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Weather Window

Mark McLaughlin

The International Olympics have been in the news recently, but the headlines scream about bribery and corruption, and not a word about young athletes competing for gold medals.

Forty years ago this month, the media was focused on the North American Championships (NAC) being held at Squaw Valley, California.

It was mid-February 1959 and hordes of American and international athletes were invading the little known ski area and future site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. The competition was also 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 ice rink that the upstart resort had hastily constructed. The Olympic skating rink was the world’s first artificially frozen speed skating oval.

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, upward of 10,000 spectators were expected for the most popular events.

At first there were serious concerns about sufficient snow depth on the race course runs. The season had been so dry that the ground was bare at Squaw Valley on Jan. 25 and a Feb. 1 snow survey yielded only 40 percent of the average water content in the Tahoe Basin snowpack.

Luckily the first major storm of the season blasted the region from Feb.. 10-12 which dumped plenty of the white stuff.

Blue Canyon on the Sierra west slope set a new 24-hour February record of 33 inches and even Reno, Nevada, picked up 22 inches. So much snow fell on Squaw Valley (65 inches at the base lodge) that 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 skiers $2 per hour for their time. Late on Feb. 13 a mid-latitude flow 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 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 NWS warnings of violent weather prompted city officials to close down the school system.

The slow moving storm guaranteed that bands of 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 Feb. 17, freezing levels dropped and the snow really began piling up on hill KT22, just southwest of the Squaw Valley lodge and site of the popular men’s and women’s downhill ski events.

Extreme avalanche danger canceled all practice runs on KT22’s upper slopes and forced competitors back into the lodge. (That very day the U.S. Navy launched a sleek but unreliable 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 40 years ago initiated the era of the 3- to 5-day extended-range weather forecast.)

The global weather picture increased dramatically with the new satellite, but it was too late to help anyone at Squaw Valley.

The next day more heavy snow produced near-zero visibility, which drove the frustrated 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 volunteered 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 Mt. Shasta in February 1959, a record for the month.

February’s stormy pattern 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.

Weather Historian Mark McLaughlin is the author of “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe,” available in local bookstores.

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