Weather Window: BOOM or Bust! | SierraSun.com

Weather Window: BOOM or Bust!

Mark McLaughlin

Photo courtesy Mark McLaughlin

Thanksgiving has come and gone and winter sports enthusiasts in the Truckee-Tahoe region are still waiting for the first major snowstorm of the season.

Unfortunately, at this time the short-term forecast indicates no significant pattern changes that would open the Pacific storm door enough to unleash the kind of heavy snowfall skiers, boarders and hydrologists are desperately waiting for.

Last year we had to wait until Dec. 6 for the first decent storm, which dumped about two feet during 48 hours and got the slow-starting 2008 ski season underway. The year before that was also late out of the gate and only extensive snowmaking made decent skiing possible before Christmas. The Sierra averages about four feet of snow during November, but relying on statistics in the Far West can be a frustrating exercise in futility.

Fifty years ago, the winter of 1959 had everyone worried, too. High pressure dominated through the end of December 1958. It wasn’t until Jan. 5, 1959, the first major storm of the season pounded the Sierra with heavy snow. It wasn’t just locals who were concerned about the lack of snow during the winter of 1959. The national media was focused on the North American Championships that were scheduled for February at Squaw Valley, Calif. The competition was actually international in scope and the event was a practice run for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games to be held at Squaw the following year.

By mid-February 1959, hordes of American and international athletes were invading the little-known ski area. The competition was the first chance for skeptical representatives of the international skiing and skating federations to look over the new Olympic site and its facilities.

The best skiers and skaters in the world were anxious to tackle the steep, challenging ski runs, a towering 80-meter jump, and new outdoor ice rink that construction crews had built. The Olympic skating rink was the world’s first artificially frozen speed skating oval.

Recommended Stories For You

The cross-country ski competition was being held at the McKinney Creek area on Lake Tahoe’s west shore and featured the recently accepted biathlon event (shooting and cross-country skiing combined). Vying for berths on the U.S. Olympic team, American alpine athletes like Dick Dorworth and Buddy Werner were ready to prove their speed and talent against the stiff foreign competition.

Despite warnings that Squaw Valley was not prepared for a huge influx of visitors, and that food, drink and shelter would be minimal, nearly 10,000 spectators were expected for the most popular events. Because of the lack of snow earlier that winter there were serious concerns about sufficient snow depth on the racecourse runs. The season had been so dry the ground was bare at Squaw Valley in late January. Indicative of the parched conditions, the Feb. 1 snow survey yielded only 40 percent of the average water content for that date in the Tahoe Basin snowpack.

Luckily a major storm roared out of the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 11 and for two days heavy snow pounded the Sierra. The weather station at Blue Canyon on the west slope set a new 24-hour February record of 33 inches and even Reno, Nev., picked up 22 inches. So much snow fell on Squaw Valley (65 inches at the base lodge) one foreign delegate observed; “It’s going to be quite a job to work this down to racing quality.” Olympic directors pleaded for help in moving snow and course packing, and even offered to pay hundreds of local skiers $2 per hour for their time.

On Feb. 13 warmer temperatures raised snow levels above 7,000 feet and soaked the snowpack with more than two inches of rain. At Squaw Valley, an Olympic spokesman described the rain as both a blessing and a curse, “It’s a financial blessing because it eliminates much of the snow packing which would have been necessary to get the race courses in shape. It’s a danger if the rain continues much longer.”

But more trouble still lurked in the Pacific Ocean. W.J. Denney, forecaster for the National Weather Service warned of “a giant storm that covers the ocean from the Gulf of Alaska to the subtropics of northern Mexico, and extends about 1,200 miles off California to Nevada and Idaho.” This massive system had migrated northeastward from the Hawaiian Islands and then stalled in the eastern Pacific. On Valentine’s Day, this seething subtropical system blew in with hurricane force winds. Torrents of rain flooded the lowlands while blizzard conditions prevailed in the Sierra’s upper elevations.

Twelve inches of rain fell in 11 hours on California’s northwest coast. In Sacramento, warnings of violent weather by the National Weather Service prompted city officials to close down the school system.

The slow-moving storm guaranteed bands of heavy precipitation would continue to surge into the Sierra. Olympic officials could only hope for the best. Nevada’s governor Grant Sawyer was taking no chances and officially offered Reno the assistance of the Nevada National Guard if the ongoing rain posed a flood threat on the Truckee River.

On Feb. 17, freezing levels dropped and the snow really began piling up on KT-22, site of the popular men’s and women’s downhill ski events. Extreme avalanche danger canceled all practice runs on KT-22’s upper slopes and forced frustrated racers back into the lodge.

On that same day, the U.S. Navy launched a sleek Vanguard II rocket into orbit from sunny Cape Canaveral, Fla. The 21-pound payload was the first U.S. weather satellite designed to photograph storm cloud formations from space. That successful launch into orbit 50 years ago initiated the era of the 3- to 5-day weather forecast. The images beamed back from the new satellite dramatically increased scientists’ view of the planet’s fluid atmosphere, but it was too late to help anyone at Squaw Valley.

The next day intense snow showers produced near-zero visibility, which drove the world’s best athletes off the mountain again. Avalanche control experts constantly shelled the overloaded slopes with recoilless rifles but the snow kept coming. Skier morale plummeted. Lilliana Solari, a Chilean racer complained, “If I can’t ski, I can’t race. It’s so boring not being able to ski. I’ve skied half a day since I arrived.” Some of the disgruntled racers decided to volunteer as course packers at $2 an hour. One said, “Since I can’t ski I might as well earn some money.”

Farther to the north, snowfall tallies reached the extreme. At the Mount Shasta Ski Bowl, 7,841 feet in elevation, 178 inches fell in just six days, setting the Sierra’s record single storm total of nearly 15 feet. A total of 236 inches of snow fell at Mount Shasta in February 1959, a record for the month.

February’s stormy pattern finally broke one day before the North American Championship’s opening festivities. Squaw Valley had picked up 104 inches of snow in 10 days but that didn’t stop thousands of spectators from flooding the former cow pasture. Competitors short of practice and patience quickly rebounded to thrill the crowds and Squaw Valley was on its way to world-class status.

” Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books are available at local stores. Mark can be reached at mark@thestormking.com.