Trapped in a Snow Avalanche on Angeles Crest
We have such a friendly familiarity with the mountains above us that we forget that nature up there can be deadly. Recently a reader sent me a newspaper clipping on her parents’ rescue from a snow avalanche up on Angeles Crest Highway in April of 1967. Nature that year had played an April Fool’s Day joke on the southland by bringing an April 1st icy storm to LA that included rain, hail, sleet, wind, and a huge amount of snow to the San Gabriel Mountains.
A few days after the storm La Crescenta resident Alvin Lewison and his wife Ruth decided to take advantage of the newly snow-plowed Angeles Crest Highway for a drive through a rare local winter scene. They were headed to Rialto to visit friends, and planned to transit the Crest Highway past Wrightwood and come back down Route 66 in the Cajon Pass. The highway must have been spectacular, with deep drifts on either side, and others were taking in the beauty as well.
At 3PM they were in a clumped line of cars winding slowly through the white wonderland, about 8 miles from Big Pines. Without warning the cars were buffeted by tons of snow, roaring down the mountainside and over the road. A snowy avalanche had broken loose from the mountainside and covered the group of cars. They were all trapped. There was no way to know when someone would come upon them or report them overdue. Darkness was approaching quickly, and I’m sure many in the caravan weren’t prepared for an overnight in sub-zero temperatures.
But fortunately for the group, Alvin Lewison was a HAM radio operator, and kept a mobile unit in his car. As we know today, cell phones would have been useless in conditions like this, but HAM radios have a unique ability to work in conditions that render normal communication systems, like telephones, useless. HAM radios are still called on today to transmit important information during and after disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Alvin Lewison at the time of the avalanche was tuned to the West Coast Amateur Radio Service Net (WECARS) which is monitored by amateur radio operators to provide service to motorists, by contacting the Highway Patrol or the Auto Club. From his buried car Alvin was able to connect with HAM operators in Hollywood, South Pasadena, King City in Central California, and Daly City near San Francisco. The County Sheriff was called, and rescuers driving behind a snow plow were dispatched from the La Canada end of the highway.
Darkness fell, but soon the headlights of the approaching rescue team were spotted. Three of the cars were able to be extricated from the snow, and the tired and cold group started the long journey back down to LA. They had crawled barely three miles down the road, when a second avalanche crossed the highway in front of them, blocking the road. The caravan now turned around and headed back towards the spot they had been trapped earlier. They dug past that and continued in the darkness toward Wrightwood. Near Big Pines, the lead car’s headlights suddenly illuminated a steel barrier that had been erected across the highway. That car and the following vehicles skidded wildly into the snowbanks on either side. Everyone made it through this last scare, and the cars continued down the mountain, through the Cajon Pass, and back to LA. The Lewisons got home to La Crescenta at 3AM.
Another sidelight of the HAM radio adventure: One of the Deputy Sheriffs in the rescue party had a very pregnant wife at home, who had no way of knowing where her husband was when he didn’t return for dinner that night. Alvin was able to reach a HAM operator in Palos Verdes, who telephoned the officer’s wife to let her know where her husband was and approximately when he’d be home. This group of avalanche victims was fortunate that one in their group was prepared for an emergency. For CV’s Lewison family, Alvin’s HAM hobby had saved the day.