Honey, There’s an Avalanche At the Door

Urban avalanches happen; how one couple protected their home

The berm you hope you never have to shovel. PHOTO: Melissa Siig

The berm you hope you never have to shovel. PHOTO: Melissa Siig

WORDS: Melissa Siig

Ten years ago, my husband and I were looking to buy our first home in Tahoe. That was long before the housing market crashed and all we could afford was a 1970s fixer-upper with shag carpets and plywood for walls. That was until our real estate agent showed us a three-bedroom house down the street from Alpine Meadows Ski Resort with floor-to-ceiling windows, views of the ski area’s famous granite peak, Munchkins, and, best of all, no work needed to be done. There was only one catch—the house was located in an avalanche zone.

On the plus side, the house was affordable; on the down side, we would be living in a home that might as well have a target painted on the side of it.

But we were skiers, after all. How could we pass up an opportunity to own a home so close to the ski area? Plus, my husband, Steven, is obsessed with the weather forecast and knows snow like the back of his hand. It was really only the garage that was in the slide path. We could handle that, right?

The first two times we were hit by an avalanche—all controlled slides triggered by Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol, which is contracted by the county to keep the road safe—we were in Mexico and only the garage and our front door were affected, nothing a bottle of tequila couldn’t bribe a few friends into boarding up while we were gone.

But then came the avalanche of 2011, during Tahoe’s fourth biggest winter on record. And while it wasn’t as severe as the one that destroyed a home and killed one person in Montana this winter, it came distressingly close.

On the morning of March 20, hungover and tired from a rare night out partying with Fortress, a local rock band, we turned off the phone ringer so it wouldn’t wake our new baby. That explains why we didn’t hear the call from ski patrol that they were going to do avalanche control above our house, and why we didn’t move our cars out of harms way as we normally do. When the avy bombs went off, our house shook like a semi-truck had just driven by, and we looked out the window to see snow flying horizontally and my mother’s rental car wrapped around a tree 40 feet down the hillside (I don’t think she will ever visit again during winter).

They said the avalanche that destroyed this garage was a class IV. PHOTO: Melissa Siig

They said the avalanche that destroyed this garage was a class IV. PHOTO: Melissa Siig

We ran upstairs to find our mudroom completely filled with snow, and the front door blown clear across the room. But it wasn’t until we noticed two ski patrollers curiously examining the backside of our garage that we realized the severity of the slide. The garage wall had been blown out two feet and various items—a set of golf clubs, an old stereo—had fallen out and were lying on the ground below. When we finally were able to get out of our house, by climbing out a second story window, our jaws dropped: the garage doors had been ripped off, snow filled the entire garage to the rafters, and three cars had been buried, including Steven’s Ford F350 dually, which had been lifted off the ground like a toy and slammed into a wooden shed, obliterating it like it was made of paper. A friend of ours who has guided in Alaska estimated that we had been hit by a Class IV avalanche. Sweet.

After a smaller slide slammed into our garage the following winter, my husband had had enough. The solution he came up with? Erect a 16-foot-tall barrier in front of our house using an old steel wall from a marina at Lake Tahoe. A second 8-foot wall, made of steel beams and thick logs, stands guard on the right side of the garage. Since we are on an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with our homeowners insurance, which seems more preoccupied with the risk of wildfires than avalanches, we had never made a claim and had paid for all of the repairs and construction of the avalanche wall ourselves, spending around $5,000.

We think that’s money well spent. Because even though we are mountain folk and know how to deal with Tahoe winters, living in the mountains has also taught us something else—you have to prepare for the worst. We also learned another valuable lesson: Don’t go out drinking the night before a major storm.

An avalanche-proof house. PHOTO: Melissa Siig

An avalanche-proof house. PHOTO: Melissa Siig

Add a comment

  • Joanne Stanford

    Be interesting to see how well the protection holds up against an avalanche- especially one that can pick up a F350 and throw it around.

  • Anna

    So, I will try this comment again…it got eaten.
    It is foolish to think you can control avalanches. Accidents happen. I had two good friends, who were avid outdoorsmen (NOLS instructors) who died will camping in Utah. They were buried in their sleep. That could happen here too. The fact that there is a child involved here is doubly sad.
    This is the kind of risk that people think won’t happen to them, and if it does happen, it won’t be too bad.
    The last time this house got hit, they were lucky. Instead of their pickup truck getting thrown around, it could have been them, inside their homes. Be safe. Take care.

  • Steve A.

    If this was truly a “Calss 4″, the house would not be there.

  • Randy Yearington

    Why would someone who “knows snow like the back of his hand” buy a house in an avalanche path??

  • Alpine Skier

    I drive by this house almost every weekend in the winter. There are multiple, maybe 15 houses on the road that leads to the ski area, all in the avalanche zone. In fact, at the ski area itself, there are only a few places that are truly “safe” from avalanches. An average storm day has the patrollers throwing 350 bombs, in one day, more than all of Colorado in a season. But yet we ski there. The Patrol are some of the best in the country. If it is not “controllable”, they will close the area. Look up the Alpine avalanche in 1982 or read “The Wall of White”. An amazing place to ski.

  • TDIYota

    Randy: it’s a calculated risk. Why live where there are earthquakes? In floodplains? In thick dry forests? In an oceanfront house? Because preparedness, not paranoia or fear should guide you. And, those places are the most beautiful. On a different note, I am sad to see that the little shed out front did not survive. There was no warranty expressed or implied.

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