On March 31, 1982, the unthinkable happened at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe, California. A massive avalanche inundated the area. It came almost without warning and buried four slopes, the summit building, a parking lot, and eight people. The desperate attempts to locate and save them in 15.5 feet of snow is the focus of this 100-minute documentary.
More than just a chronicle of the events, filmmakers Steven Siig and Jared Drake set the stage for the disaster by taking us back to the early 80’s for a glimpse of ski life culture and the people who lived it. Combining rock music, video, and stills from the era, the ski patrols were like super stars – young, handsome, and athletic.
But they were also dedicated to keeping the public safe, going out most mornings to try and control avalanches using a combination of dynamite, artillery, and ski cutting. For avalanche forecasters, working without computers, it was a combination of science and sixth sense.
But what really propels the story forward and gives it its emotional core are the intimate interviews with the employees of the ski area. Shot against stark black backgrounds – and one grey – their words are heart-wrenching. It’s almost painful to listen to them looking back almost 40 years and trying to be objective about what happened, what they could have and should have done, and their still-nagging regrets. Even harder to see are the pictures of the people you know ultimately won’t make it.
This is a carefully crafted film. The scenes of the mountains and the avalanches are stunning, combining re-enactments, vintage shots, newsreel, and new footage. There is constant motion on the screen; even the stills are brought to life with subtle pans and zooms. Especially poignant is the way the camera lingers on the face of some of the people interviewed, their lips twisted in anguish as they look back and remember. And the editing is both subtle and impacting. Flowing throughout is a bed of music, sometimes threatening, other times haunting. Like a good thriller, the drama keeps you on the edge of your seat. In fact, the actual avalanche doesn’t happen until over thirty minutes into the story, but by that point, you are hooked … whether you’re a skier or not.
Vertical Shot of Mountain
In the early 90’s, I was at Alpine Meadows filming a series of ski tips for Visa. Ironically, the first day we were supposed to shoot, the day dawned sunny and warm, and there was no snow. So, we quickly shifted gears and shot some dry land training. Overnight, however, there was a blizzard and the next morning, we woke to three feet of fresh white powder, which allowed us to capture our skiers in action on the slopes. That’s how unpredictable the area was and still is.
While Buried is about one particular disaster and rescue, it also delves into the broader issues of trauma, memory and healing. And, as director Sigg so aptly put it, “Mother nature is the main character.”
Buried opens on September 30th at the Regal Union Square in New York City.
Photos by Lanny Johnson
Top photo: Whiteout with a single skier.