Aftermath of Alpine Meadows’ 1982 avalanche

Avalanche damage to Alpine Meadow’s cafeteria. | Courtesy Jay Seffern

After days of incessant snowfall, on the afternoon of March 31, 1982, a massive wall of snow came crashing down on the base area of Alpine Meadows ski resort north of Lake Tahoe. Century-old pine trees snapped like toothpicks — the debris adding to the destructive power of the slide.

The first warning of impending disaster was the word “Avalanche!” barked over the radio by Alpine employee Jake Smith, stationed in the lower parking lot. Smith was on a snowmobile to stop motorists trying to leave the resort via the main access road. Ski Patrol had closed the road and was about to start avalanche control.

Avalanche forecaster Jim Phelan, along with assistant ski patrol director Larry Heywood, and three patrolmen had driven to Squaw Valley’s KT-22 chairlift (both ski areas are now Palisades Tahoe) to access the ridge between the two ski areas. The well-trained team noted that the accumulated powder had a low density and was highly unstable, but from the safety of this highpoint they could toss hand charges to trigger the slide paths that threatened Alpine Meadows Road below. But before they loaded onto the lift, their walkie talkies cackled with urgent news that an avalanche had hit Alpine Meadows.

From his vantage point in the parking lot, Smith must have seen the slide coming, which gave him just enough time to warn Mountain Manager Bernie Kingery by radio. Kingery requested his location, but Smith was overcome before he could respond. Seconds later the monster avalanche engulfed the 70,000-square-foot main lodge, surging over the sun deck and breaking through doors and windows into the empty dining area. This Class 5-rated event was later declared a once-in-a-century slide.

“The lethal 1982 Alpine Meadows avalanche serves as a vivid reminder that the rugged mountains and dynamic weather we love so much are powerful forces of nature that deserve respect and understanding.

The Summit Terminal Building was first struck by a powerful concussive air blast that preceded the avalanche. It blew apart the walls and wrenched the steel girders just before snow and debris ripped through the building. The avalanche killed Kingery instantly and buried his body in deep snow 60 feet away. In the operations command room with Kingery were employees Randy Buck, Tad DeFelice and Jeff Skover, who were getting directions on how to guard Alpine Meadows Road during the upcoming slide control operations. When the building imploded, the young men dove for cover, which no doubt saved their lives. Buck and Skover were injured, but all three survived. Beth Morrow, a 22-year-old from Sparks, Nev., was at her desk next to Kingery logging the day’s events. When it all came crashing down, she was swept out of the building. Her body was found under snow the next day, about 100 feet from where she was working.

Alpine Meadow’s employee Anna Conrad and her boyfriend Frank Yeatman, both 22, were changing clothes in the Summit Terminal Building’s second-floor locker room. When the avalanche hit, the walls imploded. In an instant they were both buried in snow and rubble. Yeatman was killed, but Conrad was knocked under a bench which gave her a life-saving cocoon of space.

Read Parts I & II at

A tsunami of snow poured into the parking lot, burying Dr. LeRoy “Bud” Nelson, a surgeon from Eureka; his 11-year-old daughter Laura Nelson; and David Hahn, a Bay Area businessman. The trio had been walking from the Alpine Chalet condominiums to the restaurant at the main lodge to alleviate four days of cooped-up cabin fever. As the avalanche surged down the mountain slope, an employee saw the three of them running for their lives before they were engulfed.

Rescuers spring into action
Back at the condos, Dr. Nelson’s friend, John “Jay” Seffern, was resting. He had intended to walk to the restaurant with them but fortuitously changed his mind. Seffern quickly suited up and grabbed a shovel.

“As we started out for the lodge, I noticed that it was snowing even harder than before,” he later recalled.

The deep snow and forbidding gloom caused two young men accompanying Seffern to turn back, but this First Lieutenant in the Air Force and frequent skier at Alpine Meadows soldiered on until he reached the severely damaged lodge. The parking lot was covered with 10 to 20 feet of snow, embedded with trees, branches, telephone poles and wires.

On his arrival Seffern learned that the bodies of Dr. Nelson and David Hahn had been recovered, but Laura was missing. Lt. Seffern joined the search-and-rescue line probing the avalanche path looking for survivors, hoping against hope that young Laura might be found alive. Tragically, her body was found the next day. Even after all these years, Seffern still questions why his friends died that day and not him.

