Author remembers ‘A huge deadly winter’
April 13, 2009
LAKE TAHOE ” For years, sports journalist and author Jennifer Woodlief wondered why it was that no one had ever written a book ” let alone produced a movie ” based on the deadly avalanche at Alpine Meadows on March 31, 1982.
With so many people involved in the event that unfolded over several days, the story was compelling and heroic as it was tragic.
It also has the distinction of being the deadliest ski resort avalanche in North American history, with seven people who lost their lives and a survivor, Anna Conrad, found alive after a frantic five-day search and rescue effort to find victims.
Some 27 years later, Woodlief tells the story in “A Wall of White: The True Story of Heroism and Survival in the Face of a Deadly Avalanche” published by Atria books, a division of Simon and Schuster.
The former Sports illustrated reporter was at the South Lake Tahoe branch of the El Dorado Public Library on Saturday to sign books and to tell how “A Wall of White” ” now in its second printing ” came to be. The event was sponsored by Friends of the Library.
“A Wall of White” tells of a group of strangers brought together by the calamity of the avalanche. Woodlief describes the book as “a testament to the unwavering dedication of a band of rebel rescuers, driven only by a commitment to saving lives, battling not just extreme conditions but seemingly impossible odds.”
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Joining her Saturday was Larry Heywood, a Homewood resident who was the resort’s assistant patrol director at the time. While Conrad’s account remains a big part of the story, so is Heywood’s, which is considered the center of the book.
Heywood’s moving slideshow presentation of how the event unfolded gave the 40 who attended the book signing yet another perspective into the tragedy.
“It is a story that I couldn’t believe hadn’t been done already,” Woodlief said, explaining how time passed without a major book or a movie on the subject.
“There are these amazing, poignant stories of people in the avalanche’s path and I found myself fascinated by the stories.”
At the urging of Tahoe ski writer Robert Frohlich, Woodlief devoted three years to researching and writing “A Wall of White” interviewing at least 100 people who vividly recalled the events that rocked Tahoe and the ski world.
The book weaves the complexities of snow science into a narrative that provides a unique psychological composition of those involved, those who died and those who survived.
Adding to the examination of lives was the knowledge that in 1982, there were really no survival therapy sessions or grief counseling therapies to deal with large traumatic events at the time, she said.
This fact fascinated South Lake Tahoe resident Noel Zinn, who was at Saturday’s book signing. Zinn should know. She is a retired licensed clinical social worker, who worked as a counselor with Bay Area patients struggling with what is now clinically referred to as post traumatic stress disorder.
Much has evolved in treatment over the years, Zinn said.
“I remember watching the events on television and thinking of the victims, and especially the families and survivors and wondered then what they were going through and how they were going to be treated,” Zinn said.
Buying the book, she said she looked forward to reading it, and how the survivors and the victim’s families pulled through.
“Today we have organizational systems for critical incident stress debriefing,” Zinn said. “Back then we really didn’t have a lot of the knowledge as we do today in handling traumatic events such as this.”
Heywood said the event and aftermath of the avalanche are forever etched in his mind, and how Woodlief’s retelling of the story puts it all into the kind of perspective needed.
It is a book that renders history and healing, he said.
“It was a long season, a huge deadly winter,” Heywood said. “Jennifer takes the pivotal event in these people’s lives and does a wonderful job in telling the the story about what happened, how it happened, the people involved and how it has affected them.”
Among the stories close to him was the loss of his friend and mentor in Alpine Meadows Mountain Manager Bernie Kingery, the last victim to be found. Heywood continued work at the resort following the avalanche, becoming Alpine Meadows ski patrol director for 17 years and then the director of operations.
Of course the story doesn’t end with the book. The avalanche had profound effects on the lives of many people who survived, according to Heywood on the Web site avalanche.org
“Family members of the victims, friends of the victims, rescue leaders, ski patrollers, ski area managers and many others were all touched in their own way. Lawsuits were filed and fingers were pointed. The litigation lasted for years. Plans and procedures were revised, and changes to the control program were 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,” he wrote.
Jennifer Woodlief is a former reporter for Sports Illustrated. A graduate of Stanford University and the UCLA School of Law, she has prosecuted first-degree murder cases and worked as a case officer for the CIA. Her first book, Ski to Die: The Bill Johnson Story, was optioned by Warner Bros. for a movie. She lives in Tiburon, Calif., with her husband and three children.