Weather Window | A winter to remember |

Weather Window | A winter to remember

Courtesy Mark McLaughlin collectionA rotary plow clears snow from Highway 40 near Soda Springs Hotel on Donner Pass in December 1951.

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; No doubt about it, winter 2012 is off to a monumentally slow start. Virtually no snow has fallen on the Tahoe Basin since the pittance we received at Thanksgiving, which is giving regional resorts fits as they try to maintain a favorable sliding experience with man-made snow. A few ski areas have put their extensive snowmaking systems to good use and have opened a number of trails, but region-wide many employees have been laid off or never even got a start day.

December 2011 was the second driest 12th month in the central and northern Sierra since a regional index was established in 1920. Only December 1989 was drier with zero snowfall measured, but at least in 1989 the resorts had picked up about 4 feet of snow in November, giving them a minimum base with which they could work. A positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation is the likely culprit for the extremely dry weather, but at some point the blocking high pressure in the eastern Pacific will move and the proverbial storm door will open.

When it comes to benchmark Tahoe winters, 1952 is still the one to beat. Sixty years ago one of the worst winters on record ravaged the region with a relentless series of powerful blizzards that spawned avalanches, trapped trains, closed roads and caused havoc throughout the West.

The unusually severe storms of and#8217;52 hit early, blanketing Donner Pass with a foot of snow a week before Halloween. Potent storms continued to pound the region throughout November. On Dec. 2, a powerful Pacific storm slammed the region with hurricane strength winds that forced United Air Lines to cancel all passenger flights over the Sierra into Reno, Nev. Countless truck and automobile accidents clogged Highway 40 over Donner Pass while heavy snow buried Truckee and Tahoe City.

By mid-December the snowpack stood 6 feet deep on Donner Pass. For 10 days there was a lull in the storms and locals were given a chance to do their Christmas shopping. On Christmas Eve a powerful system from the Gulf of Alaska roared in with heavy snow that closed mountain roads and trapped crowds of tourists in Tahoe City and Truckee. Telephone lines snapped and avalanches on the 26th took out several trans-Sierra high voltage towers and blacked out Tahoe City.

By Dec. 29, the road over Donner Pass was closed to all traffic except for California-bound tourists who the California Highway Patrol was convoying westbound from Truckee. Fifty-seven inches of snow fell in Tahoe City between Christmas Eve and New Yearand#8217;s, building the snowpack there to 6 and a half feet deep. By New Yearand#8217;s Day Donner Pass was open again, but drifts and avalanches had blocked both Highway 50 and the Mt. Rose Highway.

At the Sky Tavern Ski Resort near Mt. Rose, 20-foot drifts marooned 70 people. The resort had opened in 1945 and was popular with movie stars like Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. As a Christmas present for his family, baseball star Joe DiMaggio had rented a small cabin at Sky Tavern so he, his ex-wife Dorothy, and their son Joe Jr. could enjoy a few days of peace and quiet in the Sierra. But instead of sun and fun, they were among those stranded by the severe storm. It took four days for a rotary snowplow to chew its way up the snowbound Mt. Rose Highway and finally open the road to the resort.

As the new year began, mountain communities struggled to dig out their cars and houses. Although some highways remained impassable, trains were on schedule and airliners had resumed normal service into Reno, Nev. Skies were sunny, but near-record cold invaded the area. Truckee hit minus 18 degrees while at Boca, the temperature plummeted to 42 degrees below zero, just 3 degrees shy of the state record of minus 45 set on Jan. 30, 1937.

and#8212; Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at

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