Sierra Nevada Blizzards, How Bad?

I made a comment on this story:

Potentially life threatening blizzard for the Sierra – Up to 5 feet of snow
March 1, 2018 by Robert

Greater Lake Tahoe Area – Including the cities of South Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Stateline, and Incline Village

And it got me thinking maybe some folks here have not heard of the Donner Party or the City Of San Francisco Train.

So I’m going to put it here, too.

The Donner Party was a group headed to California by wagon. They took a “shortcut” and it was a mistake. Then winter arrived early and very very hard. They spent 4 months under feet of snow. The survivors eventually got rescued.

The City Of San Franciso was a fine train.
It just tried to cross the Sierra when the snow said NO!
Fairing better, they were rescued after a few days.

The Comment

This is local lore, but even some folks here do not know it.
(The local school was founded by a survivor of this event…)

IF you do not know about The Donner Party, it is a clear lesson in what the Sierra Nevada can throw at you. 18 FEET of snow in one wallop. Drifting high enough many cabins have an outdoor staircase to a second or third floor door (so you can get out in winter…)

By the beginning of November 1846, the settlers had reached the Sierra Nevada where they became trapped by an early, heavy snowfall near Truckee (now Donner) Lake, high in the mountains. Their food supplies ran extremely low and, in mid-December, some of the group set out on foot to obtain help. Rescuers from California attempted to reach the settlers, but the first relief party did not arrive until the middle of February 1847, almost four months after the wagon train had become trapped. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived to reach California, many of them having eaten the dead for survival.

Similarly, in the 1950s, their was a train got caught.

Roadmaster Fulbright had brought with him news of the streamliner City of San Francisco of the day before. The plush yellow train had struck a gigantic snowslide down the westbound iron. Deadhead crews and linemen were riding the steam helper’s cab. Engineer Bell of the cab-in-fronter had sustained injuries and most of the men in that cab had been cut by flying glass. Fulbright and Assistant Superintendent Bob Miller had come along on an eastbound rotary.

Sapunor and Painter learned from Fulbright that two big four-cylindered cab-in-fronters sent to rescue the diesels on yesterday’s City had left the rails at Troy. Another Mallet, the 4104, was on the ground at Gold Run. The Mountain Division was having trouble — plenty of it.

Much of the way the City snaked down through a deep cut of ice and snow. The blast of the blizzard alone was enough to keep fresh drifts ever piling up before the wedge nose of the diesel’s pilot plow, but in addition, dangerous ice cones arched out over the top of the cut, threatening to tumble more tons of the heavy white stuff into the path of the train.

Yes, enough snow to stop a train… But the outcome was better and folks were rescued after a few days.

Nifty photos in the link… and a much more complete story. Well worth it to ‘hit the link’.

I’ve driven the path past both those places in the snow with chains on. It teaches you things…

Added bits

Things like “Don’t expect the snow to stop. It might be weeks.” and “Don’t expect rescue in under weeks. Days if you are lucky”. Then there’s “If you expect to eat this week, have it in the car”. “Don’t just carry chains, know how to use them”. “Have a coat and storm pants warm enough to keep you warm at 10 below after laying in slush 2 hours back down the mountain when you put chains on.” Oh, and “Not just 2 pairs of shoes, but 2 pairs of shoes and 2 pairs of boots with 4 to 6 pairs of socks.”

It isn’t often, but from time to time, it really can dump a dozen feet of snow without stopping. IF you stop in that, it will be a long time before your car moves again. Plan accordingly. (i.e. if at all possible have it in the parking area while you are at the fireplace in the lounge… before the snow starts.)

Some more flavor of the train article:

They were on the way, 7207 and 7208 with steamer No. 4284 between them. But Lawson’s outfit, backing down the westbound, got stuck in the drifts behind it! Lawson got to a roadside phone and called Norden. Jennings told him, “I’ve got two rotaries coming down the eastbound. Wait for ’em. Don’t try to move.”

They waited until they saw a figure on foot emerging through the blizzard like a ghost.

“We’re stalled, too! Not far ahead of 101. Can you get back up the westbound and come alongside?”

The blades of the plow were faced east, so back up the mountain went the 7205 and the 4245. Fuel and water were running low, but they made it. The two rotaries and the Mallet were covered under a mammoth snowslide. Section Foreman Nelson’s men were there, digging with shovels. It was no use — and the danger of another, bigger slide was ever present. Bob Miller, working with the men again, ordered all crewmen and section men out of the area back to the train. A short time later Engineer Raymond and several other crewmen who had been on a trip to the streamliner on their own returned to the frozen snow-fighting equipment. In trying to free the rotary. Engineer Raymond was buried beneath it as it overturned.

Cheerfulness still prevailed back in the coaches.

“Those section men tramped all last night beating down a path just in case rescue does reach us. They’ll do it again tonight,” said a passenger. “How about raising a purse?” In a short time $80 had been gathered.

“I heard Espee’s got a snowplow — a coal-fired job — coming from the Union Pacific,” offered someone else. “This outfit’s trying, anyway!”

Southern Pacific was trying everything humanly possible to effect a rescue. So were many others. The Sixth Army, under Major G. C. Cotton, loaded weasels on flatcars and took them to the farthest point of penetration. But they couldn’t make it. The Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Sno-Cat got through, but one double-trucked track-laying vehicle could not take 226 people out. So it brought supplies in — and word of rescue efforts by rail, highway and air. Jay Gold, who later died of sheer exhaustion, Charley Swing and Roy Claytor manned the Cat. Claytor was the first man from outside to contact the isolated train, and his mere presence gave the passengers a needed lift.

The men of the California Division of Highways were hard at it too. They thought they could get through to the train from Emigrant Gap and Herschel Jones’ Nyack Lodge.

Would one of the rescue trains make it first? Nobody knew, but everybody prayed and hoped.

The telephone company was on the job all this time, keeping the lines of communication open and answering as best they could the frantic appeals for word of loved ones aboard the stranded City. It operated a mobile two-way radio-phone automobile which helped to locate and save a truck of precious foodstuff for Nyack Lodge.

Assistant Road Foreman of Engines Charlie Carroll meanwhile recognized an essential but irksome task. He organized a latrine patrol, and with cans from the baggage car of the City he and the engineers, firemen, conductors, a brakeman and a baggageman performed the necessary operation.

The night of January 14 the steam-heat generators gave out, and the big Mallet behind the train took over. Soon snow-choked exhausts around the train’s air-conditioning equipment under the cars caused obnoxious gas to enter the Pullmans. That night and the next day Dr. Roehll and an Espee doctor now aboard the train tended to the ill and reported no serious cases. Everybody was on the job helping one another. Sid Paradee of Chicago, a passenger, dragged [E.Z.] Hardison and Bill Murray from a sleeping compartment to fresh air at the car’s vestibule end.

“My legs just crumpled under me,” said Hardison. “It was a Godsend that Mr. Paradee found us.”

January 16 broke calm and clear. The wind had died. A Coast Guard helicopter soared overhead. Visions of food, supplies and perhaps a doctor descending by parachute with accurate news of a real rescue went through the mind of every person. Supplies, medical aids and food were dropped, but the doctor could not be safely parachuted.

“Look out, Colonel!” someone shouted, as an Army man made ready to catch some food stocks floating earthward fast.

“I’ll catch ’em,” he answered. And he did. Eggs! Some new stripes were added to his already spangled uniform.

Yet no rescue was in sight. Was it the calm before the next storm? A minor one broke at that moment.

I think of this story every time I drive past the Nyack exit… It tells you that you have finally climbed the mountain enough to be in Ski Country, and it tells you that you are in a very bad place to drive in a storm. I’ve often stopped there with various “car issues” over the decades. First with my Dad driving, later on my own. It is still the “rescue point” for lots of folks climbing those mountains; though now it is usually just providing gasoline to those that did not start out with a full tank, or lunch to the impatient.

I no longer willingly drive into Sierra Nevada storms. I’ve driven through them enough to know I can do it (preferably with at least front wheel drive and chains) and also enough to know I don’t want to do it. Just wait for the snow to stop and the ploughs to clear the road. If the snow doesn’t stop, well, you made the right decision then too…

The Donner Party was in 1846 and the Dalton Minimum was centered on about 1815, so it was after the climb out of the Dalton Minimum. Things were warming up enough to evaporate more water, but the world had not completely warmed yet, so it fell as lots of snow. We are presently in a period of solar warmed oceans and headed into cold air in this minimum. I would expect similar increases in precipitation and snow as the warm oceans and cold air pump heat off planet via a water driven spherical heat pipe.

I have a thesis that I’ve not yet tested, that extreme precipitation ought to come at entry and exit from a Grand Solar Minimum, but be less at the bottom of it. The Donner Party fits that model. Perhaps our present Sierra Storms will confirm the other side of the valley…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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9 Responses to Sierra Nevada Blizzards, How Bad?

