Trapped and alone, survivor Anna Allen vowed to 'not let the avalanche beat me'
Anna Allen survived the most deadly avalanche in U.S. ski history, fighting through frostbite and severe dehydration during the five days she was buried beneath heavy snow and debris at Alpine Meadows.
The March 31, 1982, avalanche took the lives of seven people, including Allen’s boyfriend and three of her colleagues at the Truckee-area ski resort. Allen attributes her survival to her faith in the search and rescue system, but understands that luck played a role. She was in a building when the great wave of snow slammed into it; the building was crushed but the debris helped create an air pocket that saved her.
In the more typical avalanche scenario – a victim encased in snow – Allen would not have survived. According to one widely cited Canadian study, people buried in an avalanche are unlikely to survive if not rescued within 20 minutes, because of the dangers posed by trauma and suffocation.
The return of significant snowfall to the Sierra this season, after four years of below-average precipitation, has brought skiers back to the mountains – and raised the risks for avalanches. Leaders of Sierra search and rescue teams say stories such as Allen’s have given them greater motivation to continue intensive recovery efforts for avalanche victims even when circumstances suggest they are dead.
Such determination was on display in late January, when crews from across the state braved storms and high avalanche risk for five days as they looked for 23-year-old Carson May, a Sugar Bowl ski instructor who went missing.
The effort ultimately was called off because repeated storms had created hazardous conditions for search teams. May’s body was recovered this week after rescue dogs found him during a training exercise, buried under 5 feet of snow just outside the ski resort boundaries, likely the victim of an avalanche.
Allen said she has sought to live a vital, vibrant life in the years since the Alpine Meadows avalanche, taking advantage of the time she was granted. She married, raised two children, both college graduates, and continues to work in the ski industry. She remains a skilled and passionate skier, with the benefit of a prosthetic limb that she straps on to replace the lower leg she lost in the avalanche.
“That was one of my goals,” she said, “to not let the avalanche beat me.”
Allen recounted her experiences during an interview last month at her office at Mammoth Mountain, the eastern Sierra resort near Mammoth Lakes where she is director of host services. Earlier in the day, she had skied a combination of steep and moderate slopes, displaying calm assurance as she carved turns at one of the state’s most challenging resorts.
Everyone but my parents and the handler assumed I was dead ... Nobody had survived an avalanche for that length of time in the United States.
Anna Allen, survivor, 1982 Alpine Meadows avalanche
At the time of the avalanche, Allen was unmarried and going by her maiden name, Conrad. She was a lift operator at Alpine Meadows, just a year younger than Carson May when he died. She and her boyfriend, Frank Yeatman, both UC Davis students, planned to head out for cross-country skiing in the fresh powder.
She stopped at her work locker at the Summit Terminal Building to pick up her ski pants, and got a tongue-lashing from her supervisor, Bernie Kingery, the resort’s mountain manager in charge of safety efforts. The resort was closed following five days of storms that had blanketed the area with up to 7 feet of wet snow, and he chastised her for venturing out.
Alpine Meadows at the time was considered one of the more avalanche-prone ski areas in the country because of its steep slopes and the heavy snow that often fell on the Sierra crest. That afternoon, even as Kingery and Allen spoke, a tsunami of snow let loose from three “slide paths” on the mountain. It would hit the Summit building with tremendous force, exploding and engulfing the structure, and burying the adjacent parking lot in 10 to 20 feet of snow.
Allen doesn’t remember any particular sound or sensation. She had just left Kingery when the slide hit, and was walking through a hallway to the locker room, where Yeatman waited. She was knocked out cold, and would wake up a day later, with a concussion, short-term amnesia and absolutely no understanding of what had happened.
“I didn’t know I was under snow. I didn’t know what had happened,” she said.
It was completely dark, and she tried to make sense of her surroundings by touch. She was circled by snow and debris that had formed a chamber roughly 5 feet long, 3 feet wide and 2 feet high. She could hear the garbled voices of rescuers but they could not hear her screams.
It’s difficult to say, given the conditions, but Allen thinks it was two to three days before she understood she had been in an avalanche. She went into survival mode, sucking on mud and snow for sustenance.
About three days in, the sounds of the rescue operation ceased, and she knew it was due to avalanche risks.
The rescue effort had been hampered from the start, former ski patrol director Larry Heywood wrote in a 1992 publication of the American Avalanche Association dedicated to the Alpine Meadows disaster. The avalanche took out the building where the rescue equipment was located, as well as the man who should have led the effort, Kingery.
Before the pullout, rescue teams had recovered three people alive and the bodies of six who were dead, including Yeatman. Persistent storms and avalanche risks forced repeated breaks in the search efforts for Allen and Kingery, according to Heywood.
Allen said one of the rescue dogs, a 9-year-old German shepherd named Bridget, had detected her scent on the third day, but rescuers backed off.
“Everyone but my parents and the handler assumed I was dead,” she said. “There wasn’t a sense of urgency. Nobody had survived an avalanche for that length of time in the United States.”
On the day Kingery’s body was found, Bridget returned to the spot where she had picked up Allen’s scent. Rescuers dug at the debris, causing snow to come down on Allen, who grabbed it to put in her mouth.
One of the rescuers saw her hand: “Anna, is that you?”
“Of course it’s me,” she responded.
The recovery still resonates with Sierra rescue crews. Sgt. Dave Hunt of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said he read an investigative report on the avalanche not long after he started working in the Tahoe district. Hunt, who coordinates rescue efforts, later heard Allen tell her story at a public event.
The lesson to crews, he said, is that a missing person should be assumed alive until proven otherwise.
“You have to have a sense of hope,” he said.
Chris McConnell, president of Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue, a nonprofit group that provides first-line response in Placer County, echoed that sentiment.
“You need that sense of hope that you’re going to find the missing person alive,” McConnell said.
But both men also emphasized that, painful as it is, the risks to rescuers have to be factored in when deciding how long to continue a search. They said it was agonizing for rescuers when the decision was made to abandon the search for May. After the formal search was stopped, Hunt said he regularly sent teams to Mount Judah to continue looking. Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue was conducting training there when his body was found.
McConnell said he believes it is important to find avalanche victims, even if they have perished, because recovering the body can help bring closure for families. In the 40-year history of Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue, only one search target has not been recovered, a skier reported missing in 1981.
Following her rescue, Allen spent two months in a hospital. A portion of her right leg and the toes on her left foot were irreparably damaged by frostbite.
She said the most difficult moment came after a surgery in which her doctor decided he would have to amputate her right leg. She cried along with her mother in the Truckee hospital, then gained perspective as she tried to reassure her distraught sister that it would all be OK. She reminded her sister of the disabled people they had seen skiing at Alpine Meadows and resolved that she would do the same.
Days after leaving the hospital in June 1982, Allen, using crutches and her new prosthetic limb, made her way across a stage before thousands of people for her graduation from UC Davis. She remembers being terrified she would fall, but didn’t. She would return to school to get her teaching credential and taught high school for a short time in Castro Valley.
The mountains and skiing continued to call, and in 1986 Allen took at job at Mammoth Mountain, where she has worked ever since. As the director of the Mammoth host program, Allen oversees 100 employees who are responsible for catering to guest needs at the resort.
Allen said she doesn’t blame the mountains or snow or the ski industry for what happened to her. She still loves gliding down the mountain, and skis as much as 15 times a season, using a specially designed prosthetic limb with a mountain-bike shock.
“It’s hard to forget – every day I have to put my leg on,” she said. “But I try not to let it hold me back.”