A Wall of White
$25.00, hardback, 256 pages
On March 31, 1982, a devastating avalanche occurred at Alpine Meadows, a ski resort near Lake Tahoe, Calif. High on the mountain, a quarter-mile-long fracture sent a wave of snow 800 feet down the slope. The destructive energy of the avalanche didn’t dissipate until it had torn apart the resort’s operation center — the Summit Terminal Building — as well as ending seven lives.
Jennifer Woodlief’s A Wall of White takes readers into the days before and after the avalanche. Woodlief’s strengths as an author lay in her ability to detail complete characters who readers quickly become invested in. Members of the ski patrol are presented both as adventurous mountainmen who love their job throwing dynamite as avalanche prevention and as heroes who likely put their own lives at risk to find their friends under the snow. Although knowing the outcome makes it easy to point out mistakes made by visitors to the resort caught in the avalanche, Woodlief’s characterization also makes it easy to understand the decisions taken on March 31 and for readers to feel they may have made the same decisions.
Every one of the seven killed become fully realized portraits. The jacket copy lets readers know one woman is pulled from the debris 5 days after the disaster, so readers are aware the people they’re beginning to care about don’t make it out. Still, the yearning is there to issue a warning, to see a father and daughter turn back from their journey, to direct the rescuers to the right spot just in case a way exists to save those lost.
Woven into the character-driven narrative are facts about avalanches in general — what causes them, what it feels like to be caught in one — and the Alpine Meadows avalanche in particular. On March 26, the snowpack was 87 inches. By March 30, 64 more inches fell; 25 more inches on March 31. At the time of the avalanche, estimates put the snowpack at 145” and wind gusts at up to 120 mph. Snow was falling at or over 1”/hour from March 29 through April 1. The resort itself becomes a character as Woodlief draws a clear picture of its history and its staff.
Readers learn about the basics of avalanche control as the ski patrol uses its howitzer and dynamite to safely bring down risky areas of snow. In the brutal conditions, their efforts have no effect on the snow. Some of the patrol were headed to the neighboring Squaw Valley resort to try prevention measures from the backside when the avalanche hit.
The avalanche occurs about 60% of the way through A Wall of White. By that time, readers are caught up in the individual stories of the participants. The turning of the pages is like the ticking of clock counting down to tragedy.
Not everyone in the Summit Terminal Building died. Woodlief uses the accounts of the survivors to place the readers inside the avalanche, legs and arms trapped by the hardening cement an avalanche becomes. Readers can almost hear the sudden silence after the roar of the avalanche ends and the creaking of broken buildings.
With its mix of characterization and avalanche lore, A Wall of White may remind some readers of Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm. Similarities exist, but because Woodlief was able to speak to people present at the time of the avalanche and use, her book draws readers into a tragedy rather than a mystery.
The book doesn’t lose momentum when the focus shifts to rescue and recovery efforts. The patrol members headed to Squaw Valley returned, only to find almost all of their rescue equipment gone. It was housed in the destroyed Summit Terminal Building. Equipment inside was swept out into the parking lot, which was buried under 10 to 12 feet of snow and debris.
Woodlief again educates readers about avalanche rescue. She discusses the proper use of avalanche beacons and avalanche probes, but the lessons aren’t didactic paragraphs of exposition. She uses the frustration of the patrol to explain the futility of probes when a probe is just as likely to hit spare clothing stored in employee lockers as a survivor. Readers, like the rescue team, have already learned air pockets will ice over from a survivor’s breath, shutting off any oxygen travelling through the snow. As the hours and days pass after the avalanche, readers are still involved in the story, hoping against hope for rescue not recovery.
A rescue dog is the first to alert those on site to the possibility of a survivor. Anna Conrad had been trapped in the employee locker room under furniture and tipped over lockers. The debris built a shelter over her, protecting her from the crushing weight of the avalanche, but severely injuring her and leaving her with only melting snow to drink. When she is pulled from the wreckage on April 5 and loaded on a medical helicopter, readers feel the rescue team’s exhilaration and relief.
Throughout the book, Woodlief hits all the right notes. Her pacing drives the readers to the avalanche without sacrificing the portraits of those involved in the disaster. The pauses to inform readers about avalanches are brief and serve the overall story.