One moment Mike Davisson was walking, pushing against the howling wind and high-stepping through deep snow, the product of a dayslong storm in California’s Sierra Nevada range. The next moment he was on the ground. Knocked over by some unknown – and unseen – force.
It was March 31, 1982, and as Davisson, a groomer at Alpine Meadows ski area near California’s Lake Tahoe, picked himself up he started “getting really sick feelings in my head. Almost violent feelings.”
“The only way I can explain it is I was feeling people being crushed to death,” he said more than 40 years later from his home in Spokane.
That day Davisson was knocked down by the sonic blast from an avalanche traveling more than 100 miles an hour. The slide buried the Alpine Meadows’ parking lot under 10 to 20 feet of snow (Davisson was in a more sheltered area of the lot), destroyed an entire building and killed seven people. One woman was found alive after five days.
Eventually the slide triggered a massive lawsuit and is the subject of the 2021 documentary “Buried,” which started playing at Spokane’s Magic Lantern theater Friday. Davisson, whose experience isn’t included in the film, attended Friday’s premiere. And while he said the film gets a lot right, he believes that an important and overlooked side of the story remains untold.
Namely the fact that within those initial minutes and hours the first rescuers on the scene weren’t ski patrol. Instead it was a ragtag group of maintenance workers and office staff. And that group, about 20 in total, managed to save the lives of three people while frantically searching for more.
“I’m not mad at anybody, I’m just saying there is more to it. There is more to the story. There were people actually rescued and that doesn’t come out,” he said. “I have nothing against them (the filmmakers). I think they did a great job. But I don’t think they were told the whole story.”
Jared Drake grew up in Snoqualmie, Washington, and moved to Los Angeles for college. After graduation he worked in LA’s film industry before moving to Alpine Meadows about nine years ago. Once there he realized the 1982 avalanche looms large in the town’s consciousness; that fact prompted him and his filmmaking collaborator, Steven Siig, to consider a documentary. Still they hesitated.
“We really felt like ‘Eh I don’t know if this movie should be made,’ ” Drake said. “We don’t know if this will help the victims or hurt them.”
As he integrated into the Alpine Meadows community he realized the avalanche wasn’t avoidable.
“You’re down at the coffee shop and you meet people who were part of it,” he said.
And so the two decided they “had to document” it.
In part the story is hyperlocal. It’s about one incident in one place and the 95-minute film remains tightly focused on that. However, Drake said there is a larger issue he hopes the film exposes, namely the mental and physical challenges ski patrollers face.
“Its (goal is) to tell the story of ski patrol and really highlight what they do,” he said. “What they sacrifice. What they face physically and emotionally. I don’t think anyone properly captures what they do.”
The film tells that story well.
In March of 1982 it had been nuking in the California Sierra Nevada. The snow was accumulating so quickly that, as Davisson recalls, it was acting more like a liquid than a solid. Driving a snow plow the powder would crest against the blade and then fill in behind the big vehicle, as if water behind a boat.
Everyone knew the avalanche danger was off the charts. Alpine Meadows was already notorious for its steep avalanche terrain. A topographical fact that made it a fun place to ski. That morning, resort management decided to close the mountain. Throughout the morning resort ski patrol did its normal avalanche control work, tossing bombs and otherwise trying to trigger slides in a safe manner. But by the afternoon patrol had left the resort proper to assist the county in its own avalanche work.
Davisson, however, remained. But by the time Drake talked to Davisson, the film was mostly finished.
“Mike (Davisson)’s story is bone chilling and it’s incredible and it’s totally valid,” Drake said. “Mike’s not alone in having an amazing story about 1982 that is not in the film.”
After being thrown to the ground, Davisson brushed himself off and fought the evil feelings. Twenty-foot berms of snow obscured his view of the mountains. Something bad had happened, he knew that. But what? He started to run (or at least approximate running, the snow deep as it was) toward the Summit chairlift building. T hat’s when he saw one of the resort’s tracked snow-moving machines flipped upside down.
His first thought? The deck of the chairlift building must have collapsed. He crawled up a steep slope of trundled snow to the machine to see if anyone was stuck inside. No one was, but that’s when he got a full view of the three-story A-frame chairlift building.
“The building was gone,” he said.
Rubble was strewn downhill, the walls blown out by the force of the snow. A man stood up out of the rubble, stumbling toward Davisson. Davisson, a trained EMT, assessed him for major injuries. By now more people were arriving, other maintenance and office staff who’d remained on the mountain. Davisson saw another man buried to his waist with a “major head wound.” He shifted his attention to him, his mindset now one of “triage.”
More groomers arrived with shovels although all the resort’s emergency probes had been buried in the avalanche (probes are long skinny poles used to feel for people buried under the snow). And then Davisson saw a patch of blue, eye-catchingly out of place in sea of white and gray. He and another employee realized it was glove. A glove with fingers, connected to a hand, connected to a human. A human buried under the snow.
They dug frantically, finally uncovering Jeff Skover. He wasn’t breathing. They cleared his mouth of snow. Nothing. And then Davisson did a jaw thrust (an emergency airway clearing tactic used on patients with possible spinal injuries).
Skover began breathing. All three of the people Davisson helped survived.
Over the next five days Davisson remained at the resort. He was there as they found the seven people who died. He spent hours combing through the wreckage. And he was there when rescuers found Anna Conrad, alive, after being buried for five days in a nook created by the rubble of the building. After Allen was found, Davisson went home.
He worked at Alpine Meadows one more season and then left for good. In 2010, he retired from a career as an engineer.
Karen Stohmaler was there in those first chaotic hours and minutes alongside Davisson. She was the switchboard operator for the resort (among other things) and corroborates Davisson’s memory. Like him, she said the new documentary is good and accurate, but misses their story.
“We did things that were just super human,” the California resident said of the maintenance and office staff. “We didn’t sit around and knit sweaters waiting for people to come. We dug in and did whatever we possibly could.”
For both Stohmaler and Davisson the event remains a watershed moment in their lives. One that they’ve had to come to terms with in their own ways.
“I was incredibly injured by it,” he said. “Mentally all of us were.”
All involved – Davisson, Stohmaler and Drake – hope the stories from Alpine Meadows serve as some sort of reminder for mountain lovers, a reminder that Mother Nature has her own moods, moods that while not cruel, are indifferent to human desires and hopes.
“The mountain was angry that day,” Stohmaler said. “And the mountain remained angry for a while.”
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