It’s been 40 years since former avalanche forecaster Jim Plehn dug his friends’ bodies out of the snow. A massive avalanche had crashed into the base area of Alpine Meadows ski resort, near Lake Tahoe in Northern California, after a four-day, late-season storm had dumped seven-and-a-half feet of snow and brought 100-mile-per-hour winds to the ridgetops. Alpine Meadows was closed that day because of extreme avalanche danger, but a few employees remained in the ski patrol headquarters, housed in a small building at the bottom of the resort’s main chairlift.
At 3:45 P.M. on March 31, 1982, a fissure more than 2,900 feet across and nearly 10 feet deep ripped through the snowpack, sending a tidal wave of snow large enough to destroy an entire building and bury the parking lot. Seven people died. Four of those killed were Alpine Meadows employees; the other three were two men and a young girl walking in the parking lot.
Plehn was 33 at the time of the avalanche, a ski patroller who’d been promoted to avalanche forecaster a few years prior. He’s 72 now and the star of a new film, Buried, which documents the tragedy using archival news footage, present-day interviews, and a few reenactments. Buried debuted at the Telluride’s Mountainfilm Festival in 2021, where it won the Audience Choice Award, and it will be making its theatrical release across the country on Friday, September 23.
The film was made by two Alpine Meadows residents, Steven Siig, who owns the Tahoe Art Haus, a local movie theater, and Jared Drake, who used to work in the film industry in Los Angeles before he moved to Tahoe. Their goal, says Drake, was to understand “what happened, why it happened, what those who were there learned, and how they’ve processed it all over the last 40 years.”
I saw the movie at the Tahoe Art Haus, in Tahoe City, California, last winter, just a short drive from where the avalanche occurred. Anyone watching this film will have an emotional reaction to the devastating images of the slide’s aftermath, but I had a physical response, too. My body tensed up, anxiety coursing through me. I struggled to take shallow, short breaths as I saw footage of the wreckage and listened to the patrollers talk about searching for their friends in the debris. When the first body was recovered, tears dripped down my face.
I was born two months before the 1982 avalanche, and I grew up skiing at Alpine Meadows. I heard the story of the slide as I got older and joined the mountain’s race team. My two kids are learning to ski at Alpine now. So, this mountain is home to me. But that’s not the only reason the film shook me to the core.
Ten years ago, I searched for three friends’ bodies six feet under the snow after a massive avalanche ripped apart the backside of Washington’s Stevens Pass ski area, in a backcountry zone known as Tunnel Creek. Three people died that day. One person survived being swept up in it. A decade later, not a day goes by that I don’t think about that avalanche, the people we lost, and the decisions we could have made differently to save them.
Anyone watching this film will have an emotional reaction to the devastating images of the slide’s aftermath, but I had a physical response, too.
After watching Buried, I called Plehn to talk about the movie and see how he’s doing all these years later. “When you go through something like that, it’s always with you,” he tells me. “It never goes away. You just learn to live with it.” In 1982, post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t a topic people were familiar with. For first responders like ski patrollers and mountain rescuers, there was no debriefing, no post-incident therapy sessions.
“A big part of the film is talking about PTSD and the effects of an incident like this on the people involved, especially the rescuers,” Plehn says. “As Jared and Siig started working with us, they could see the imprint of PTSD on each of us. They realized this wasn’t just a story about an avalanche. The after-effects were important, too.”
After the avalanche at Alpine Meadows, the search-and-rescue process went on for days, while the storm continued to hammer the mountain. At one point, Plehn had to call the search off for the safety of the rescue crew—a moment he calls the hardest decision he’s ever had to make. “When it was all over, we were at the fire station, our rescue headquarters, and I completely fell apart,” Plehn recalls. “I was completely emotionally exhausted and wrung out. I started crying, just bawling my eyes out.” A mentor of Plehn’s, an avalanche expert and former mountain manger named Norm Wilson, put his arm around him and said, “That was a really hard experience you just went through, but I want you to be really proud of what you did.”
“I knew by the way he said it that he meant not just me but my whole crew,” Plehn says. “I think Norm saying that to me helped give me the strength to face up to the hard questioning that was going to come afterward.”
A lawsuit followed—the ski area was sued by several of the victims’ families for wrongful death—but in 1985, after several days of deliberation in a courtroom, a jury found the Alpine Meadows ski patrol non-negligent in their hazard forecasts and avalanche control procedures. They had done everything they could to mitigate the avalanche danger during the storm. It was not their fault. The court declared that it was an “unprecedented event resulting from a precedented storm.”
“That was a huge healing moment for me,” Plehn says. “I don’t feel that we made any mistakes, and a jury agreed with that. But it has occurred to me: What if the verdict went the other way?”
I tell Plehn I have regrets. I have flashbacks that still plague me. That day at Stevens Pass, on February 19, 2012, we skied a steep slope that we shouldn’t have been on—it was the morning after a storm on a day with considerable avalanche danger. I knew better than that. Besides, we were too large a group, and there wasn’t enough communication among us. Sure, we did everything in our power to find our friends, but we couldn’t get to them fast enough. They were too far down. Three people lost their lives that day; three families were left with gaping holes where these men once were, and maybe we could have stopped that. I still can’t shake that feeling.
“It’s really hard when you think about the families,” Plehn tells me. “Certain things will bring it back up, those triggers.” Plehn says his most important takeaway is to remember that when we recreate in hazardous environments and get in trouble, that affects not just us, but also our families and the rescuers who have to respond to that situation.
Here’s how we handled it back then: the better part of us went to the bar and drank,” says Larry Heywood.
Larry Heywood was the assistant patrol director at Alpine Meadows in 1982 and is now a semi-retired snow safety expert. Heywood has a prominent role in Buried, alongside Plehn. The two clash a bit in the film, showing how ego and hubris played a role during the fallout of the avalanche. I recently ran into Heywood in the Alpine Meadows locker room. He and I were both heading out to ski during a massive Tahoe storm in late December of last year, with the power flickering on and off in the lodge. “What was it like being a patroller back then?” I asked him.
“Some days were magical: blue skies, big avalanches, sunrises, things that nobody else in the world gets to see, and you get to see it all the time,” Heywood told me. “But there were hard days, like when a kid got badly hurt. Here’s how we handled it back then: the better part of us went to the bar and drank.”
The night I saw Buried in the theater, Plehn and Heywood were both there and did an audience Q & A afterward, with filmmakers Siig and Drake. “This is a conversation about avalanche awareness,” Siig told the audience. “This is what mother nature can do. If mother nature is pissed, she’s going to tell old man winter to kick us in the ass. That’s something we all need to be aware of, the inherent risks of living, working, and playing in the mountains.”
They started talking about grief, about the importance of addressing post-traumatic stress. Heywood put his arm around Plehn, an uncharacteristically gentle move for two stoic older men who haven’t always agreed with each other. “I said it in the film, and I’ll say it again here: Jim didn’t screw up. Nobody did,” Heywood said. From my seat in the audience, I could see Plehn’s shoulders relax under the weight of his former colleague’s words.
After seeing those men come together after all these years and all they’ve been through, I finally took a full breath. They are all right, I thought. They did everything they could. So did I. Sometimes the mountains give you a beating to remind you to pay attention. I’ve spent ten years harboring pain and remorse around the lives we lost in Washington that day, a sadness I couldn’t fight off. But in that theater seat, I started to feel like I could finally begin to let it go. My hands eased their grip on the armrests. After 90 minutes of stress-watching this strikingly beautiful film, my body began to lighten. It wasn’t my fault. Everything was going to be OK.