When Anna Conrad went skiing with her family at Lake Tahoe last Christmas, she spent her time on the beginners’ hill and admits to being “nervous and not very coordinated and balanced.” Any first-time skier can relate to such emotions, but Conrad, 23, is no novice and the Tahoe ski area has been like a second home to her. She was, in fact, so enamored of the snow-covered mountains that, after finishing work on her degree in wildlife-fisheries biology from the University of California at Davis in December 1981, she took a job as a ski lift operator for the Alpine Meadows resort. What she had planned as a fun-filled nine-month break before starting graduate school soon cost Anna part of her right leg and half of her left foot—and very nearly her life.
Last March 31 began as an unofficial holiday for Conrad when a blizzard forced Alpine Meadows to close. At midday Anna and her boyfriend, Frank Yeatman, decided to cross-country ski the one-and-a-half-mile distance from her cabin to the Alpine resort. Only after they arrived did they discover they had traversed dangerous sections that were avalanche paths. While Anna was discussing weather conditions with other members of the Alpine staff, Frank waited for her in a nearby locker area. As Anna went to join him at 3:45 p.m., a deadly wall of ice and snow roared down the mountain, demolishing the ski patrol hut and burying Anna 10 feet underground.
When she regained consciousness, Conrad found herself in a five-by-three-by-two-foot air space. She had no idea what had happened. “I couldn’t remember what I had been doing,” she says. “I was surrounded by darkness, my head hurt and it was cold.” Most of the first day she spent sleeping and thinking—about her loved ones and about surviving. “Having a science background helped,” she says. She was very thirsty but remained clearheaded: “I knew I needed to melt snow in my mouth or hand first.”
Dressed only in jeans, a sweater, long underwear, socks and boots, she massaged her feet periodically to keep the circulation going. Soon “they felt warm and I stopped,” she says. It was a tragic mistake. The illusory sensation was the result of severe frostbite.
By the third day Conrad had discovered that her “survival hole,” a triangular space created by a bench on top of which the lockers had fallen, was part of the ski patrol hut. She was able to find a jacket, a pair of pants and a hood in one of the lockers. Once she heard people calling her name and she yelled back, but to no avail. “I knew I’d just have to wait until somebody found me,” she says. In the meantime Conrad realized she was weakening. “I was becoming dehydrated,” she recalls. To combat her mounting fear, she prayed “just to stay conscious,” for more than anything she wanted to be able to say hello to the people who found her.
Her prayers were answered on April 5 when a German shepherd led rescuers to where Conrad was buried. “Someone yelled, ‘Anna, is that you?’ ” she remembers, “and I yelled back, ‘Of course it is.’ ”
Conrad was flown by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where her father, a research botanist, and her schoolteacher mom had the grim task of telling Anna that Yeatman had been killed in the avalanche. The doctors told her she would lose half of her left foot and her right leg seven inches below the knee. “It’s like being hit by a wall,” she says of learning of the decision to amputate. “Then I thought, this will make me healthy and active again.”
And it has. In the physical therapy sessions she has been taking three times a week, Conrad learned first to walk with crutches. Since then she has been fitted with two artificial legs—one for walking and another, with an adjustable ankle joint, for skiing. She will eventually get a third prosthetic insert for her left foot. “Balance is difficult,” she admits. “I’m still not a pro. I always feel like I’m going to fall down the stairs.”
Conrad has enrolled in graduate school as she planned and student-teaches science in a high school in Sacramento, 20 miles from her three-bedroom apartment in Davis. The most difficult times are when she thinks about Yeatman, but she’s making progress there too. “I can look at his picture now without feeling sad,” she says. As for building a new social life: “I’m sure it will happen. It’s a question,” she smiles, “of taking little steps.”