Beyond the miraculous resurrection of Anna Conrad, the Alpine Meadows avalanche was unusual in other respects. First, it's rare that any avalanche deaths should occur within the boundaries of a ski area. U.S. Forest Service records show that in an average year, 150 people are caught in U.S. avalanches; 15 are injured and 13 die. No more than one or two of those fatalities occur inside ski areas. The rest happen in the backcountry or on out-of-bounds slopes.
(The U.S. death rate from avalanches consistently runs far behind that of Europe. Each year Austria alone will have at least 40 deaths, while the Alpine countries combined will report 100 or more avalanche fatalities.)
The second peculiarity about the Alpine Meadows avalanche is the fact that it was triggered by an act of nature—not an act of man. The vast majority of fatal avalanches are unknowingly started by the victims themselves—because their mere presence on skis in a potential avalanche area can set off the slides.
The examples of this are numerous. One of the most publicized—notorious, is a better word—of all fatal avalanches occurred on April 12, 1964 at St. Moritz, Switzerland. The dead were Barbi Henneberger, 23, who had won a bronze medal in the 1960 Winter Olympics, and America's most famous skier, Wallace (Buddy) Werner, 28.
On that warm and sunny spring day, Henneberger, Werner and a dozen or so other crack skiers were cavorting about in front of the movie cameras of one Willy Bogner Jr., then 21, scion of the elegant German ski-clothing manufacturing family. The skiers were performing for some kind of a promotional movie, and the crew had set up on slopes clearly marked with avalanche warning signs. As the group was dashing down the hill, suddenly a vast fracture boomed across the slope, and the mountainside began to rumble down in a swath 500 feet across. Many of the skiers were caught in the flow, and, being as fit and experienced as they were, most of them managed to do the right thing to survive. They discarded their poles and their skis and began "swimming" to stay on top. Henneberger, who was Bogner's fiancée, never got her head above the seething snow and was buried quickly. Werner, however, was in front of the avalanche, and he tried to run for it. Crouched in a tuck, his poles held tightly under his arms, he raced to get out of its path. He was close to safety—some onlookers guessed no more than 15 feet—when he fell and was overrun by the snow. Four hours later they dug him out. Two months later the Swiss officials charged Willy Bogner with negligent homicide in the case, claiming that he had ignored avalanche warning signs and "acted in disregard of the most elementary precautions while serving as manager of the project." He received a suspended sentence of two months.
Chance-taking goes on and on in the Alps. On Jan. 31 of this year, outside Salzburg, 13 people—10 students and three instructors from an Outward Bound course—were buried and died beneath an avalanche that struck them in the midst of a blinding snowstorm. They had been warned that the day and the snow were ripe for slides, but they went out anyway, and a day later the Viennese newspaper Kronenzeitung ran the headline THIS EXCURSION WAS MURDER.
So, for the most part, modern man creates his own avalanches, and if he dies, he has only himself to blame. A few centuries ago, men of the Alps saw avalanches as a horrible product of witchcraft or dragons. They would say, "Was fliegt ohne Flügel, schlägt ohne Hand und sieht ohne Augen? Das Lauitier!" ("What flies without wings, strikes without hand and sees without eyes? The avalanche-beast!"). In the 18th century Immanuel Kant's then-definitive tome Physical Geography explained that avalanches were simply little snowballs that grew in size as they rolled down the mountain. Once upon a time educated men even believed that any sudden sound—cowbells, birdsongs, yodelers, a child slamming a door—might be sufficient to set off a deadly avalanche.
Well, mystical, capricious and lethal as they may still be, avalanches have come under the gimlet gaze of men who do not believe in beasts or monster snowballs or snowslides kicked off by meadowlarks. Technology has moved in on the avalanche witchcraft. There are instruments that can count with photocells the number of snowflakes falling each second on a mountain peak. There is a theory for forecasting avalanche danger that suggests that the changing gravitational pull of the sun and the moon not only affects the ocean tides but also may cause otherwise inert avalanches to break loose.
But for all of that—science and computers and tidal theorizing—nothing could save those seven people at Alpine Meadows.
Das Lauitier still lives.