Avalanche Survivor Teaches Safety at Mammoth
The toughest challenge of Mammoth’s new war on reckless skiers may be in convincing 16-year-old show-offs that there really is such a thing as skiing too fast.
The employee faced with this task is equal to it, for a couple of reasons.
Anna Conrad taught high school biology for two years before taking the job promoting ski safety--if she can coax a teen-ager to memorize the parts of a paramecium, she certainly can teach a youth to look before leaping off a mogul.
The second thing going for 26-year-old Conrad is that she knows from personal experience that ski areas hold dangers. On March 31, 1982, she was trapped in a 2-by-5-foot snow pocket when an avalanche hit Alpine Meadows near Lake Tahoe. Seven people--including her boyfriend, Frank Yateman, and the mountain manager, Bernie Kingery--were killed in the avalanche. But Conrad, then a ski-lift operator at Alpine Meadows, was rescued after five days. She later lost her right leg below the knee and a portion of her left foot to frostbite.
Today, it’s clear that Conrad has put those five days in 1982 behind her. Just three months after she was rescued, she received a bachelor of science degree in wildlife biology at the University of California, Davis. She returned to the beginner slopes at Mammoth the following winter to learn to ski all over again with the aid of a prosthesis. Now she gets around without crutches, and is once again a proficient skier who takes to the mountain whenever she can get away from the job for an hour.
The men and women who wind up in Mammoth’s reform school for negligent skiers don’t recognize Conrad as the avalanche survivor who received so much publicity four years ago, and she doesn’t discuss the incident with them. But the experience did have an effect--skiers just seem to know she’s earnest when she talks about the ways people can get hurt even doing what they love best.
A 15-year-old boy from San Diego was cutting across traffic on the mountain on a recent morning when he was spotted by a ski patrolman. The patrolman saw the boy’s 16-year-old friend ski up fast from behind, then brake at the last minute so that the younger boy was showered with snow.
Neither offense was terribly serious, but either could cause problems on a crowded run, Conrad explained. The spray-stop was the equivalent of someone bearing down on the car ahead on the freeway, then screeching to a halt just before a collision, she said.
Conrad was reviewing accident reports in the administrative offices at Mammoth Mountain when her desk-side radio announced: “Three Mogul Mikers, on their way down.” It was the ski patrol, reporting that they had apprehended the two youths and another young skier from Los Angeles. They were referred to as “Mogul Mikers” because Mogul Mike is the star of a 10-minute movie about ski safety being shown to careless skiers at Mammoth this season.
Conrad threaded her way through the lunchtime crowds in the main lodge, stopping for a moment to return a mitten to a little boy who had dropped it. Despite her disability, she chose the stairs instead of the elevator.
Film, Then a Quiz
She greeted the three young offenders in the lift operators’ office where the film is shown. The teen-agers were flushed from a morning of fast skiing. One young man popped his gum loudly as Conrad warned them in her firmest schoolteacher voice to pay attention to the film because there would be a quiz when it was over.
Because the film’s lessons were interspersed with flashy ski footage, the boys had no trouble keeping their eyes on the screen. They watched Mogul Mike, a hapless cartoon character, make numerous mistakes on his first day on the slopes. In the spirit of other cartoon characters, Mogul Mike always got up again no matter how badly he was pummeled.
Each new scrape was intended to teach him a lesson from a set of ethics called the Skier’s Responsibility Code. These include:
- Ski under control and in such a manner that you can stop or avoid other skiers or objects.
- Use of alcohol and/or drugs that impair the safety of yourself and others is not allowed.
- You must not willfully stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.
- All skiers shall wear retention devices to help prevent runaway skis.
Avoiding Avalanche Areas
One offense, punishable as a misdemeanor in California, is leaving the scene of a skiing accident without seeing that an injured party has assistance. And a state law prohibits skiing in an area that is posted off limits, usually due to avalanche hazard. Some skiers are so overcome by the sight of untouched powder, explained Mammoth Mountain administrative assistant Pam Rake, that they fail to consider that skiing in a closed area could trigger an avalanche that might injure others. Last Thanksgiving, 14 skiers were arrested at Mammoth for skiing in a posted area, Rake said.
Minimizing avalanche risk is a major goal of ski-area safety programs. Conrad has said that she feels her own accident could have been prevented if the Alpine Meadows ski area had been evacuated due to extreme avalanche conditions that existed before the slide occurred. (In 1983, she was awarded $100,000 in a suit that charged the state, the ski area, Placer County and the Southern Pacific Land Co. with negligence in not evacuating the area.)
Once the three boys reviewed with Conrad the reasons they were stopped by the patrol and discussed the safety rules they’d learned, she dismissed them. They clomped off in good spirits, promising to ski more carefully the rest of the day.
It is in hopes of someday making a career of ski safety that Conrad left her teaching job to come work at Mammoth, which she says has the most progressive safety program in the state.
A fringe benefit is that her workplace is the Sierra. Even living a few hours away from the snow (when she was teaching in the Bay Area) was too far for her, she said.
“I enjoyed skiing and being in the mountains before (the 1982 avalanche),” she said. “That (the accident) wasn’t going to take that away from me. If I were to stay away from the mountains, I would have lost a big chunk of myself.”