Dont be April Fooled: Winter not over yet
April 9, 2007
What a difference a year makes. Last winter was the fourth wettest on record and a boon for local ski resorts as well as for water storage throughout California and western Nevada. Unfortunately, recent snow surveys have confirmed what many of us already knew: The dysfunctional winter of 2006-07 delivered only about half the average precipitation. Reservoirs are still in good shape, but hydrologists are already concerned about the outlook for the next water year. One dry year does not constitute a drought, but if next year fails to produce a decent load of precipitation, the big D word will be in the headlines next spring. For most Tahoe-Truckee ski resorts, the Easter holiday represents the end of the ski season. But just because the ski season begins winding down in April doesnt mean that winter is over. In fact, some of the worst storms of the season occur after the official end of winter on March 20. Often called equinox storms, longtime locals may remember the late March storm in 1982 that triggered a deadly avalanche at Alpine Meadows Ski Area. Fewer residents will remember the Easter storm of 1958 that also hammered the mountains with near-record snowfall.
During the winter of 1957-58, a strong El Nio event in the Pacific Ocean markedly influenced the prevailing weather patterns. Most of California received above-average precipitation that year and the Tahoe-Truckee region was no exception. Frequent storms during January, February and March lashed the state with wind, rain and snow. Cold storms in March generated a rash of severe thunderstorms and unprecedented tornado activity in the lower elevations. The weather bureau reported that the winter of 1958 was the wettest season in 90 years. At Sacramento and San Francisco, the two-month period of February-March was the wettest and second wettest on record, respectively. In the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada, the snow kept piling up. As April approached, many Californians were hoping for an end to the stormy winter season. Sierra ski resorts were boasting a bountiful snowpack and resort managers were praying for good weather during the traditionally busy Easter vacation. Unfortunately for all concerned, one of the worst storms of the season barreled into the region just in time for Easter week. Heavy snow fell in the mountains with snow levels occasionally plummeting to as low as 1,500 feet.
For several days, massive snow slides stopped all train, truck and automobile traffic trying to get through the mountains. (In 1958, Interstate 80 was not yet built, but Highway 40 over Donner Pass was closed for five days by the storm.) When the highway finally reopened, chain controls were in force from Auburn to Truckee. A dozen avalanches near the River Ranch on Highway 89 closed that road for nearly a week. The 106-inch snowdepth at Blue Canyon was the second deepest on record; surpassed only by the 110 inches measured in April 1952. The precipitation gauge at the Soda Springs weather station was completely buried by the heavy snowfall, but at nearby Norden, 10 feet of snow fell in five days. On April 4 the snowpack at the 9,000-foot elevation exceeded 27 feet. Northern Californias coastal cities were spared the snowfall, but endured intense downpours of rain. On April 2 in San Francisco, nearly an inch of rain fell in just 60 minutes, the citys third greatest one-hour rainfall on record. In the Central Valley drainage, precipitation during the first week of April exceeded that normally received during all April, May and June. California was so hard-hit by the storm that the entire state was designated a disaster area by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although only 2.04 inches of rain fell at the Reno weather station, it was the second-wettest April since 1870.
The Tahoe-Truckee ski areas took the brunt of the powerful spring storm. At Squaw Valley, construction crews preparing the site for the upcoming 1960 Winter Olympics were shut down by the heavy snowfall. Olympic planners had been hoping for a mild winter so that early spring construction could begin on the installations, but their optimism dimmed during the relentless barrage of storms. The Donner Summit Lodge at Soda Springs reported that an estimated 1,500 people were stranded there by snowdrifts. Sugar Bowl ski resort on Donner Summit was the hardest-hit of all the local Sierra ski areas. An avalanche on Mt. Lincoln wiped out three towers on the Mt. Lincoln double chair lift, closing it for the season. Ski racers slated to compete there in the Far West Ski Association divisional Alpine championships on April 12 and 13 would have a long walk to the top of Mt. Lincoln. Southern Pacific railroad reported that rail service between Reno and northern California was badly crippled. Eastbound train No. 22 had run into an avalanche at Crystal Lake, 15 miles west of Donner Summit. Engineer Ralph Spanger and Fireman F.B. McNamara were in the cab at the time they rammed the slide. Both men were pinned in the engine for two hours until rescuers arrived. McNamara had suffered possible broken ribs. The westbound streamliner City of San Francisco (trapped by avalanche for three days in 1952) was being held for safety under snowsheds at Norden with 97 passengers onboard. Thirty hours later SP crews were still struggling to remove train No. 22, so the City of San Francisco was shuttled back to Reno. Although one passenger described it as a trainload of concentrated frustration, all passengers had high praise for the railroad. Max Van Dyke of Rawlings, Wyo., typified the reaction of the passengers. I felt entirely safe at all times, he told United Press. There was nothing but high morale in our car throughout the night. The calendar implies that winter is over. Lets hope that the Sierra Storm King agrees.Mark McLaughlins column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm, Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, and Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly are available at local stores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.