History Channel Studies Storms

Tuesday, August 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Speeding over the Sierra on a summer day, it's easy to forget how fickle the towering mountains can be in winter — or how deadly.

``In other parts of the country, you say Mother Nature or Old Man Winter. Here in the Sierra, we call him the Storm King,'' says weather historian Mark McLaughlin.

The History Channel takes a look at three examples of wintertime vengeance in the mountains that lie between Nevada and California: the tragedy of the Donner Party, the marooning of a luxury passenger train in an avalanche and the ordeal of a ski-lift operator buried in snow for five days.

``Snowbound: The Curse of the Sierra'' airs 11 p.m. EDT Wednesday on the channel's ``The Wrath of God'' series.

Writer-producer Mike Leiderman uses a blend of talking-head researchers, descendants and participants with archive film, photographs and paintings to weave the compelling tales of survival and disaster.

He begins with the best known example of the latter.

``The Donner Party faced probably the worst winter ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada,'' says researcher and author Frank X. Mullen Jr.

The program reviews the errors of misjudgment that doomed the Donner Party in November 1846 and the desperate effort by ``The Forlorn Party,'' a scouting group, to forge ahead for assistance but instead to find death — and worse.

``They looked out over the snow. After a while, the bodies didn't look like bodies any more. They started looking like food,'' Mullen said.

A century later, the luxury passenger train City of San Francisco was crossing the mountains through what had become known as Donner Pass.

``The train was so fancy that they did not call it a departure but, in the stations, it was the `sailing,''' said Robert Church, author of ``Snowbound Streamliner.''

He said the $3 million train dripped with luxury to compete with automobiles and the emergence of airplanes.

``Once that railroad was put in, it became an annual battle every winter fighting that Storm King,'' McLaughlin said.

In an attempt to outwit the Storm King, wooden tunnels called snow sheds were built to shelter trains against avalanches. Giant plows with propellerlike attachments were used to keep the tracks clear over the 7,239-foot pass.

But on Jan. 13, 1952, the Storm King triumphed, and the California-bound train was enveloped in an avalanche of what McLaughlin calls ``Sierra cement.''

``That was just a devastating storm,'' McLaughlin said. ``It was an epic storm.''

Three days of enduring the dark, unheated cars and the efforts to free the train are described by passengers, rescuers and descendants.

``You just didn't realize when you were in the train how much snow really was covering the train,'' recalled passenger Loretta Houston.

On March 31, 1982, the Storm King struck again.

Alpine Meadows chairlift operator Anna Conrad, 22, and her boyfriend had skied to the resort, which was closed because of the avalanche danger. The unstable snowpack let go, sending tons of ``Sierra cement'' crashing through the three-story employee building. Seven people were killed, including Conrad's boyfriend.

Conrad, trapped beneath a bank of lockers, was buried under 10 feet of snow.

Five days after the avalanche, and three stormy days after a specially trained German shepherd located her, the weather cleared and rescuers were able to reach her.

``So, they called into the hole that I was in and they said, `Anna, is that you?' My response was, `Well, of course it is!'''

The ordeal cost Conrad her right leg below the knee and the toes on her left foot, but spared her life.

``Weather forecasting in the Sierra is much better than it used to be. However, even today, we have the same exact problems that we've always had,'' McLaughlin said.

``Still the railroad gets shut down and still Interstate 80 gets shut down and we still have avalanches. The battle for Donner Pass goes on every year.''