Weather Window | Big winters – we’re on a roll

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Courtesy Mark McLaughlinSierra ski historian William B. Berry (standing right) with Auburn Ski Club members at the 1971 dedication of William Wier's grave marker.

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. – Winter 2013 has come out of the gate fast and furious and snow sports enthusiasts are loving the abundant, fresh powder during this holiday period. Tahoe-Truckee resorts and businesses are reaping the economic benefits derived from a solid early season snowpack that draws visitors. It’s a great start to a new year.

Remember two years ago when the Northern Sierra was hammered by the epic winter of 2011, the ninth snowiest since 1879 on Donner Pass? (2011 was also the seventh wettest winter in a century at Tahoe City.) Seasons like that don’t come around very often. Or do they? Don’t look now, but this winter is already giving 2011 a run for its money. As of New Year’s Day 2013, total aggregate precipitation across the Northern Sierra is running neck and neck with a near identical booster-rocket graph trajectory exhibited in the final months of 2010. Most remarkably, by Jan. 1, both 2011 and 2013 winters had streaked ahead of 1983 in precipitation, the wettest year of record in the 8 Station Sierra Index established in 1922. We’re talking about top tier, heavy hitting winters in a dynamic climate that ranks up there with major mountain snow zones around the country.

It seems logical to think one significant difference between winter 2011 and this year, however, would be 2012’s early December deluge of higher elevation rainfall that nearly generated a major flood event on the Truckee River near Truckee and Reno, Nev. The lack of snow and heavy rain demoralized skiers and some resort operators, but when you compare snowfall tallies for 2011 and 2013 up to New Year’s Day, you might be surprised. So far this season, at the 8,200-foot-level of Squaw Valley, they have received nearly 21 feet of snow. By the same date in 2011 – a bit more than 24 feet. How about at the bottom of the mountain where conditions were bleak after that post Thanksgiving rain event? This year 12.4 feet of snow measured at Squaw Valley’s 6,200 foot level. By the same date in 2011 – 13.6 feet. Let’s face it. We’re on a roll.

California’s winter storms can really pack a punch. Driven onshore by a vigorous jet stream, powerful, moisture-laden low pressure systems hammer the lowlands with sheets of rain, before the strong westerly flow forces the whole package up and over the Sierra range. Precipitation is enhanced over the mountains where downpours of rain and intense snowfall can be overwhelming. One hundred and sixty years ago, during the winter of 1852-1853, the Golden State was young and brash, flush from the Gold Rush and swarming with miners, ranchers, farmers, and merchants. Production at the gold diggings had just peaked, but the abundant natural resources and healthful temperate climate convinced many to permanently settle the Pacific Slope. For the thousands of immigrants who chose to live in the Sacramento Valley or in the Sierra foothill mining districts, the severe winter of 1853 tested their mettle to the extreme.

The Pacific storm door opened with a bang in the middle of November 1852 and never let up. By early December, persistent rain in the lowlands and raging blizzards in the higher elevations were making life miserable, if not downright dangerous. On Dec. 17, 1852, the worst storm in years caused damage along the coast and flood devastation in the interior. In the high country, heavy snowfall that day claimed the first recorded avalanche fatality in the Sierra when 23-year-old William F. Weir was killed near Poker Flat. Weir was just one of several slide victims that season, but his and other tragic deaths during the winter of ’53 helped convince his fellow miners skis were needed for winter survival in the mountains. That in turn gave birth to competitive alpine skiing and winter snowsports in California.

It rained for 20 days that December, which caused the Sacramento River to overflow its banks. It was the fourth year in a row high water had caused widespread damage in the southern Sacramento Valley. There were no levees to protect the city of Sacramento and flood waters repeatedly inundated the capital of California. At the time, Lieutenant R. S. Williamson was exploring a possible railroad route from the Sacramento Valley to the Columbia River. In his detailed, professional report, Lt. Williamson noted, “I came down the [Sacramento] river in December 1852 when the sheet of water covering the country was fifty miles broad.”

Stay tuned for part 2 in the next issue.

– 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 Check out Mark’s new blog at

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