It took first responders nearly two hours to reach the scene. With Kingery missing, Larry Heywood assumed lead on rescue operations. Power and telephone service was out at the ski area and the main cache of rescue equipment (including body probes) had been destroyed in the Summit Terminal Building. A small contingent of avalanche rescue dogs would arrive the next day to help locate victims.

To reach possible survivors trapped in the wreckage, chainsaws, wrenches and cables were used to gain access to the destroyed structure. Due to debris, pole probing for victims became impossible so search-and-rescue teams were forced to laboriously dig trenches with shovels and snowplows. Heavy snow continued to fall, but determined rescuers spent days looking for Kingery and Conrad. It was grim work.

Teams of avalanche rescue dogs sniffed and listened as their handlers crisscrossed the debris field in the fleeting hope that they might find someone alive after nearly five days. Around noon on April 5, a 9-year-old German Shepherd named Bridget alerted to a tiny air hole in the snow that had been exposed as debris was extricated from the Summit Terminal Building. It had been 117 hours since the avalanche, but rescuers glimpsed a hand reaching for snow. Miraculously, it was Conrad, still alive, nearly crushed into a space just 2 feet wide, 3 feet high and 5 feet long. She had survived freezing temperatures with no food and the little bit of water she could extract from snow melted in her mouth. A shocked searcher shouted, “Anna, is that you?” A second later came a feeble response; “I’m OK, I’m alive.”

The sole survivor
Conrad’s rescue was a powerful psychological boost for all of us living in the Tahoe Sierra at that time. Bridget became the first search-and-rescue dog in North America to locate and save a living person from an avalanche, the result of many years of training with her owner Roberta Huber. Conrad is the longest survivor of an avalanche in U.S. history.

Studies indicate that, depending on the consistency of the snow, just 40 percent of avalanche victims survive 15 minutes after being buried. Rates drop precipitously after that. Conrad’s recovery made international news and gave the community a first step in healing, amid an uplifting sense that her survival was a miracle. Conrad lost her right leg below the knee and the toes on her left foot due to frostbite. The battered body of Kingery was found shortly after Conrad was pulled from the debris.

Despite her injuries, Conrad was back on skis just 10 months later. She moved to Mammoth Lakes, where she raised a family with her husband Brent Allen. She worked at Mammoth Mountain as head of its Mountain Host program. Although reticent about sharing her experience with her coworkers at Mammoth, Conrad told the media: “I don’t believe in holding back because of something that has happened in my life. With the loss of my leg and toes things aren’t as easy to do, but it doesn’t stop me.”

The aftermath
The 1982 Alpine Meadows avalanche killed seven people, but there is no doubt that Kingery saved lives when he closed the resort that day. Subsequent litigation lasted several years, but after a five-month jury trial in 1985, Alpine’s personnel and snow control program were vindicated and found free from any negligence.

Ten years later Heywood published an article in “The Avalanche Review” where he pointed out how the avalanche had a profound effect on the lives of many people. He noted that plans and procedures for avalanche control were revised and changes implemented. Heywood wrote: “Mother Nature taught a hard lesson with this tragedy. She also sent out a warning. We should not forget the lesson or the warning. Perhaps the story never ends.”

Record-breaking winter
The stormy weather from March 27 to April 8, 1982, was unprecedented in modern times. More than 14 feet of snow fell at Alpine Meadows in 12 days. At Central Sierra Snow Lab near Donner Pass, 15.5 feet was recorded in the same timeframe, the greatest single storm total at that location since the lab was established in 1946.

In early April, the water equivalent of the snowpack on Squaw Valley’s upper slopes was 134 inches (11.2 feet). All that precipitation translated into an estimated 71 feet of total snowfall at the Mt. Rose ski area, its all-time record.

At the lab, 1982 ranks No. 10 for snowfall with 624 inches (52 feet), but it is the second wettest water year since 1871 with 112 inches of precipitation (9.4 feet). That total has only been exceeded by the winter of 2017 with an incredible 118 inches.

For anyone who skis or snowboards today, whether in the back country or in a controlled resort environment, the lethal 1982 Alpine Meadows avalanche serves as a vivid reminder that the rugged mountains and dynamic weather we love so much are powerful forces of nature that deserve respect and understanding.

The avalanche was recounted in the 2021 documentary film “Buried” by local filmmakers Jared Drake and Steven Siig. Find details and screenings at

This article is an excerpt from Mark’s book, “Snowbound: Legendary Winters of the Tahoe Sierra.”