a bit dramatic, but the story inside is a painstakingly researched tale that’s been waiting to be told for nearly 30 years. [$25; awallofwhite.com]
Click to the next slide for an interview with Woodlief and Conrad…
A front-end loader cleaning up the avalanche debris in the parking lot. Photo courtesy of Vance Fox.
Some Advice from Anna Conrad
“I was 22 when I was buried under that avalanche. I’m 50 now and I live in Mammoth Lakes, California. I have a prosthetic leg from the frostbite I got then. What people don’t realize about amputees is they can do anything they want. I ski all the time. The biggest thing I learned is you have to respect the weather and Mother Nature. Take the time to find out what the conditions are like if you’re going to the backcountry or exposed areas. Watch out for frostbite—the trick is to minimize exposure of your skin to the cold. The one thing that kept me alive during those five days: having 100 percent faith in the search-and-rescue people. I wanted to be able to say thanks when they found me, and I managed to regain consciousness when they pulled me out.”
Rescuers digging at the site of the Summit Terminal Building. Photo courtesy of Larry Heywood.
An Interview with Author Jennifer Woodlief
How did you stumble into this story?
Woodlief: I wrote Ski to Die, a book about Bill Johnson. For that, I interviewed Robert “Fro” Frohlich, a Tahoe writer and we kept in touch afterward. On the 24th anniversary of the 1982 avalanche in 2006, he brought it up. I couldn’t believe nobody had written a book or done a movie about it. Fro introduced me to the sources, and that helped with credibility. There’s some level of suspicion of outsiders. People wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to exploit what happened or make it sensational. It helped to have that credibility.
Lanny Johnson cheering after loading Anna onto the rescue helicopter. Photo courtesy of Igor O’Toole.
How did you do all the reporting?
Woodlief: I actually bought a place in Tahoe. I spent over a year researching, doing over 100 interviews with people and everyone I spoke with had another source I should speak to. The Forest Service report was a couple inches thick and I used local media articles from that time. My motivation was to get it all completely accurate. The feedback I got was that I nailed it, even in terms of the tiny details like the smells.
Did you know anything about avalanches before writing this book?
Woodlief: Not much. I didn’t even understand that snow hardens right way after it slides. I had snow scientists read the book before it was published. I did turn down the offer to be buried and have a dog find me. I spent a year researching and another year writing it and doing lingering interviews. I have three times more information than I used, so the book could have been three times as long.
A view looking up from the hole where Anna was trapped. Photo courtesy of Larry Heywood.
Was it hard getting people to talk about the avalanche so many years after it happened?
Woodlief: Enough time had passed that people were willing to open up and talk about it. A lot of the rescuers and patrollers had never talked about it publically. There had been a Forest Service investigation and a lawsuit after the avalanche, so they weren’t able to speak to the media. If some cases, their full-grown children read the book, and that was the first time they had really heard about what their parents had been through.
Bernard Coudurier reaching into the hole and holding Anna Conrad’s hand on April 5, 1982. Photo courtesy of Bob Moore.
What about meeting with the families of the victims?
Woodlief: I met with Katie Nelson, who lost her daughter and husband in the avalanche. I had to make her feel comfortable and trust me—she had to know that I wasn’t going to exploit them. Our first meeting lasted 10 hours. She had said she was willing to talk about their lives but she didn’t want to talk about their deaths. But by hour seven or eight, she opened up. She retold their story.
What was it like meeting Anna Conrad, the girl who was rescued after five days of being buried?
Woodlief: Before I wrote the book, I got Anna’s cooperation. I told her what I was doing and asked how she felt about it. wasn’t opposed to it. By the time I got to interviewing her, she had heard through other ski patrollers. She couldn’t have made it easier. She is so steady and poised and strong. I could have guessed that—she spent five days buried and frostbitten and yet was absolutely sure rescuers were coming for her.
To purchase the book, go to awallofwhite.com.