Avalanche: A Blow-By-Blow Anaylsis of the 1978 Disaster Flick ~ The Land Desk

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Nature bites back in this Mia Farrow/Rock Hudson movie filmed near Durango 

Jonathan P. Thompson
Feb 9

I was drawn in by the close-up winter aerial shots of ridges and peaks of the San Juan MountainsLook, there’s Vestal! I yelled to my non-existent viewing companions as Rock Hudson’s name flashed on the screen. And Arrow! And Mount Garfield! I kept watching the lost-to-obscurity 1978 disaster film, Avalanche, not only because it was filmed in my home region of southwestern Colorado, but also because it is a sort of environmental parable, or at least tries to be. 

And I’m giving this rundown of the film here, in the Land Desk, because the film touches upon gentrification of the backcountry, real estate development, environmentalism, and avalanche science—and because I thought y’all deserved a cheesy break from the regular, often grim news of the region. 

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OPENING SCENE: A Chevy Caprice station wagon crosses the Camp Bird Road bridge over the Box Canyon outside Ouray, Colorado. Foreboding music, rife with minor chords, plays in the background (the score is by William Kraft and actually is pretty good). It seems a strange location to open the film, which mostly takes place at Tamarron Resort (also known now as the Glacier Club) north of Durango. But if you can make it to the end, you’ll find out why. 

The Caprice, with Caroline Grace (Mia Farrow) inside, pulls up to Tamarron—the name of which appears in the movie on cars and signs, but isn’t otherwise mentioned in the film—which is buzzing with preparations for the grand opening gala. While the architecture—apparently modeled after old mining structures—will be familiar to most Durangatangs, the looming Matterhorn-like peak in the background will not, because it doesn’t exist except as a very low-budget special effect. Why they built a fake peak when there are so many iconic, real-life mountains nearby, I don’t know. 

Caroline soon encounters Florence Shelby (Jeanette Nolan), who asks if Caroline is going to get back together with some unnamed man. Then we’re treated with two exchanges apparently meant to remind us this is set amid the sexual revolution. First, Florence queries Caroline:

Florence: “Have you got a fella?” 

Caroline: “Two or three.” 

Florence: “Holy Cow. Are you going to become a swinger?” 

Caroline: “Let’s see … could be.”

Then we’re led outside the resort, where the paparazzi is mobbing a hunky, blonde ski racer named Bruce, who wears a long sheepskin coat and mirrored sunglasses. 

Reporter to Bruce: “You seem to thrive on risk. Have you ever known fear?”

Bruce: “I never thought about it. I ski like I breathe or talk or make love.” 

Reporter: “I kinda wonder what you do best.”

And who is that man, looking out upon it all through a floor-to-ceiling window on an upper story? It’s David Shelby, played by none other than the Rock Hudson. He is visibly enthused to see Caroline and runs down the stairs to meet her. Wow, what a happy reunion of father (Hudson was 53) and daughter (Farrow was 32)! 

Oh, and look at them kiss passionately! Ohhhh, whoops. Okay. I guess I got it wrong. Turns out David is not Caroline’s dad but her ex-husband. Now he wants her back. She’s not so sure. But she is impressed by the resort Shelby has built. 

Caroline: “It’s just incredible what you’ve done. Incredible.”

David: “Ah, hell, Caroline… Can we … can we just talk? Four years ago I came out here and I saw that mountain (the fake Matterhorn-esque thing) and I knew, I’m climbing it. I opened up this magnificent country for myself and for anybody who wants to join me … 

“I fought like a son of a bitch. I fought the bank, the government … and then the environmentalists. They say I’m destroying the environment! Does this look like I’m destroying? I’m creating a beautiful life here. It’s a good thing.” 

There it is, the central conflict. David Shelby’s hubris leads him to underestimate the power of nature and overestimate the power of his own wealth, pitting him against the environmental community. It’s fitting that the battle plays out in Colorado in the 1970s, for these issues were front and center here at the time. Most of the mountain towns—Aspen, Telluride, Crested Butte—had been abandoned by the mining industry and had embraced skiing and recreation, yet still were hotbeds of a particular strain of counterculture, comprised of a weird melange of environmentalists, rednecks, former miners, ski bums, dirtbags, and cowboys. They tended to resist the likes of David Shelby. While gentrification had begun creeping in to these places—in the form of Tamarron-like resorts, where condos were going for a whopping $73,000 in 1980!— plenty of affordable housing stock, i.e. rundown old mining shacks, were still available. 

Resistance to the influx of outside wealth was manifested by the state’s rejection of the opportunity to host the 1976 Winter Olympics because it would be too costly, encourage more growth, and damage the environment. Avalanche picked up on that vibe and ran with it. 

