Hoping for another winter of ’69 | SierraSun.com

Hoping for another winter of ’69

Paul McNeil, of Truckee, digs out his '69 Ford van on Tuesday earlier this week near Donner Gate.
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Aside from the typical inconveniences that come with heavy snowfall during the busy Christmas and New Year holidays, the Storm King has been good to us so far. Record snowfall in October 2004 jump-started the winter season ahead of schedule, enabling several local ski resorts to open on their earliest dates ever. Skiers and snowboarders were flocking to the mountains weeks before the Thanksgiving holidays, the traditional opening of Tahoe’s winter resorts. The unusually busy skier activity was an economic boost in November, one of the slowest times of year for local businesses. Lake Tahoe fell below its rim in September 2004 and ceased feeding the Truckee River. It’s critical that this winter be wetter than normal to avoid even lower water levels next summer. Our recent snowstorms have been cold powder – great for skiers and boarders – but containing less water. The snowstorm at the end of 2004 rated a 13 to 1 snow/water ratio (13 inches of snow equal one inch of water), more typical for Utah, but uncommon for the Sierra during big storms. Our region will need lots of precipitation to begin to alleviate drought conditions so we need the storms to keep coming. The winter of 1968-69 also opened up with cold, Gulf of Alaska-bred storms. Unfortunately, a northerly storm track brought only modest amounts of precipitation to the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region. Meteorologists call storms following this north to south overland trajectory “inside sliders” because they don’t follow the normal pattern of bringing moisture in from the Pacific Ocean. Inside sliders generally drop light powder and usher in cold continental air. By the middle of December 1968, most area resorts were open with two to three feet of packed powder. Nothing to get excited about, but it was a start. During the second half of December, the storm track intensified. Blizzards and 100 mph winds tore into the region, ravaging skiers and residents alike. On the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, temperatures plummeted. Reno broke a 71-year-old record with a morning low of three degrees below zero. Carson City, reporting a bitter 18 below, was exceeded only by Truckee at minus 19 degrees. Snowfall was plentiful, but not extreme. Squaw Valley picked up a total of 105 inches during December 1968 (nearly identical to the 103 inches Squaw reported in December 2004), with the deepest snowpack, 77 inches, reported at Soda Springs.

Despite the harsh weather conditions, skiers and snowmobilers flocked to the mountains. The abundant snowpack encouraged these winter sports enthusiasts to push the limits of machine or skiing ability. On Dec. 29, 1968, 60 people were admitted to the Truckee hospital for various injuries suffered while enjoying their high speed sports. Fifty skiers were trapped on the Pioneer lift at Slide Mountain Ski Resort when high winds hooked a chair into a tower, bending the cable wheel. The sun was setting and temperatures falling fast as ski patrol members worked quickly to rescue skiers. It was dark when the last shivering skier was belayed down by rope, an hour and a half after the accident.The Sierra Storm King worked his magic throughout January and February. Snowfall totals soared to nearly 300 percent of normal as a strong jet stream drove storm after storm into the mountains. One impulse on Jan. 13 and 14 dropped 45 inches on Soda Springs while another added 70 inches from the 25th to the 27th. That second system piled 75 inches of fresh snow on the Mount Rose Ski Resort, setting the all-time single-storm record for Nevada. Snow fell continuously on the Central Sierra Snow Lab from Jan. 20 to 31, dumping 162.5 inches (13.5 feet). Heavy snow and avalanches snapped power lines and tore out transmission towers across the Sierra. The resulting power outages plunged residents of Lake Tahoe, Squaw Valley, Portola and Loyalton into ominous darkness. Sierra Pacific Power Co. was forced to fire up emergency generators in Portola to supply electricity to outlying areas. By the end of January, ski areas were reporting impressive depths of snow. Squaw Valley struggled with 23 feet, Mount Rose 25 feet, while Boreal Ridge claimed to be buried under drifts 18 to 40 feet deep.

The towering snowpacks made trans-Sierra high voltage lines a danger to unsuspecting over-snow travelers. In a warning to snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, SPPC spokesman Walter MacKenzie warned “Some lines strung 20 to 30 feet high are so loaded with ice and snow they are only 10 feet above the ground.”Many of these deadly wires were actually buried in the burgeoning snowpack. The snow piled deeper and deeper on the roofs of homes and buildings around Lake Tahoe. Bill Pillsbury, a South Lake Tahoe city engineer ordered residents “to shovel the snow from their roofs to prevent collapse.” Josephine Knepper was working in the 21-year-old South Lake Tahoe Legion Hall when she heard ominous strains emanating from the roof timbers. Suddenly, two-thirds of the flat-roofed building came crashing down. The collapse occurred two hours before a dance that was to draw about 500 young people.February set more Nevada snowfall records that still stand. A yard of snow buried 7,375-foot-high Daggett Pass located on the Kingsbury Grade, east of Lake Tahoe, on Valentine’s Day (24-hour record), which added materially to the 139 inches received there by month’s end (calendar month record). On Feb. 27, the snowdepth on Daggett Pass peaked at 175 inches (deepest ever recorded in the Silver State). Persistent storms and snow drifts as high as 40 feet closed the Mt. Rose road (Route 431) for 37 days. The season total there of more than 59 inches of precipitation (rain and melted snow combined) set the record for Nevada’s wettest calendar year.In California, the winter snowpack topped out near 100 inches deep in Tahoe City, but Donner Summit boasted depths more than twice that. In February, the percentage of mean monthly snowfall in the Central Sierra reached nearly 1,000 percent.

On April 1, Squaw Valley ski resort reported snow about 30 feet deep on the mountain top and declared they would keep their lifts running until July 7.The big storms of 1968-69 dumped 601 inches of snow on the Central Sierra Snow Lab just west of Donner Pass, and nearly all of it came after New Year’s Day.As another major winter storm barrels into the Sierra this weekend, and you watch the snow pile up by the foot, remember that we are five years into a serious drought. Come spring, all that “white gold” will convert to precious water and recharge our depleted lakes, reservoirs and rivers. Keep ’em coming.Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.