- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2000

RENO, Nev. Speeding over the Sierra on a summer day, it's easy to forget how fickle the towering mountains can be in winter and 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 at 11 p.m. tonight 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 compelling tales of survival and disaster.

"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 a scouting group to forge ahead for assistance but instead to find death and worse.

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,' " says Robert Church, author of "Snowbound Streamliner."

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 Mr. McLaughlin calls "Sierra cement."

"That was just a devastating storm," Mr. McLaughlin says. "It was an epic storm."

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 Miss Conrad's boyfriend.

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

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