  1. p.g.sharrow says:

    As of now, we have been blessed with 4inches of rain here, 2000feet above Chico. No snow as of yet at our elevation but I expect that will happen tonight. I understand that the snow level today is above 2500 feet. Lots of wind gusts but nor excessive. Just a crappy day to be outside…pg

  2. Terry Jackson says:

    I seem to remember that there was a storm in January 1968 in the Paradise and Stirling City area (near PG above) that dumped around 4′ to 5′ of snow. It took a D-8 to open the road above Paradise. The Stirling water system was a flume that became chocked from the blowing snow and had to be dug out by hand to provide water to the residents. It collapsed a few buildings in Paradise.

  3. Alexander K says:

    Hi, E.M.
    Here in New Zealand, unlike the cold Northern Hemisphere, we are at the tail end of a very warm, dry and very humid Summer with a few ex-tropical cyclones doing a fair bit of damage in the South Island and the lower North Island as they made landfall. Our recent weather is the result of elevated temps in the neighbouring Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean from the departing El Nino. Those of us that have been around for a few years see nothing unusual in the weather, but various folk of an alarmist bent are telling us our recent weather patterns are ‘unprecedented!’, of course.
    Our new government, which is a coalition including the batty Green Party, are muttering dark things about ‘decarbonising’ our economy and the urgent need to pay more Gelt to the UN to ‘fix the climate’. I envy you your current POTUS!

  4. p.g.sharrow says:

    Batty Watermelon Ecoloons Have to destroy civilization to save the world from those evil Humans. It is the religious cult dogma that they have been indoctrinated in, Brainwashed to mouth just as Jesus shouters spout biblical page and verse as the answer to every question.
    No different then the old testament books about god punishing wicked humans by striking them with natural disasters.

  5. philjourdan says:

    Many places get a lot of snow (see Buffalo a couple of years back). What they do not also get is the wind! At least not at the strength that seems prevalent in the western range. I have been over the lower range in a snow storm. But the snow was not the big deal. The wind was.

  6. E.M.Smith says:


    Back about 1975? I was skiing Heavenly Valley. It was mid-late afternoon and a storm was moving in. Not a big one, really. I was just loaded onto the chair for the highest run and the wind started up. About lift 2 poles from the top, the chair was swinging to the side in gusts and they would only move up slope between gusts. I barely got unloaded and noticed the person in the chair behind me was the last one. They had stopped loading due to wind worries.

    I was slow to get ready and that guy took off down the mountain. I proceeded in good time. The wind was raising blowing snow off the ground and it was variable white-out from about my knees or waist down. Small flurries were above me to the sky.

    Be cautious? Something about rising bone chilling wind prompted me to “go for it” down the mountain. So I went for it. The top run was largely moguls carved by good skiers (so spaced right – unlike now when snowboarders make the timing and shape wrong). I’d skied it a few times that day and thought I remembered it.

    After the first slow turn or two I was up to speed.

    It was both the first, and last, time I was entirely “One With The Mountain”. I could not see my feet, nor the bumps, but I was clipping the top of each mogul “just right” in something of a controlled plummet down the mountain. It felt of perfection and grace. Half flying, half carving.

    Then I wiped out on a misplaced turn ;-) But I’d had my Magic Moment.

    After about 1000 ft of vertical drop the visibility improved and I was seeing the contours of the hill. Still skiing well, I made it the rest of the way down at good speed and without further falls. That was the end of skiing for that day.

    I was the last person down the highest peak with the lifts closed, floating on the wind in a foaming sea of wind blown snow, knowing the mountain and touching the face of it only at the right part of the bumps. Magical.

    Don’t know what the wind speed was, but it was enough to shut down the venue. It was only about 1/2 hour to normal close time anyway, and being already well worked / worn out, I was happy to call it a day. A magical day born of the Sierra Winds…

  7. philjourdan says:

    E.M. – I have only been skiing once in my life (but I made it count – it was the Swiss Alps). But I have had those “magic moments” in other venues. They are more addictive than the worst opioid. And more elusive than big foot. I hope it did not ruin your future skiing, but I suspect it made the future experiences anti-climatic.

  8. E.M.Smith says:

    No, no ruin. I actually had two episodes in a row divided by a fall. It was magical.

    In subsequent skiing, I’d ski about as well, and the “rush” would come back; so I got some of the feeling without quite so much work :-) I knew I wasn’t pushing it as much ( I could see the slope / trail) but didn’t care. Something about plunging down 2000 feet of vertical drop at Squaw Vally in about 15 to 20 minutes including stops… that made it close enough ;-0

  9. catweazle666 says:

    “But I’d had my Magic Moment.”

    I used to get mine racing motorcycles, mostly off-road.

    Now. nearly half a century later, lots of bits of my anatomy remind me about them in the cold damp weather – which we get quite a lot of in the Yorkshire Dales!

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