Anna Allen’s technique is smooth and controlled as she glides in gentle “S” patterns down the run.
She knows this terrain well. She’s worked at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort for the last three decades, and she’s quick to give a geology lesson from the chairlift.
“So that whole area, that’s a shield, basically a shield volcano,” she said, pointing to a peak. “It all faces north. It gives us that advantage as well, the snow stays here. We didn’t close until August 8th last year.”
Despite the brutal avalanche that nearly took her life 36 years ago, Allen still loves the fluffy white powder that coats the slopes.
“I’ve never really felt uncomfortable around the snow,” she said. “It’s a beautiful time. But the avalanches themselves that we all are going to experience around here are something to be respected, because you have to understand that they will happen.”
It’s a hard-won knowledge for the 58-year-old resort host program director. She was 22 when she and her then-boyfriend ventured to Alpine Meadows without an inkling that the resort’s deadliest avalanche would hit in a matter of hours. Here’s how that day started.
“We spent the day kinda playing games and just kinda hanging out and then decided that we really needed to do something, and decided cross country skiing was the smart thing to do,” she said. “And we went out and went cross country skiing to the ski area we didn’t realize how much danger we were putting ourselves in.”
Allen was a lift operator, and she needed to stop by her work locker to grab ski pants. That’s where she was when a snow slab shifted and sent several tons of powder careening down the mountainside toward her building.
“All of a sudden the avalanche hit the building,” she said. “I didn’t know what was happening, I was inside of a building that didn’t have windows on the sides or anything like that … Next thing I knew I woke up probably 15, 20 hours later and had no idea where I was or what had happened because I had had a severe concussion”
The lockers had fallen onto a bench, shielding her from snow and debris.
“They kind of created this triangle of life that allowed me to be saved from being crushed.”
She laid there for five days, in a pitch-black air pocket so cramped that she couldn’t even sit up. She ate dirt, and rubbed her feet to try to stave off frostbite. She could make out explosions from the avalanche control unit and the calls of search teams. But her own cries were stifled by layers of snow and ice.
By day five, she was losing faith.
“I actually felt like OK I am starting to get really sick,” she said. “I know I’m getting really sick because I’m really dehydrated. And I really hope that they can find me today, because I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to communicate easily with them, and I really wanted to be able to say thanks as soon as they got me out.”
As it turned out, that was the day of her rescue. The storm outside had subsided. Alpine searchers were able to return to the spot where a rescue dog had caught Allen’s scent. The rescuers dug and dug. And then this happened.
“I heard sounds, and then all of a sudden I saw snow fall above my head. So I grabbed at the snow to put it in my mouth, and they saw this bare hand reach up and grab at snow, and one of them yelled down, Anna is that you? And my reply was, Of course it is!”
That was 36 years ago. After the accident, Allen faced a long, tenuous recovery that included the amputation of her left toes and the lower half of her right leg.
“The doctors, the whole time they kept saying ‘we’re going to be able to save your legs’,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me look at my feet. And it wasn’t until about 15 years later that I saw a picture, and I could see that my toes looked like raisins on the end of my feet … they were a mess.”
But she was determined not to let it hold her back. Within months, she was back at school and back on the slope with a specially designed prosthetic limb.
“I really focused on what was ahead of me, and not what I had lost. And that is such a key part of who I am and what makes people be good survivors.”
Allen takes a deep breath and surveys the commotion of Mammoth’s base area. Snowboarders turn flips on a nearby half pipe, and an announcer calls out times as slalom racers cross the finish line.
Within minutes, she’ll be strapping on her skiing leg and zipping up her bright yellow staff jacket. But for now, she’s just taking it in.
“I do believe that we take for granted too many things and forget that we don’t have control over what’s going to happen,” she said. “We need to respect what can be out there and understand those things. It’s great when people take the time to understand the reality of the mountain life.”