Sierra history: Lake Tahoe’s epic holiday storms, 10 years later |

Sierra history: Lake Tahoe’s epic holiday storms, 10 years later

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
A Nevada rotary snowplow helps keep the Mount Rose Highway clear in 2005.
Courtesy Mark McLaughlin |

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — Meteorologists are currently watching a weak El Niño event simmering in the Pacific Ocean, waiting and wondering if it will ever get strong enough to possibly produce a healthy Sierra snowpack to help improve drought conditions.

Ten years ago, another weak El Niño had forecasters’ attention for the same reasons, but the winter of 2004-05 hit so hard and so fast that by mid-January 2005, Truckee-Tahoe residents were more worried about digging out than drought.

In a surprise early hit on Sept. 20, a late summer snowstorm forced county officials to deploy snowplows and close Highway 267 over Brockway Pass.

Next, an unusually dynamic cold front in October produced nearly five feet of snow on the upper mountains, reminiscent of the early season storm that trapped the Donner Party in 1846.

A more active weather pattern developed around Thanksgiving and continued into December. Despite forecasts for a drier than normal winter in 2005 based on the weak El Niño, good ski conditions were already drawing tourists into the region well before Christmas.

To top it all off, around New Year’s Day, two massive dumps less than a week apart pounded the Tahoe-Sierra with up to 20 feet of snow. It was an epic double whammy of white that guaranteed the best skiing conditions in years.


The first weather system blew in on Dec. 29, just in time to severely impact the busy holiday period.

Four to nine feet of snow buried the Tahoe Basin in just three days, which slowed traffic to a crawl. Zero visibility and heavy snowfall shut down Interstate 80 and U.S. 50 for extended periods of time, stranding thousands of motorists trying to cross the mountains.

Gasoline shortages and empty pumps demoralized holiday visitors looking to escape the mountains, while the two to three feet of snow that fell in Reno crushed carports and shut down Reno-Tahoe International Airport for only the third time in 40 years.

Thousands lost electric power in Reno, Lake Tahoe and Carson City. Blustery winds with gusts exceeding 100 mph on mountain ridges closed ski areas and generated blizzard conditions.

However, there was silver lining to the storm-induced gridlock and diminished tourism revenues. Cold Alaskan air, tapped by the storm’s vast circulation, lowered snow levels and increased snow ratios to 15:1, which meant bottomless champagne powder for skiers and boarders once resorts opened up.


Skies had barely cleared, and exhausted highway crews were catching their first rest in a week, when Storm No. 2 came barreling in out of the Gulf of Alaska on Jan. 8, 2005.

Winter storm warnings posted by the National Weather Service predicted another five to 10 feet of snow. Giddy powder hounds felt as though they had died and gone to skier’s heaven.

Like its powerhouse predecessor, this monster storm pummeled Tahoe with overwhelming amounts of snow in a short period of time.

In Tahoe, nearly four feet fell in the first 24 hours, which shut down Interstate 80 again, as well as Highways 50 and 88.

Once again, most major ski resorts were closed or on limited operation due to ridge gusts exceeding 100 mph.

Even Amtrak trains crossing the Sierra suffered major delays this time around. On Jan. 9, about 220 passengers on an eastbound Amtrak train spent the night snowbound west of Donner Summit before being taken back to Sacramento.

Despite many delays and cancellations, the Reno-Tahoe airport remained partially open. Airport crews hauled off 30,000 truckloads of snow over an eight-day period. On Jan.10 continuing heavy snow shut down the airport again for 12 hours.


The two to four feet of fresh snow in the Reno area closed schools, businesses and government offices.

“A combination of two storms of this magnitude hasn’t occurred in the city of Reno since 1916,” NWS forecaster Shane Snyder said. “This should rank up there with the all-time storms by the time it’s done.”

On Jan. 11, the massive low-pressure system finally swept east of the Tahoe-Sierra. Storm totals were very impressive, but not quite record-setting.

Between Dec. 28, 2004, and Jan. 11, 2005, 98 inches of snow fell at the Truckee Ranger Station. During the same timespan, observers in Tahoe City reported 118 inches.

In the upper elevations, an estimated two-storm snow total of about 20 feet smothered Mount Rose, while Heavenly Mountain Resort reported nearly the same at 19 feet.

In 2005, El Niño peaked out at the top of the “weak” category, but the winter offered some of the best skiing and boarding in years. Best of all, the 69 inches of water measured that winter made it the 29th wettest since 1871.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at Reach him at Check out Mark’s blog:

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