I’m not sure if environmentalists fought the original 1974 development of the real-life Tamarron. But three decades later they certainly pushed back against a land exchange between the resort and the U.S. Forest Service. The swap ultimately went through, allowing Tamarron/Glacier Club to expand into formerly public lands. 

In the movie, Tamarron is combined with Purgatory ski area, 10 miles north, to make a full-blown, cinematic ski resort plopped down in the middle of extreme avalanche hazard. Avalanche hazard at the real Purgatory is low. And Tamarron has always been known more for golf—and the groovy indoor-outdoor swimming pool—than skiing, although it did sport a single, small lift to service a measly slope back in the snowy eighties (the lift was removed in the early 90s, I think). These days skiing there wouldn’t be possible anyway because of warming temperatures and diminishing snowfall.

Back to the thickening plot … 

Caroline (to David): “What’s wrong then?”

David: “One of the planning commissioners I’m dealing with is under investigation … And so is the sizable contribution I made to his senatorial campaign.” 

Oooh, it’s a little bit of good old fashioned pay to play action! Bribery! Malfeasance! Corruption! Also known as Politics as Usual. 

Carolyn: “David, you’re like weather. You just happen.” (What a line!)

Cut to a construction site for David Shelby’s chalet, Maybrook, where workers are chopping down every tree that might mar Shelby’s desired “unimpeded view,” presumably of the fake mountain. Enter handsome, suntanned, rugged Nick Thorne, played by Robert Forster. Thorne is a nature and wildlife photographer for the likes of National Geographic and Smithsonian as well as an all-around gadfly and environmentalist who can wear a Kelty down vest like no other. He’s worried that Shelby’s construction will exacerbate the avalanche hazard, putting all the resort customers at risk. To demonstrate he makes a snowball (out of very wet, sticky snow) and throws it onto a slope, where it stays put, initially. When a construction worker revs his power saw, the snowball rolls down the hill. 

Nick: “That was a reaction of unstable snow to the sound waves made by that saw. This slope is not stable. With those trees missing, it’s dangerous.” (Note: A power saw’s sound wave won’t trigger an avalanche.)

Cut back to a topless David sitting in a steamy hot tub while yelling into the phone: “This morning some snot nosed reporter started asking about Maybrook and the clearance of the land and I don’t like it … Well it could mean a lot. I want you to get on the plane with that file and I want you to be up here tonight.” Susan, David’s secretary, emerges from the steam to bring him a glass of orange juice. She is naked. It is unclear whether the two are having an affair or this is standard, ski-country office attire circa 1978. It is also unclear what’s in the file that David so desperately needs. And no, the dude can’t just email it over or even fax it; it’s 1978 kiddos, the era of rotary dial phones and sweet sunglasses.  

Things heat up between Nick and David—and between Caroline and the much more age-appropriate Nick—when, in the bar, Nick confronts David—and catches Caroline’s eye:

Nick to David: “You’re crazy to cut down those trees … without cover, everything below that place you’re building is open to a slide.” 

David: “There’s just not enough hazard to carry on about cutting down a few trees.”

David is distracted by Tina, one of Bruce’s many love interests, who is sitting at the bar drinking, smoking, and wearing a red t-shirt emblazoned with “BRUCE.” (Seriously?! ) 

Nick: “You’re risking the lives of everyone you’re inviting here.” 

David: “I want people to enjoy this land, not bury them in it.” (This all sounds a bit like a debate that raged a couple of decades later in Silverton around the development of a lift-accessed backcountry ski area in major avalanche terrain.)

Nick to Phil, the resort’s mountain manager, who is also rather blasé about avalanche hazard: “When was the last time you went up on that mountain and just sat? … Things aren’t normal. There’s a heaviness and it’s growing.” 

And with this, we have all the ingredients of a classic disaster movie—and then some: an arrogant guy who refuses to listen to reason, multiple love triangles, general excess and decadence, a political/bribery scandal, and one pissed off mountain just rarin’ to let loose. But the screenwriter and director don’t stop there. They throw in a half-dozen additional plot lines that lead nowhere and seem to have little purpose except to serve as vehicles for quirky dialogue. 

That night’s gala is a ‘70s-style bacchanal, complete with disco, white turtleneck-wearing waiters delivering flaming baked Alaska, and a mystery kid dressed in a cool sweater, throwing paper airplanes into the crowd and sipping what looks to be a Martini. There is dancing. There is drinking. There is smoking. New love triangles form. And a blizzard rages outside. It seems as if this should be the moment that disaster strikes, vanquishing the Romanesque debauchers. Unfortunately, we’re only halfway through the film. Besides, Caroline and Nick must consummate their smoldering desire, and inflame David’s jealousy, before the calamity. 

