Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 22, 2022 7:51 am 
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Portrait by survivors of one of nature's most horrific events: a giant avalanche

AN Account of the March 1982 Alpine Meadows avalanche can be found online in (2020). It seems to be accurate except for several details about the timing of the rescue of Anna Conrad.

The new film relies exclusively on people who were there 37 years before the filming at Tahoe working at the ski resort, Alpine Meadows, and experienced the avalanche, including avalanche forecaster Jim Plehn, Lanny Johnson, a former ski patroller, and Larry Heywood, assistant patrol director. Because the head of the whole ski center Bernie Kingery was among those taken out by the avalanche, Plehn became the person most responsible ever after, which included for him over two weeks of being on the witness stand when families of some of the victims took the ski park service to court: the jury found them not responsible, because this avalanche was a special, unique event.

In fact the burden of this film is to convey the magnitude of this event and the sense it provides that the force of nature is beyond human control. As the Outside writeup of this film says by way of introduction, "In the eighties, Alpine Meadows ski resort in California had one of the most advanced avalanche safety programs in the country, thanks to avalanche forecaster Jim Plehn and plenty of explosives." Team members constantly went out with hand explosives. There was also a station from which artillery was fired at sites they could not reach. This was done to loosen snow and prevent it from plowing down, thus keeping the area safe for skiers.

But this being a resort operation, the aim of attracting skiers trumped the need to make really clear the degree of danger. It turns out Alpine Meadows is one of the worst avalanche areas in the country, perhaps the world. The resort is classified as a “Class A” avalanche area by the U.S. Forest Service, meaning it has a high frequency of avalanches. One of the talking heads here says it's more like "A++++." At the time, the resort recorded the highest number of avalanches annually of any ski area in the United States. What happened was that an exceptional storm occurred in this dangerous region, a once-in-a-century weather event. The quantity of snow and the rapidity with which it deployed over a four-day period were record-breaking, beyond anybody's experience or knowledge.

A mistake that was made was that a parking lot had not been closed off. It is here that the four outsiders died, who should not have been in the area at all. The other three who perished were employees of the resort, including the chief of operations.

Of this most rapidly destructive of all weather events, not much can be said. It snapped hundred-year-old trees like matchsticks. There was zero visibility. The then-22-year-old lone survivor of direct impact, an AlpineMeadows employee who says she has probably been interviewed sixty times by now. was saved by the walls of a locker room that fell over her but were held back from her by a bench she had fallen under, providing a pocket of air and holding back the snow. She was trapped there, numbed by a concussion and unaware of what had happened or even where she was trapped for nearly five days and three+ of those without water and was very sick by the time she was dug out. The excavation had to be delayed for two days by order of Jim Plehn after she was found because the avalanche danger had arisen again. But we should not tell her story because it's the most interesting of the film, which spends a lot of its run-time on the largely futile search for others buried under the massive snow, and on the one success story. This is the first time a person in the US was retrieved from an avalanche thanks to a trained dog. There are a few recreations, not much, fortunately; since those tend to undermine with a sense of falsity what they gain in explanation in any film of this kind.

Buried brings to life this horrendous avalanche through the individual accounts, which are simply deployed to provide a chronological narrative. The survivor is one of the coolest. several others are overcome with emotion more than once. It is their sense of helplessness and their survival guilt that may overwhelm them. It is only by indirection and descriptions that the avalanche itself can be depicted. This isn't much of a portrait of individual personalities, but it will be of interest to skiers and mountaineers. As has been pointed out, the ski resort workers of today are too young to remember this event, and they should watch this film because they need to know just how dangerous this location is and how beyond imagining powerful snow can be.

The filmmakers are residents of the area. An article in the Reno Gazette Journal includes more detail about the event and interviews with them.

Buried: the 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche, 96 mins., debuted in Mountainfilm at Telluride, Colorado in May 2021 and also showed at Austin, Bend, Whistler, Boulder, Banff and Vancouver, winning best doc and audience awards. US theatrical release Sept. 23, 2022 (including numerous northern California theaters), and on Amazon and Apple TV Nov. 8.

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