It started with a whooshing sound, like someone had opened the front door, letting in a rush of cold air that made the other doors in the house rattle. Then the house shook, followed by a soft thud and a spray of snow blowing horizontal past our bedroom window.
‘What was that?’ I asked with a start. It was 8:30 a.m. on March 20, and we were still lying in bed, watching the endless snow parade past our window and listening for the bombs thrown by Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol.
My husband, Steven, knew right away. ‘That,’ he said, ‘was an avalanche.’
We jumped out of bed and looked outside. There was my mother’s poor rental car about 20 feet down the hill, resting on top of three trees it had flattened. We could see the back window was gone. We ran up the stairs and opened the door to our mudroom. Our front door was sitting at an angle in a gigantic pile of snow. It had been ripped off its hinges and blown across the entryway. The gaping hole where it once stood was now filled with a mountain of snow.
We had been hit by a Class IV avalanche, and we had no way out.
We have lived in Alpine Meadows’ avalanche zone since 2004, so avalanche danger has always been a very real concept for us. Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol handles snow safety on the main road, where we live, for Placer County, setting off controlled slides when necessary. In our six winters in Alpine, our house had only been hit once before. But this one was different. It wasmuch, much bigger, and we were home.
Before ski patrol bombs the road, they call every house in the avalanche zone. We had become used to these 7 a.m. wake-up calls after a heavy snowfall, and in hindsight, maybe too complacent. Our protocol is to move our cars out of the slide path to the uphill side of our house and leave the garage door open. But we hadn’t been doing that of late, and had even turned offthe phone’s ringer in our bedroom.
So when we woke up around 8 a.m. on March 20, I picked up the phone and saw that Alpine Meadows dispatch had called. It was already too late to move the cars, since they usually begin bombing around that time. I started to drift back to sleep when all of a sudden the house shuddered, like a giant loader had rumbled past our street.
Our lazy Sunday morning had quickly turned into a crisis operation. Not being able to exit out our front door (nor our back door, since it was covered up with snow), we had no idea what the extent of the damage was. The 2008 avalanche, which occurred on Christmas morning as we were boarding a plane to Mexico, had pushed in both garage doors and damaged the front door. The garage doors ended up being salvageable. We were hoping this situation would be the same, but the fact that the avalanche had barreled down our front door this time had us worried. To make matters worse, Steven had a torn ACL and meniscus from a ski injury and was supposed to be resting his knee before surgery in two days. To say winter had not been kind to us would be an understatement.
Despite doctor’s orders, Steven climbed out a second-story window onto the snow, up and over the avalanche debris, and limped to the front of our house. Like a foreign correspondent returning from a war zone, he came back inside and showed us the pictures he had snapped on his cell phone. The garage was filled to the brim with snow. Gone were the doors and my car, buried in the debris. Steven’s two trucks were nowhere to be seen, hiding somewhere in the wall of white that surrounded our house.
But the real clincher was when we looked out a window and noticed the back of our garage. The back wall had been partially blown out, and we could see into the garage through a corner that was coming apart at the seams. My heart sunk. But there was some good news — Steven finally found his golf bag that he had been looking for since last summer. It had fallen out of the back of the garage and was lying in the snow, as incongruous as a clown at a funeral.
But to every calamity there is a silver lining. Ours was the generosity of our friends and neighbors. Thanks to the power of social media, we were able to broadcast our predicament to the world over Facebook, and we soon had people, armed with shovels and snowplows, coming to the rescue. They got the mudroom and garage dug out and, lo and behold, my car had survived! It was a little worse for the wear, but in good enough shape to drive Steven to South Lake for his surgery. Another group of friends rallied the next day, shoveling off the garage roof.
It was the night of the avalanche that I learned about the tragic plane accident that killed Truckee resident Katie Morrison and her two children, whom I knew. Here in Tahoe we celebrate winter, but alas, it can also be cruel. I hugged my children a little tighter that night when I tucked them into bed. Garages and cars can be replaced. I was thankful that my most valuable possessions were still intact.