Multiple avalanches in less than 1 week at Lake Tahoe serve as safety reminder
One of the heaviest winters on record has not just left an abundance of snow for skiers and riders — it’s also led to more avalanche control efforts on area highways.
And in the wake of a slide that swept up two vehicles on U.S. 50 on Sunday, April 7, transportation and safety officials are reminding drivers to be prepared when traveling through avalanche-prone areas.
“The problem is they’re unpredictable. You never know when they’ll come down,” said Mike Brown, a California Highway Patrol officer based in South Lake Tahoe.
Although unpredictable, the heavy snowpack in the Sierra is translating to avalanche-prone conditions.
As of Tuesday, Caltrans had conducted 36 avalanche control missions during the 2018-19 winter. That’s compared to 14 the previous winter, according to Steve Nelson, public information officer for Caltrans District 3.
In the past several weeks, warming temperatures are causing the heavy snowpack above area highways to shift and avalanches to tumble down.
“That’s really it … the amount of snowfall. And then when the weather warms up, the snow shifts and that’s when we start seeing the slides,” Nelson said.
Sunday’s slide, the second naturally occurring avalanche on U.S. 50 in less than a week, trapped two vehicles in roughly 5 feet of snow.
The snow actually pushed a vehicle traveling westbound, a Nissan Xterra, into the eastbound lane where it collided with a Jeep Grand Cherokee, according to Brown.
The driver of the Nissan was transported to Barton Memorial Hospital with reported neck and head pain. The injury was not serious, according to the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office.
The avalanche occurred naturally in the area known as Frogs Pond, east of Echo Summit, about 30 minutes after crews had cleaned up snow from avalanche control efforts.
The avalanche ran several hundred feet and was about 5 feet deep, according to Nelson. While significant, Caltrans has responded to larger slides this winter, including some more than 15 feet deep.
Less than a week earlier on April 1, another naturally occurring avalanche caught a vehicle in the same area of U.S. 50. The vehicle made it out safely and there were no injuries, according to the sheriff’s office.
That stretch of U.S. 50, spanning from east of the summit up to the summit, is one of the most avalanche-prone areas in the Tahoe Basin due to the steepness of the mountain along the highway.
“That whole steep area there is problematic for us,” Nelson said.
He clarified that Caltrans has staff working around the clock to make sure road conditions are safe.
“As long as its open we feel like its safe,” he said of the current conditions on U.S. 50.
“If we feel it’s not safe to drive … we’ll shut it down.”
Another avalanche-prone area is Emerald Bay. The mountain is so steep and avalanche prone — Nelson said there are about 13 slide areas in the span of 2 miles — that Caltrans does not even attempt avalanche mitigation.
Essentially, transportation officials close the road when there is snow and wait for calm weather conditions to clear and open the road.
On April 1, the same day an avalanche closed U.S. 50 for five hours, an avalanche spilled down onto California Route 89 in Emerald Bay, effectively closing vehicle access to the area for two days.
“We don’t even try avalanche control in there,” Nelson said of that stretch of 89.
As of Tuesday, dispatch records showed no major activity on Nevada highways in the Tahoe Basin in the previous two weeks, according to the Nevada Department of Transportation.
Still, there are avalanche-prone sections of highway that the department monitors.
In particular, NDOT maintenance crews routinely monitor several stretches of Mt. Rose Highway (Nevada Route 431): directly above Ski Tavern; near milepost 9 below the summit; at the summit; and at Slide Access Road near Mt. Rose Ski Resort, where NDOT officials work with Mt. Rose Ski Patrol to monitor the area.
To help with efforts on the summit, NDOT in 1992 installed a remote-controlled avalanche detonation systems.
“The detonation has the force of 30 sticks of dynamite, sending shock waves through the air and ground, shaking loose snow and sending it toward the highway, where NDOT plow operators are positioned to remove it and then reopen the road,” Meg Ragonese, NDOT public information officer, explained in an email.
The blasts can bring down more than 20 feet of snow across the highway.
NDOT also monitors a section of U.S. 50, about 1 miles below Spooner summit, for potential avalanche danger.
If you are caught in an avalanche, it’s important to remain calm and remain inside the vehicle, Brown said. Attempting to open a car door or window could allow snow into the vehicle.
Turn the vehicle off and call 911. If cell service is too poor for outgoing calls, the car horn can be used to alert people to your location.
Caltrans and NDOT say drivers should follow the same recommendations that apply to winter, including keeping the necessary items in your vehicle. Having a full tank of gas and fully charged cell phone also are important.
You could have to spend hours waiting, regardless of whether you are actually stuck in the slide, Brown said.
And, Nelson added, check weather conditions before traveling.
“It’s really still surprising how many people just hop in their car and go and have no idea what the weather is … “
Ryan Hoffman is a reporter with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun.