TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series, adapted from “Snowbound: Legendary Winters of the Tahoe-Sierra,” a book in progress scheduled for release in 2014 by Mic Mac Publishing. To read the first installment, click here.
In mid-January 1935, Lake Tahoe was snowbound by a raging blizzard with access from Truckee limited to snowshoes and skis. Drifts reported to be 20 feet high or more blocked the Truckee-Lake Tahoe Highway. The Associated Press reported that newlyweds Mr. and Mrs. Semler ended their two-week Tahoe City honeymoon by skiing nearly 20 miles to Truckee.
Automobile travel over Donner Pass was suspended for two days as crews struggled to dig out snow removal equipment. Weather conditions turned fair and dry for the remainder of January, and on Sunday, Feb. 3, the postponed Tahoe City “Snow Frolic” was held.
More than 4,000 “snow mad Californians and Nevadans” arrived for the festivities. After the fun-filled daytime activities were over, a large crowd gathered at dusk for a public street dance as well as fireworks and illuminated ski jumping. The following weekend, national jumping champion Roy Mikkelson set a new record on Truckee’s ski hill. He uncorked two leaps from the wooden scaffold, each 102 feet, beating the old mark of 91 feet. The jumping contests were the most successful ever held in Truckee with 21 experts in attendance. One standout was University of Nevada, Reno skier Wayne Poulsen, “whose jumping was by far the most spectacular in his class.” Poulsen would later purchase Squaw Valley for development as a ski area.
Strong high pressure in the second half February shut off the Pacific moisture tap and delivered the coldest air of this relatively mild winter. On March 6, a vigorous cold front hit the Sierra with heavy snow, shutting down Highway 40 as well as westbound commercial passenger flights from Reno. Two days later Southern Pacific railroad reported 32 inches of fresh snow at Norden, the company’s Summit station. At Soda Springs snow depths were nearly nine feet, best value for the date since 1930. On the first day of spring, a fast moving front whipped through northern California. Lake Tahoe picked up three feet of snow and the road to Truckee was impassable. The 53 inches that fell near Donner Pass increased the snowpack there to more than 12 feet. Temperatures during the month of March were below average, the first month with below normal readings in nearly two years.
Similar to other Top 10 winters, the weather in April went gangbusters in the Tahoe-Sierra. A storm on April 3 dropped a quick foot of snow and made traveling difficult over Donner Pass. All trucks with trailers were prohibited and automobiles required tire chains. Even after the roadway was cleared, large potholes in the paved surface made the route extremely hazardous. The damage was so bad that westbound trucks were being diverted north to Susanville to reach California. Highway crews working to open the road from South Lake Tahoe to Placerville reported drifts 11 feet deep on Echo Summit. Persistent snowfall and erratic temperatures made the snowpack unstable; on April 7 a large avalanche crashed down on a California snowplow trying to clear the road near Emerald Bay. It took rescuers more than half an hour to dig two men out, one of whom was dead.
Travel in the mountains was extremely dangerous. A large landslide in the Feather River Canyon blockaded the Western Pacific train route, and frequent avalanches and rock slides on the Reno to Auburn road made the route especially risky. Only one lane was open over the pass with full closure possible at any time. Trucks and trailers were still being diverted away from this vital trans-Sierra route and all commercial airline flights over the mountains were cancelled due to the volatile atmosphere.
April precipitation was more than 300 percent of normal and the second wettest fourth month of record. In the Sierra, 26 stations reported monthly totals ranging from 10 to 18 inches of water equivalent. At Soda Springs near Donner Pass, April delivered more than 12 inches of precipitation versus an average of 4.32.
It was really good news for Lake Tahoe, where the hydrologic outlook predicted a water level rise of 2.14 feet, compared to a normal spring increase of 1.67 feet. Tahoe was forecast to peak at nearly one foot above the rim, six inches higher than the maximum level the previous year. Flow in the Truckee River was expected to be statistically normal, and near that in the Carson and Walker river drainages. The drought may have not been totally vanquished, but it was forced to retreat a bit in 1935.
The active Pacific storm pattern didn’t settle down until late May.
By then Donner Pass snowfall totals had reached 661 inches or 55.1 feet, ranking 1935 as the 8th snowiest winter in the Tahoe-Sierra since 1879.
Tahoe 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. Check out his blog: www.tahoenuggets.com.