The stunning recreations in “Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche” put the viewer as close to an actual avalanche as anybody’d ever want to get.
A mountain of snow, preceded by a hurricane-force wind-driven shock wave, chases a snowmobile down a slope and access road. A tsunami of white knocks people and buildings down.
And decades later, those who survived it still weep over the losses, and those responsible for avalanche control struggle with decisions they made and didn’t make in this historic disaster, which flattened much of a ski resort in the high Sierras abutting Lake Tahoe in northeast California.
Jared Drake and Steven Siig follow-up their acclaimed Insane Clown Posse music doc “United States of Insanity” with a surprisingly moving and starkly-beautiful film about the power of nature and the lives shattered by a disaster created by a most extraordinary snow event.
“The worst winter storm in history,” the forecasters called it. The snow piled up over 103 inches in a flash. The winds on the mountaintops cleared 120 miles per hour. White-out conditions were bad enough to close the Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, just one valley over from the onetime Olympic venue at Squaw Valley.
But the young staff on hand was well-versed in avalanche amelioration in a place prone to massive snowslides.
Some 300 spots had been identified as the main origin points for avalanches, staff avalanche forecaster Jim Plehn says. In a pre-laptop era, this “citizen scientist,” then just 27, and the ski patrol there gathered data on snowfall, snowpack and watched the danger spots. They’d drop “bombs,” hand-made explosives on the most vulnerable drifts. They’d ski the ridgelines “ski checking,” starting controlled avalanches by kicking their skis to trigger a slide “so that the big one never builds up.”
“The OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) thing was not omnipresent like it is now,” one patrol member recalls.
And when all else failed, they had artillery to shell gigantic deep and teetering drifts high up the mountain.
But that March of 1982 blizzard made them feel “like we were standing on top of a monster,” that all their “purging” efforts were in vain. The tinkling sound of the frigid, snow-laced wind, the staggering height of the drifts in the constantly-cleared entrance road, gave more than one staff member the willies.
“I feel like there was a dragon under the snow.”
So Plehn told his boss to close the resort as he and the staff monitored the onslaught and fired artillery into the gloom.
But there were vacationers staying at condos. Some of the athletic 20somethings on staff got antsy. And none of them were prepared for what came and how much and how far the mountain of snow would smash down.
The filmmakers question a lot of folks now in their 60s who not only remember that awful day, but recall it as “the best job I ever had in my life,” being young and outside and on skis in some of the best skiing terrain in North America. They’re older and sober in their assessments of what they did and what they could and could not have foreseen. And many of them break down, or start to, on camera.
“Took us a while to dig him out…but that’s enough of that.”
Drake and Siig knew they’d have plenty of pathos in remembering this tragedy. But they also knew that most of us wouldn’t remember how everything turned out. And they delicately structure their story to deliver uplifting third act moments in addition to letting us see the trauma these memories bring up for those who had to labor through their grief and survivor’s guilt forty years ago, and still do today.
Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: Jim Plehn, Meredith Watson, Larry Heywood and Lanny Johnson
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jared Drake and Steven Siig. A Greenwich release.
Running time: 1:36