Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ten Seconds of Terror

by Tom Emch

Dry snow, the kind the powder-hounds love, began falling early Monday at Alpine Meadows, the flakes landing noiselessly on a crusted, unstable Sierra snow pack. It snowed again Tuesday morning while avalanche control teams worked the upper slopes with doubles, two dynamite hand charges taped together. The blasts left tell-tale craters near the top of Beaver Bowl, below the wind-curled cornice on the ridge.

Mike Pisani and Bub Luttman of San Mateo saw the craters as they entered the bowl from Wolverine traverse. In the diminishing visibility they thought the mountain and the powder were theirs alone, and they started down. But minutes earlier Steve Woodbury and Todd Osborne had traversed across Beaver to a knob on the north side where they stood resting on their skis. They saw a party of seven skiers below them entering Lower Beaver. That's when it happened.

Sheriff's deputies and investigators from the U.S. Forest Service put the time at 11:55 a.m. The survivors - Pisani, Luttman, Woodbury, Osborne, Bob Happle, Tom and Jim Donnelly, Ron Stanford and four others skiing Lower Beaver - won't forget the day: Tuesday, March 2, 1976.

Woodbury thought it sounded like an airplane at first. "We turned around and saw this cloud of snow coming down. It got louder, rumbling and crackling, and we saw the seven skiers below us where the bowl wraps around ... and they weren't able to see it and it was coming fast. I yelled 'Avalanche' and by the time I yelled it again the slide was by them."

On the other side of the bowl, Pisani and Luttman never heard the warning shout. But they suddenly discovered they weren't alone on the mountain. From above them they heard yell: "Go for it." At the same moment, Luttman recalls, "I looked over my shoulder and saw a big poof of snow and heard a thundering sound. I had less than a second to think 'It's going to get us; steer for the trees.'" His partner Pisani, remembers yelling: "Grab a tree."

The words "Go for it" were the last uttered by one of the three men who died in the avalanche at Beaver Bowl, a massive slide that tore loose a 200-yard wide wall of snow more than five feet high and sent it crashing down the slope, over the lip and on down half a mile to the top of Kangaroo chairlift at a speed estimated in excess of fifty miles per hour.

John Robert Freitas, David Paul Machholz and Dennis Joseph Graber were swallowed up by the white monster and buried without ceremony just above the lip of Beaver. Freitas and Machholz died of asphyxiation. Graber died of a broken neck, according to the Placer County coroner's report.

Pisani and Luttman were immediately caught by the slide and "swam" on top of it toward the trees to their right until it completely took them, slamming Pisani into a tree and covering him with three feet of snow and debris and burying Lutman beside him.

Bob Happle, a Reno fireman and a trained paramedic, the leader of the party of seven skiers on Lower Beaver, heard the warning shout from Woodbury and turned sharply to his right, out of the path of the avalanche.

Happle and his party made it to safety, coming to rest on the edge of the slide path. Pisani and Luttman were not so lucky.

"There was no chance to out-ski it. No way. If you were anywhere in the bowl you were committed," says Luttman. "We started swimming to keep on top of it and then it just started to take us, rolling us over and over. The slide carried us eighty, maybe one hundred yards. We tried to steer, but lost control."

Pisani, excited, begins to talk: "My hat and goggles were ripped right off my face. I landed right on a tree, really hit it hard. I just held on to the tree and the snow was still coming over me. It was building up on top of me. Then it was over and I heard Bob yelling his head off."

It had been less than ten seconds from the time the avalanche caught them until they started digging out.

Luttman recalls: "I was down about three feet, sprawled out, and I stuck my hands up over my heard. I couldn't see my hands, but could see faint light. And I broke out and began yelling for Mike. I thought: My God. Where's my friend?"

"About fifteen seconds later I saw him burrow out like some kind of mole."

Luttman's safety straps had held; he had both his skis and his pole straps had moved up his arms to his elbows. Pisani had lost one ski. They found it later, about twenty-five feet away, sitting right on top of the slide.

It was snowing harder now. But from their vantage point high on the north side of the bowl, Woodbury and Osborne tried to assess what had happened.

It appeared likely that the seven skiers below them had made it to safety. At least they could count six. They had seen two skiers get caught in the slide on the south side of the bowl and saw them dig out. But were their more?

They agreed they had seen a flash of yellow in the middle of the slide by the lip.

"After the slide we were hesitant about skiing right down on top of it because something else could break loose," says Woodbury. "We waited a few moments and then traversed back into the bowl, skied over to the two guys who dug themselves out.

"On the way over, Todd found a pole sticking out of the snow, just one pole."

Osborne and Woodbury came up to the two dazed men who were checking themselves for injuries.

Luttman recalls the conversation:

"Do you have all your equipment?" they asked me. "Yes." "Is everyone in your party accounted for?" "Yes." "Did you see anybody in the slide?" "No. But we heard someone above us yell: 'Go for it.'"

Luttman says, "They kept asking if we had our poles because one of them had found a pole in the slide. And we agreed that somebody could be in the slide, buried."

Minutes later a ski patrolman and a girl came up to the four survivors and Osborne told him about finding the single pole in the middle of the slide path. The ski patrolman told Pisani and Luttman to go down to the first aid hut and then report to Summit House.

Pisani, in the first aid room, discovered he was spitting blood and had probably inhaled some snow. The bleeding was stopped and he was told to go to the clinic at Squaw Valley and have his ribs x-rayed. Luttman and Pisani wen to Squaw; the ribs checked out okay and they returned to Alpine Meadows to make a report.

Before Luttman and Pisani left the slope and immediately after the avalanche, Bob Happle and his party, five of them Reno fireman, counted noses. Everyone was accounted for and unhurt. Jim Donnelly had been knocked down and his brother, Tom, had jumped right out of his bindings when the slide burst by them. But no one was hurt.

Happle says they checked everyone's recollection and agreed they had seem somebody in the slide, at least one and perhaps two skiers.

He says, "We looked down the hill to make sure no one was caught below us and then Ron Stanford and I - we're the two best powder skiers of the group - raced down to the bottom of Summit.

"I grabbed the ski patrolman's phone and said: 'I want to report an avalanche in Beaver Bowl. There's one down and maybe two. An observed burial in the slide. We're not sure of the location.'"

Stanford, meanwhile, told the lift operator what had happened and Summit chair was immediately closed to the public.

Up on the slope of Beaver Bowl ski patrolmen were already organizing a hasty search. From their training they know that the chances for survival for an avalanche victim are only 50 per cent after thirty minutes under the snow.

Below them, at the foot of Summit chair, another party of ski patrolmen, plus Happle, the fireman, got aboard the lift to ride to the top and traverse across Wolverine and into Beaver near the fracture line where the avalanche had started.

Within twenty minutes, Placer County sherif's deputy Sgt. Dave Rickert had been notified at the Tahoe City substation; so had Don Huber, U.S. Forest Service officer at Truckee, and probe lines being organized with ski patrolmen and volunteers. Soon there were nearly 200 people engaged in the search.

Collapsible metal probes and ten-foot aluminum conduits were issued to the searchers and it was explained that the probes would be done in unison on command of the probe line leader.

The work, agonizingly slow and painstaking, began near the bottom of the slide and worked up the slope toward the lip of Beaver where the pole had been found. Avalanche rescue-trained dogs were brought in from South Lake Tahoe and Truckee to aid in the search.

Happle recalls: "The first body was found about an hour after we started the search. Someone in the top probe line found the body about ten feet from the edge of the gap we had skied through before it all broke loose."

The snow, says Happle, was packed solid by the slide and searchers had to use shovels to get down to the victim buried about four feet from the surface.

The skier was carefully removed from the snow and immediately giving mouth to mouth resuscitation and heart massage, but he failed to revive. A doctor in the search party pronounced him dead at 2:15 p.m.

The body was identified as John R. Freitas, twenty-two, of 663 Denslow Lane, Hayward. He had suffocated.

A second victim was discovered fifteen minutes later and resuscitation appeared to be bringing him around. "We were able to get some color back into his face," says Happle, who alternated with a ski patrolman and a doctor on the mouth to mouth resuscitation. After more than an hour, the desperate attempt to revive the skier was abandoned, and the doctor declared him dead of asphyxiation. Both victims had been found facing downhill in the prone position.

The second victim was identified at first as Robert Maccholz of 3025 Tosca Way, Concord. That was the identification in his billfold. It was later discovered that the body was that of David Paul Machholz, twenty, who was carrying his older brother's papers.

The search continued throughout the afternoon in the belief that there might be one more victim. An extra hat and a pole had been found, but it was not certain who they belonged to, Happle says.

Roberta Huber, one of the searchers with an avalanche-trained dog, recalls working the slope with her German Shepherd, Bridget, until nearly 9 p.m., and then returning the next morning to resume searching.

She says that on the day after the avalanche probe lines were again organized and there were about 150 searchers, including ski patrolmen who worked at other ski resorts and many volunteers from the public. Also among the searcher were members of the sheriff's Nordic Ski Rescue Team and trained avalanche control men from the Forest Service's Truckee Station.

The all-day search Wednesday proved unsuccessful. It was no longer a question of saving the life of a buried skier, they were looking for additional bodies. On Thursday and Friday they searched again, and late Friday, after combing most of the side area with probes, sheriff's deputies officially called the search off.

Also on Friday, Forest Service investigators, with the aid of half a dozen eyewitnesses including Pisani, Luttman, Osborne, Woodbury and Happle, reenacted the roles each had played. The eyewitnesses were quizzed on exactly where they had been when the avalanche began and what they had seen.

Two other eyewitnesses, Dave Braker and Jeffrey Childs, both of Chico, were not available for reenactment, nor were most of the Reno firemen in Happle's party. But all had turned in written reports.

From this and from written reports taken the day of the tragedy, investigators were able to reconstruct the separate events. But they were unable to determine if there were more bodies in the slide.

Sgt. Rickert says that all cars in the Alpine Meadows parking lot were accounted for and there were no missing persons reports.

But the following day, with a handful of ski patrolmen and volunteers, the search went on. And this time it was successful.

