Weather Window: Rex the Blizzard King | SierraSun.com
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Weather Window: Rex the Blizzard King

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
Courtesy SCA Foundation and Carol ChittumLloyd Van Sickle and Rex's owner Agnes Mason ride the Samoyed sled past a mountain cabin in Truckee.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series about Rex, a super hero Samoyed known for more than 30 mountain rescues, including an impressive effort delivering a Truckee doctor to a snowbound train west of Donner Pass in January 1952. Visit sierrasun.com to read the first installment.

TRUCKEE, Calif. and#8212; Many Americans are familiar with Hollywood’s version of heroic dogs, canine superstars like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, but few have heard of Rex, and#8220;The Blizzard King.and#8221; Rex was the real McCoy and he played an important role in our region’s vital search and rescue operations.

For many winters Rex’s trainer, Lloyd Van Sickle, kenneled a team of sled dogs at Truckee’s Hilltop Lodge. Strong and intelligent, Rex was Van Sickle’s premier lead dog. By 1949, Van Sickle’s team was dominating the Truckee-Tahoe racing circuit and had even become national champions. Van Sickle and his dogs were more than local celebrities; the team was always on call during winter emergencies. Rex led most of these rescue operations, and over the years displayed such unerring skill and determination negotiating drifts and blizzards that he earned the moniker and#8220;Blizzard King.and#8221;

In February 1949, Van Sickle and Rex made national news when a plane flying from Sacramento to Reno went down with engine trouble near Truckee’s snow-covered emergency airport. The small charter plane had crash landed and flipped over with four people inside. When a tractor sent to aid them bogged down in snow, Van Sickle hooked up 18 dogs to two sleds and ventured out into frigid night with subzero temperatures. Rex led the teams directly to the crash site and the injured were quickly sledded out to a waiting ambulance.

In January 1952 a series of powerful snowstorms slammed the Donner Pass region. Wind-driven snow piled drifts higher and higher in the Sierra. While the storm was raging in the mountains, Rex was being exhibited by his owner, Mrs. Agnes Mason, at a dog show in San Francisco. Up in Truckee, Van Sickle heard that his services were needed for rescue operations so he called Mrs. Mason and asked her to release Rex from the show. Rex and another dog were flown to Truckee during a break in the weather.

Rex first pulled a caretaker and his wife out of their snowbound facility on Donner Summit. Then Van Sickle was notified rescuers needed his dog teams to transport Truckee’s doctor to the luxury streamliner, City of San Francisco, which had become snowbound west of Donner Pass with 226 passengers and crew on board.

Within hours Van Sickle had a dog team rigged with Rex at lead and Truckee’s Dr. Nelson stowed safely on the sled. This wasn’t the first time Dr. Nelson had ridden with Van Sickle and Rex in a rescue effort so he hung on tight. As they approached the stranded train, the sled had to be tilted on its side to keep from going over a steep embankment and to slow its downward approach to the train. Despite the risk, Rex safely delivered Doc Nelson to the train where he began administering to sick and injured passengers.

Rex weighed about 70 pounds, but two years later he broke the world record for weight pulling at a contest in West Yellowstone, Mont., with a pull of 1,870 pounds. Rex was strong, but as one observer noted, and#8220;He was five pounds of bones and hair, the rest was all heart.and#8221;

This canine hero’s spirit may still be with us, if you believe the reports OF recent appearances at Hilltop Lodge (now Cottonwood Inn) of and#8220;a white dog and a white-haired man who appear at night then move through walls and disappear.and#8221;

Special thanks to author Jim Cheskawich and film director Michael Kanyon who are producing a documentary based on the life and accomplishments of Rex.

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 http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at mark@thestormking.com


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