Spring can roar in the Sierra Nevada
The Easter holidays have come and gone, but the weather pattern is still active and adding to the hydrologic windfall the Truckee-Tahoe region received this winter. A dry first half of March had hydrologists concerned that, similar to the last few years, the winter would fizzle out early. But 8 feet of snow in the upper elevations during the last 10 days of March made up for the slow start. The April 1 snow surveys revealed that water content in our snowpack is well above normal, with the Lake Tahoe Basin boasting 137 percent of average and the Truckee River running close behind with 121 percent. We still need every drop of water we can get. Currently only 2 inches above its rim (out of a possible 6 feet), Lake Tahoe is predicted to rise about 1.60 feet from snowmelt, which should be enough to insure that it will continue flowing into the Truckee River into next winter. It is an improvement from the last two years when the flow stopped running late in the year, but Tahoes water storage is still only 19 percent of average. A few more winters like 2004-05 would go a long way toward pumping Lake Tahoes water levels to the top. Traditionally, 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 can occur after the official end of winter. Known as equinox storms, springtime weather systems can really pack a punch. Longtime locals may remember the six-day storm in late March 1982 that dumped more than 8 feet of snow and triggered a deadly avalanche at Alpine Meadows ski area that killed seven people. The remarkable rescue of Alpine Meadows employee Anna Conrad five days later helped cheer a community still in shock from the tragic loss of family and friends in one of North Americas worst ski area disasters. Some old-timers may remember the Easter storm of 1958 that slammed the Sierra with phenomenal snowfall. An El Nio event in the Pacific Ocean markedly influenced the winter of 1957-58. Most of California received above average precipitation that year and the Tahoe-Truckee region was no exception. Frequent storms lashed the state with wind, rain and snow. Cold storms in March generated a rash of severe thunderstorms and unprecedented tornado activity. The hyper-active weather pattern made 1958 the wettest season in 90 years.Many Californians were hoping for an end to the exceptionally wet winter season. Sierra ski resorts were boasting a 15-foot 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 year barreled into the region just in time for Easter week. Heavy snow fell in the Sierra, occasionally as low as 1,500 feet, and snow slides stopped all transportation through the mountains for several days. Chain controls were in force all the way to Auburn. A dozen large avalanches near the River Ranch on Highway 89 closed the road there for nearly a week. In 1958, Interstate 80 was not yet built, but Highway 40 over Donner Pass was closed for five days by the storm. Tremendous overhangs posed a hazard to all vehicles; some of the cornices reached to the center line. In addition to the overwhelming snow, a massive mud slide more than 6 feet deep near Donner Summit added to the challenge of opening the road. At Norden, 10 feet of snow fell in five days while at Soda Springs the weather station was completely buried under snow 22 feet deep. On April 4, the snowpack at 9,000-foot exceeded 27 feet; the Sierra record is 37.5 feet deep measured in March 1911. One example of the intensity associated with this storm system occurred in San Francisco. April 2 nearly an inch of rain fell in just 60 minutes, the third greatest one-hour intensity of record. The deluge flooded downtown streets in San Francisco and caused widespread damage. The two inches of rain measured in Reno made it the second wettest April there since 1870. Fortunately, fears of flooding on the Truckee River never materialized. In the Central Valley drainage, the precipitation during the first week of April exceeded the amount normally received during all of April, May and June. California suffered so much damage in April (20 homes destroyed and 2,332 damaged) that the entire state was declared a disaster area by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Tahoe ski resorts took the brunt of the storm; Heavenly Valley was the only operation able to remain open during the blizzard. 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. At the Donner Summit Lodge at Soda Springs, snowdrifts stranded an estimated 1,500 people there. Sugar Bowl ski resort on Donner Summit was hit hardest of all. A massive avalanche 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. A snowslide in the mountains had derailed a mail train, injuring two trainmen, and marooning 25 passengers. The eastbound train No. 22 had run into an avalanche 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 broken ribs. The westbound streamliner, City of San Francisco (trapped by avalanche near Yuba Gap for three days in 1952), was being held under snowsheds at Norden with 97 anxious passengers. Thirty hours later SP crews were still struggling to remove train No. 22, so the City of San Francisco was shuttled back to Reno for re-routing through the Feather River Canyon. One passenger described it as a trainload of concentrated frustration,” but all passengers had high praise for the railroad. Max Van Dyke of Wyoming 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. Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears regularly 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 email@example.com.
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