The human desire to witness nature at its most destructive is a highly perplexing condition.
Despite obvious signs of danger and past evidence of tragedy, some of us continue to seek out the planet’s most dangerous places. The reasons vary: scientific inquiry, personal ambition, lifelong obsession, sometimes all three. Some who survive can be counted on to go back for more.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
Such is the case for the subjects of two documentaries helmed by California filmmakers that premiered last year. Fire of Love, which has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, takes volcanoes and a married couple who studied them as its central narrative; Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche, which garnered favorable reviews on its release, focuses on a deadly avalanche that hit Lake Tahoe’s Alpine Meadows ski resort.
Whereas Maurice and Katia Krafft, the central subjects of Fire of Love, willingly placed themselves at the cusp of erupting volcanoes over a period of decades, the victims of the 1982 Alpine Meadows avalanche were forced to face a situation they’d never encountered before. As a result, Fire of Love celebrates the idiosyncrasies of its main subjects, while Buried focuses on the emotional aftermath often experienced by those who survive a natural disaster.
Speaking by phone from her home in Berkeley, Fire of Love director Sara Dosa admits that she’s still basking in the glow of her film’s Academy Award nomination.
“It brings me tremendous joy to think about Katia and Maurice and what they would feel in this moment,” Dosa says. “I think they would be both deeply honored and deeply amused. But quite honestly, it all still feels surreal.” (After we spoke, she’d go on to win a Directors Guild of America award for Best Documentary filmmaking.)
Surreal is also an apt descriptor for the 200-plus hours of footage (in addition to thousands of still photographs) that the Kraffts captured over their lifetimes spent pursuing some of the most extreme nature the world has to offer.
As Dosa’s collaborator and fellow Berkeley resident Jocelyne Chaput confided on a separate call, choosing what to cut from this vast collection of images and footage was agony.
“Early on,” Chaput says, “I told Sara that I thought we should do a multichannel, 24-hour loop for a gallery. It was like, How could we possibly leave any of this on the floor? But as far as the feature film that we did make, the key was looking to the Kraffts themselves as our guides.” (Another documentary about the Kraffts, called The Fire Within: A Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft, directed by Werner Herzog, drew on the same materials and was released in 2022 as well.)
Chaput has known about the Kraffts, albeit not by name, ever since she was a child. She still has a well-loved copy of one of their books, now reinforced with duct tape on the spine, packed to the margins with all the volcano factoids and colorful pictures that enthralled her as a child.
When Dosa first learned of the Kraffts while searching for footage of a volcano eruption to use in her last documentary, 2019’s The Seer and the Unseen, she found herself immediately captivated by the pair’s shared passion for each other and lava-spewing mountains.
As her main narrative guide, Dosa latched onto something Maurice wrote in one of the Kraffts’ numerous books. “He said, ‘For me, Katia and volcanoes, it is a love story,’” Dosa recalls. “That became our thesis statement.”
Relying solely on archival footage—almost all of it shot by the Kraffts themselves—the resulting film paints a loving if enigmatic portrait of two people so obsessed with the beauty and fury of volcanoes that they ultimately perish while documenting the eruption of Japan’s Mount Unzen in 1991.
“Part of the joy in making this film was embracing the mystery, which feels very much in the spirit of everything the Kraffts did, too,” Chaput says. “They never kidded themselves into thinking that they would ever arrive at some authoritative, comprehensive understanding of volcanoes. That was, in a way, what drove them: the not knowing and chipping away at that, only to then see it grow again.”
“I think the way we thought of them in the edit room is a bit like the way that they thought of volcanoes,” she adds. “We were trying to understand them, but of course, that only yielded more questions.”
Staying true to the subjects of the story was also of paramount importance for Steven Siig and Jared Drake, Lake Tahoe residents and codirectors of Buried.
Built on new interviews with key figures from the fateful afternoon of March 31, 1982—including several speaking publicly on the matter for the first time—the film details the prelude and aftermath of a deadly avalanche that claimed seven lives in Lake Tahoe’s Alpine Meadows ski resort. It also details the lasting psychological damage carried by those who survived the day, many of whom still live in the Tahoe area: in other words, Siig and Drake’s neighbors.
“As we started to explore the possibility of making the film, we realized what a massive undertaking it would be, and what a huge obligation, too,” Drake explains. He and his codirector told themselves, “You must tell this story properly: for our community, for those who lived it, and for everything that can come from it.”
For the filmmakers, that meant depicting snow as a fearsome antagonist. As Drake puts it, they hoped that viewers would watch the film and “be scared s---less.”
To accomplish this, they turned to Tom Day, director of photography for ski-action film maven Warren Miller. The directors knew that Day—a talent famous for nabbing jaw-dropping shots of skiers in motion— was capable of capturing snow at its most alluring.
But Siig says that they also advised him to ignore his normal instincts at times.
“It’s usually his job to make everything beautiful,” Siig explains. “I told Tom to go out and shoot dirty. I said, ‘You’ve got to make it ugly.’”
Even as Buried goes to great lengths to make the viewer aware of the dangers that come with visiting or living in snow country, it eventually finds its surest footing as a meditation on loss and forgiveness. Among those who appear in the film is avalanche forecaster Jim Plehn.
Thanks to the heroic efforts of Plehn and others, after five days of being buried under snow and debris, Anna Allen was found alive and rescued. But this victory is tempered by grief over those who perished—something that’s stayed with Plehn for 40 years. Through his participation in the film, a weight seems to lift from Plehn’s shoulders. As a result of talking to Siig and Drake and subsequent opportunities to reconnect with other key players from that fateful day, it seems that he’s finally able to find peace with a long-ago tragedy that still feels like yesterday to him at age 72.
And he’s not alone.
“The film needed to have a cathartic element,” Siig explains. “But you can only find a cathartic moment if your subjects feel it. I think our subjects really had a lot of deep healing occur by sitting down and talking with us.”
According to Drake, this element of Buried has resonated with viewers who’ve experienced more-common forms of grief than losing loved ones in an avalanche.
“One moment I’ll never forget is when we premiered in Telluride at the Mountainfilm Festival,” Drake recalls. “I was riding the gondola down the day after we premiered, and a woman recognized me from the Q&A. Then she started tearing up and told me about a car accident where she lost her husband.
“At that moment, I was like, ‘Wow, our movie can really help. It can do some good for people to be able to find a way through whatever grief they’re dealing with.’ It’s been a massive, massive honor.”
Be it a love forged in fire or a loss born of ice, the mysteries of nature at its most volatile fascinate us. Thanks to films like Fire of Love and Buried, we can begin to appreciate the underlying human impulses that draw us to the world’s extremes. Both films also excel at inspiring empathy for survivors of natural disasters. Above all else, these stories tap into our inexplicable, occasionally insatiable appetite for seeing nature’s power up close.
Neither film should be seen as a relic of the past, either. In late 2022, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa erupted for nearly 12 days, marking that volcano’s first eruption since 1984. Meanwhile, record snowfall in Lake Tahoe following a prolonged period of extreme drought has some concerned about the possibility of a major avalanche.
“We’ve already had six deaths this year due to avalanches, in this country alone,” Sigg notes. (At press time, the number of deaths had reached 11.) “And we’ve had quite a bit of snow here in Tahoe. On March 31, 1982, I was living in Sonoma, where we were having all those storms and dealing with flooding and whatnot, and I’m feeling [echoes of] 1982 this season more than I have in the past.”
Most of us (if we’re lucky) will never find ourselves beneath an active volcano or in the cold rush of an avalanche, and yet it’s important to be reminded that we all live in this world and are subject to its awesome power. By understanding how some of us are able to survive the most harrowing aspects of nature, we can, hopefully, draw inspiration even as we’re reminded of our precarious place in the vastness of it all.•