Every six or seven days each month in winter, Anna Allen takes time off from her job and other responsibilities for a day of skiing. On one level, this shouldn't be surprising—she works in an administrative position at one of California's top ski areas. She coordinates a skier-safety program at Mammoth Mountain and has only to step out the door of Mammoth's office building to be at the base of a phenomenal ski hill.
But when looked at in another way, it seems extraordinary that Allen skis at all. Certainly anyone who knew what she went through nine years ago would understand if Allen never ventured near a ski slope again.
In 1982, Allen was in a base lodge at the Alpine Meadows Ski Area near Lake Tahoe when a deadly avalanche came crashing down from the slopes above (SI, April 19, 1982). Seven people were killed when the slide demolished the building and rolled on into a nearby parking lot.
Allen, then 22 years old and a lift operator at the resort, was just walking into the employees' locker room on the second floor of the A-frame when the force of the avalanche blew the lodge apart. Avalanches can travel a hundred miles an hour; they treat trees and cabins as if they were made of matchsticks. "I thought I had been in an explosion," says Allen, who immediately was knocked unconscious. "I was walking toward my boyfriend in the locker room, and the next thing I knew.... Well, I came to, and I was in a tiny hole. Everything was pitch black and I had no idea what had happened."
The tiny hole was a two-by three-by five-foot space that had formed when some wooden lockers were knocked against a bench. The lockers were cemented in place by a 10-foot crush of snow. The icy compartment was to be Allen's cave for the next five days.
Dressed in two sweaters, a jacket and powder pants, she was trapped in a jack-knife position. She could move her limbs slightly, and during the first two days she massaged her feet from time to time but then gave that up. Search teams, meanwhile, were fighting snowfall and continuing avalanche danger to dig for her and one other missing person. On the second day of her captivity, she heard the searchers some 15 feet away, and she screamed to them with what strength she had. Her cries went unheard. A foot of snow fell on Day 3, and 12 more inches on Day 4, and no rescuers returned.
"By the fifth day most of us had given up hope of finding them alive," says Larry Heywood, who was in charge of the 125-person, on-site rescue operation. "We thought we were digging for bodies." The grim search pressed on, and then suddenly, astonishingly, someone saw a hand appear between two lockers. The rescuers stared in disbelief for a moment, then one asked, "Anna, is that you?"
"Yes, it's me," she replied weakly, gratefully.
When Anna Allen—who was then named Anna Conrad—was pulled from the snow alive after five days, people on the scene called it a miracle. Recalling the ordeal today, the 31-year-old Allen says it never occurred to her that she might not survive to be rescued. "I did what I could to keep warm," she says. "I ate snow because I was getting dehydrated. I thought about my boyfriend, my family—people who were important to me. I never had a question in my mind about whether I would be found, I just felt I would be."
She didn't learn until after the rescue that one of those killed had been her 22-year-old boyfriend, Frank Yeatman, who had been visiting from the University of California at Davis. She was to learn something else that would further compound the tragedy. It became evident in the days that followed her rescue that her legs had been severely damaged by frostbite. Doctors were finally forced to amputate her right leg below the knee, as well as all the toes of her left foot.