Alpine Meadows ski patrol director John Waite recalls that the third body, that of, Dennis Joseph Graber, twenty-three, was found Saturday morning by ski patrolman Gary Halkens.

Graber had evidently rolled an undetermined number of times after he was caught in the avalanche. He was found in about six feet of hard-packed snow with his legs under him, his body bent backward and his neck broken. Placer County sheriff's deputy, Sgt. Steve Mikol, was notified and in his report listed the cause of death as accidental. The body was removed to the county's Central Morgue in Augurn. Graber's address was listed as Kingswood, a condominium at King's Beach, Tahoe City. It was established that he was skiing with Frietas. Machholz was evidently skiing alone, according to investigators.

All three bodies were found within thirty feet of each other, all of them just above the lip of Beaver Bowl, near the ski pole found immediately after the slide by Osborne. Roberta Huber was there when Graber's body was found. She says there were about fifty ski patrolmen in the search party, many of them from other ski areas. She says the body was found ten feet from the still-visible hole that had been Freitas' grave four days earlier.

The site was abou t450 feet from the fracture line on Upper Beaver where the avalanche started. Waite says the Beaver Bowl slide was a Class IV avalanche, a big one. Avalanches are classified on a scale of one to five, and Waite says he has never seen a Class V, not in ten years as a ski patrolman.

The recapitulation is still going on. Bernie Kingery, the mountain manager at Alpine Meados, who has seen many avalanches and been caught in a few in "ridge pullbacks' while dynamiting, can't figure it out.

Waite says they fired a few founds from the recoiless rifle mounted on Gunner's Knob into Upper Beaver the day before the avalanche and hand charges were exploded the morning of the slide. "We didn't think Beaver was unstable," he says.

Woodbury says that two or three skiers on a high traverse - the three victims - had broken it loose.

Happle says no. When he went back up Summit chair to help in the search there was only one set of traverse tracks into the bowl. He thinks his party of seven, Osborne and Woodbury, Luttman, and Pisani had all entered the bowl at the same spot.

One experienced ski patrolman said it was an "act of God."

Neither Pisani nor Luttman think the slide was started by a skier, although there was someone above them. They estimate they were forty feet from the fracture line when it burst.

Was it snow conditions?

Avalanche expert Monty Atwater of Sausalito, author of a book on avalanches, told reporters it was due to the freak weather conditions throughout the winter.

"What has happened is that with the fair weather and light intermittent snowfalls, the snow metamorphosing process has been reversed.

"The grains of snow have become larger instead of smaller, causing a highly unstable snowpack. We call this reverse metamorphosis process "depth hoar". And when it exists there's no telling what the hell the snow will do," he says.

Carl Westrate, regional director of the U.S. Forest Service recreation division, says there were layers of depth hoar and dry snow and underneath that was a layer of ice formed in January or earlier. The early snow was very non-cohesive.

Because part of Alpine Meadows is within Tahoe National forest and the U.S. Forest Service has the responsibility to see that avalanche control procedures are up to federal standards, Westrate's report will wind up at the Forest Service's Alpine Snow and Avalanche Research Project headquarters, Ft. Collins, Colorado.

Snow conditions were unusual enough to cause Atwater to announce that there was grave avalanche danger in the entire Sierra for the balance of the ski season. And the Forest Service responded by posting avalanche warning signs on popular cross-country ski trails and snowmobile routes.

Alpine Meadows ski patrolmen, busy with avalanche control work before the tragedy, redoubled their efforts afterward, blasting snow from packets and cornices on sixteen different routes in the ski complex. "There are more closure signs on Beaver Ridge than ever before," says mountain manager Kingery.

One week after the avalanche, Beaver Bowl was still closed to public skiing. The slide had blown out all the deep powder and left a hard surface. But you could step off the slide path and sink into dry snow up to your waist. And new snow had not yet covered up the holes dug to retrieve the bodies of the three victims.

In the aftermath, the survivors still wonder how they were saved.

Says Woodbury: "It dawned on me a few hours later that I could have died. Todd and I were the first ones to traverse across the bowl. It would have made a pancake out of me.."

Happle: "We had just skied through the gap and heard the sound wave that preceded the slide. We were going pretty fast and to the right, or it would have caught us."

Luttman: "I still dream about it... being caught in it and swimming or the trees and then I'm buried in the snow, and I wake myself up."

Pisani: "We were in it only ten or fifteen seconds but the force of it was unreal. I wouldn't have believed it."

Ski patrol director Waite, interviewed a few days after the slide, still appeared stunned: "It was a freak. Usually the slides don't go over the lip of Beaver, they stop. This was just too much snow."

He said the vertical drop of the avalanche was more than 1000 feet and the total distance it ran was 2600 feet. No one can say exactly what the speed of the slide was. But he says no skier could have outrun it. (Avalanches in Alaska have been clocked at more than 400 miles per hour.)

A Forest Service snow safety pamphlet says: "Avalanches are complex, natural phenomena. Experts do not fully understand all the causes. No one can predict avalanche conditions with certainty... Play it safe."

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle April 1976