The Avalanche Review, VOL. 10, NO. 5, MARCH 1992
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE. . . CAN IT?

by Liam Fitzgerald

The purpose of my visit to Alpine Meadows in June 1982 was to learn from someone else's disaster so that I might be better prepared to deal with my own should it happen. The scene was one that would be hard to forget. There was the shell of the Summit Building where the avalanche control operation was once based, where all the rescue gear on the lower mountain had been stored, and where three of the 7 people who died in the avalanche were killed. Standing on the deck of the day lodge, which had also been hit by the same slide, and looking up at the Poma Rocks, my thoughts were, "How could that slide path have done so much damage?" Fifteen months later, when asked to work for the defense in this case, I felt that I could, in good conscience, represent people who in their efforts to protect lives and property were fooled by an avalanche path that could have easily fooled me.

If the benefit of hindsight were removed, what would we know? We would know that there was a major storm in progress and that there had been little or no observable results from control work. With the attention of the control teams focused on the work about to begin on "KT-22," attention was directed away from those areas that had been previously controlled, including the Pond Slide, the Buttress, and the Poma Rocks. Are there any avalanche forecasters reading this who haven't done this to some degree? Any who haven't underestimated the hazard? Any who haven't misjudged the performance of an avalanche path? Any who haven't narrowly missed a significant avalanche accident by luck? Any who haven't made a "mistake"? My point is that the type of disaster that struck Alpine Meadows could have happened to many of us in the past and will happen somewhere, sometime in the future.

The differing views of the expert witnesses in this case endorse the idea that "avalanches are a poorly understood phenomenon." The same weather and snowpack data, the same records of the procedures followed by the control teams, led experienced and respected avalanche "experts" to come up with fundamentally different interpretations of what was going on and what should have been done, but were the views really all that different?

Surely there is no question that all those involved with avalanche work at Alpine Meadows were thinking that the situation was serious and they were working under hazardous conditions to try and protect lives including their own. They knew that things were critical and the experts agreed with them. The disagreement seems to lie in how they responded to the situation.

The relative calm of the conference room where trial strategies are formulated and expert opinions refined is considerably different from the "heat of the battle" of control work during a major storm. For that matter, it's much calmer in the conference room than when at the witness stand being cross-examined by an extremely confrontational attorney. The confines of legal jargon limit the expression of ideas on a subject as enigmatic as avalanches and how to deal with them. A debate between the "experts" outside of court of law may have produced a more conclusive answer as to whether this tragedy could have been prevented. In that debate I think those "experts" chosen to express opinions in the Alpine Meadows trial could change sides and still present a convincing argument.

In the end, what did we learn that we didn't know before? Did we learn that avalanches can be tricky? That lawyers can be offensive? That life is tenuous? We knew these things before. Alpine Meadows learned how far those slidepaths can run and where people might be in danger. They will be better prepared to deal with the next storm that could produce disastrous avalanches. Will the rest of us be ready?

Liam Fitzgerald is Snow Safety Director for Snowbird Ski Corp. In 1985, he was an expert witness for the defense in the Alpine Meadows trial.

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 10, NO. 5, MARCH 1992
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA