Program takes on Sierra disasters

Those who have tracked the Sierra Nevada in the fury of winter know how dangerous the mountains can be.

Whiteouts that reduce vision to a few feet, winds that pile snow deep enough to bury cars, storms that dump not inches but feet of snow.

Three tales of winter's omnipotence will air 11 p.m. Wednesday night on the History Channel in "Snowbound: The Curse of the Sierra."

Despite the lurid title, the program offers a serious look back at three events that demonstrate the strength of these mountains and the snow. The stories are told by archive film, illustrations and conversations with descendants of those involved.

Such a storm or series of storm spelled doom for the Donner Party, which "faced probably the worst winter ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada,"according to author Frank X. Mullen.

Eighty-two settlers from Illinois and the Midwest were trapped in the winter of 1846-47 near the pass now known as Donner Pass. Fifteen pressed on in search of help; eight of those died. Of those left behind, only 40 survived, having descended to boiling leather for food and finally turning to cannibalism.

The second event in the program concerns the sleek City of San Francisco, a plush train that rode the rails from Chicago to California. By Jan. 13, 1952, railroaders were well aware of the power of the Storm King, as the Sierra was nicknamed.

Snowsheds had been built along the tracks to protect trains and rails. Giant snowplows with propellers out front were used to keep the tracks clear.

But that January was marked by the longest continuous storm in the Sierra's recorded history. At the 7,239-foot pass the train was enveloped in an avalanche. It stayed there for five days while snowplows battled the "California cement," as skiers call that kind of snow today.

The third and more recent event was the storm of March 31, 1982, when the ski resort of Alpine Meadows closed because of avalanche danger. Sure enough, an avalanche struck and buried the three-story employee A-frame.

Trapped there was Anna Conrad, 22, who had skied over with her boyfriend earlier in the day. In a tiny space created by a fallen locker, Anna survived for five days as rescuers battled to find her.

Rescuers were led to Anna by a dog, Bridget, one of the first of rescue dogs trained to find lost persons. Roberta Ward of Garnderville had trained Bridget in the early days of WOOF, the dog trainer organization.

Bridget, normally an aloof canine, came up to Anna as she was lifted out of the ruins and licked her.

"She got a steak for dinner that night," recalls Ward.

The ordeal cost Anna an amputation below the knee of one leg and the toes from the other, but the next year she was skiing again. Today she heads the Host Program at Mammoth Mountain and "skis better than most of us with both legs," says a Mammoth employee.

See for yourself

What: History Channel's "Snowbound: The Curse of the Sierra"

When: 11 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Channel 50 in Carson City, Dayton and Carson Valley


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