TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — The 2012 weather clock continues to tick against what is looking increasingly likely to be a below normal winter for precipitation. But 60 years ago, residents in the Tahoe-Truckee region were battling the Storm King in what would turn out to be the second snowiest winter in regional history.
Heavy snowstorms in December 1951 had trapped hundreds of skiers and motorists during the Christmas holidays, followed in mid-January by one of the worst blizzards ever experienced on Donner Pass. That storm surge trapped a luxury streamliner passenger train full of passengers for more than three days near Yuba Gap. All 226 people on board were saved, but two men involved in the rescue efforts died while dealing with the brutal weather conditions.
In February there was a lull with slightly above normal snowfall, but then March roared in with a bang. That month's snowfall totaled 13 feet — with the Soda Springs snowpack peaking at more than 22 feet deep. Avalanches throughout the Sierra threatened communities. Near Bishop, Calif., 33 people were rescued after an avalanche destroyed their mining camp. The group had spent two days huddled in a basement fearing to leave. The snow slide hit so quickly it separated an infant from its mother and buried the child under 15 feet of snow. Thomas Holmes, the father of the young child said, “I was outside the mill when the avalanche struck. I looked around and saw a wall of snow roaring down from the canyon walls. The houses seemed to explode. I started running toward my home, almost crazy because I was sure my wife and baby were killed.” When he found his wife alive, she pointed to a towering wall of snow and said, “Our baby Michael is under that.” Holmes and some friends frantically dug into the snow pile for two hours before finding the toddler. Amazingly, the child was fine. A relieved Holmes later said, “Michael was wedged between the dogs. All were alive and uninjured. I am sure we owe our son's life to our dogs. They must have crept as closely as possible to him to protect him and keep him warm.”
On Tahoe's North Shore, drifts from 15 to 20 feet buried the lake shore road. Luckily, a threatened heating oil shortage was averted when fuel tanks at unoccupied homes were tapped. At Kings Beach, nurse Audrey Welch had to shoulder a backpack of medical supplies and struggle through snow up to her neck to care for pregnant women on both sides of the state line.
The storms didn't keep the skiers away. Longtime Donner Lake resident Vi White remembered how she and her husband Carson took the train to Norden. They had to step over the telephone wires on their skis in order to reach the chairlifts at Sugar Bowl resort. The winter of '52 boasts a seemingly endless list of weather superlatives, including the deepest snowpack ever measured near Donner Pass at 26 feet, and the Summit's second greatest annual snowfall on record with 67.7 feet, just 5 inches shy of the 1938 all-time record. U.S. Highway 40 (pre-dating Interstate 80) was closed for 30 consecutive days.
Some locals blamed the exceptional snowfall on the early December 1951 eruption of the Hibock Hibock volcano in the Philippines, which blasted tons of ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. It's impossible to say whether all that particulate matter contributed to the incredible amount of snow that buried the Tahoe-Truckee region that winter, but to stranded residents the record snowpack and endless snowfall certainly seemed like an avalanche of white ash.
— Tahoe weather historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.