Caroline asks Nick to dance. Out on the floor, among the masses of gyrating, feathered-hair white folks, he says: “I think you think of me as some sort of wild man of the mountains.” 

David breaks in and pulls Caroline aside: “You just met the guy this afternoon … You’ll never get him away from the buffalo and the deer and the antelope.” 

Caroline responds: “You stifle me … I need some space. I need some room. I just wanna make my own decisions.” 

And that she does, accompanying Nick to his cabin, plastered with photographs and a darkroom with windows, where he seduces her with this sultry line: “Can I give you a big hug?” 

And to think this only got a PG rating.

Instead of sticking around for breakfast, Nick leaves early and snowshoes up Anvil Mountain near Silverton, framed in silhouette against the unmistakable form of Kendall Mountain. It is a long and tedious journey, but finally he arrives at the fixed artillery gun. He has stolen a couple of shells, which he carried all the way up the mountain, and now he fires them at the face of the fake mountain, the name of which I was unable to discern. The idea, apparently, is to trigger the slide now so it doesn’t come down on its own later. Of course, this is absurd, since if he is successful, the slide will still wipe out the resort and everyone in it. He’s only able to trigger a small loose-snow slide, leaving a huge cornice—and suspense—in place, looming over the scene below. 

Meanwhile, the grand opening activities commence, with a cross-country ski race; a figure skating competition (where one of the unexplained, unresolved plot lines continues); a full-contact snowmobile race featuring the “Norwegian Nutcracker,” a woman, going head to head with Colorado’s Delphus Dandelion, “the man who made snowmobile racing a dirty sport;” a Gelande ski jumping competition; and Bruce doing what Bruce does best—hitting on underaged fans (i.e. inviting a 16-year-old to meet him in the bar after his ski run). No wonder nature is about to pummel this place. 

The viewer is yanked back and forth, from the airplane carrying David’s critical file, to the snowmobile race where people are crashing acrobatically (some of the most exciting footage in the film, in my humble opinion), to the nordic ski race, where they’re skiing in Bill Koch-era Adidas boots, just like I did in my youth! (If you know what I’m talking about then you know what I’m talking about.) 

Finally, and predictably, the plane crashes into the cornice, triggering the biggest, fakest, longest-lasting avalanche in the history of the world. 

The slide seems to come from all directions at once, wreaking destruction across a ten-mile-wide swath that stretches from Purgatory to Tamarron. On the right, Bruce catches some big air in his attempt to outrun the avalanche. The first person to correctly identify the precise location of the cliff Bruce is jumping off will get a free, year-long subscription to the Land Desk (if you already subscribe, give it to a friend). Put your answer in the comment section. 

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Huge blocks of ice tumble down the mountainside before transforming into an eery, luminous cloud that manages to shoot people up into the air and toss them down ski slopes, blasts through the windows of Tamarron, knocks some guy off a power pole, wrecks that indoor-outdoor pool and at least one chairlift, and wreaks havoc in the restaurant kitchen, where a cook takes a bath in scalding tomato soup and a cheerleader(?) does a belly-slide across a steel table. Not even Bruce can outrun the thing. The slide, which originated on the distant, fake mountain, wields a sort of butterfly effect, spreading chaos far and wide, including to downtown Durango, where fire trucks and ambulances race in opposite directions down Main Avenue, inevitably crashing into one another. A TV personality (Tina’s ex) is electrocuted. A natural gas leak leads to a catastrophic explosion. An ambulance, carrying Caroline and Florence, crashes off the Box Canyon bridge and plummets into the Uncompahgre River, exploding into a ball of fire at the base of what is now the Ouray ice climbing park. 

The National Guard arrives just in time to stack up a bunch of full body bags, tragically reminding us that we’ll never know what was in that damned file, we’ll never know what really was going on between Coach Leo and the figure skater, and we’ll never find out who the heck that kid drinking Martinis was supposed to represent. The final scene begins like the opening scene, with Caroline pulling up to a wrecked Tamarron, but this time in the coolest taxi ever. She fishes a bottle of champagne out of a snowbank and walks in. 

David: “I have nothing to say.”

Caroline: “Would you like some champagne?”

David: “What should we drink to?”

Caroline: “We survived.” (It’s worth noting that David’s mother did not).” 

David: “Yeah, we survived.” (Pops cork on the champagne, hands it to Caroline, who drinks straight out of the bottle). “I always thought survival meant being king of the mountain. … I do have something to say. I caused all of this. I am responsible.”

Caroline: “You’ve never said that. David, I love you.” 

David: “I know.”

Caroline: “A lot.”

David: “Thank you my friend.”

Caroline: “I have to go.”

David: “Of course you do.” 

Caroline walks out, gets into the cool taxi, and goes away. David drinks the champagne among the ruins. Fade to credits. 

THE END

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