For a week in October it looked like Tahoe might be destined for another winter like 1846. This year, just like that infamous winter 166 years ago, a powerful three-day storm blew through just before Halloween and plastered the Sierra with snow. Old Man Winter swapped out the Halloween candy he offered this year, though. In 1846, the spooky snowstorm delivered the equivalent of poisoned apples to the doomed members of the Donner Party. Knee-deep snowdrifts on Donner Pass before November were quite a sweeter proposition in 2012.
The nearly four feet of snow that fell on the Sierra Crest Oct. 22 to 25 this year was more like your neighbor dropping a half-dozen Butterfingers and a couple Jolly Ranchers in your kid’s trick-or-treat bag. It wasn’t a record-breaking snow event, but what snow fell sure was toothsome. The storm came in windy, then left with barely a breeze, meanwhile depositing a thick layer of dense snow at ground level and a foot and a half of cold powder at surface level. This rightside-up snowpack made for ephemeral but perfect Nordic and downhill skiing conditions.
Heaping piles of snow at Squaw Valley convinced the resort to open the Searchlight chairlift for one day on Oct. 25 as a benefit for the resort’s ski team scholarship program. Hundreds of skiers took Squaw up on the rare offer and contributed a $20 donation to ride the first ski lift open in California for the season. It was the earliest Squaw had opened a chairlift since 1960. Boreal Mountain Resort followed suit and opened one chair lift accessing a couple runs packed top-to-bottom with jumps and jibs the day after Squaw.
Tahoe Donner Cross-Country Ski Center also set a new record as the Nordic ski area had its earliest opening day in the resort’s history. TDXC groomed 10 kilometers of trails and opened to passholders on Oct. 22. Tahoe Donner staff was able to keep the trails fresh for a week, thanks to a new snowmobile tow-behind Ginzu groomer. The Ginzu is a special roller and comb system that allows corduroy grooming with very little snow on the ground. Tahoe Donner intends to use this grooming process for early and late season grooming when there is not enough snow for traditional grooming machines.
“Best ever early season skiing in Tahoe,” said local ski hero Daron Rahlves about the snow he found while backcountry skiing around Sugar Bowl just after the storm cleared. Neither Sugar Bowl nor Alpine Meadows ski areas have opened any chair lifts yet, but backcountry skiers have already been flocking to these two local resorts, as the resorts allow off-season, uphill hiking on their ski runs. Up until the first week of November, coverage was indeed phenomenal within both resorts’ boundaries and beyond.
The early resort opening records can’t be denied, but memories of how deep the snow was compared to seasons past are fleeting. The 27 inch max snow depth recorded at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory on Donner Pass this October was barely half as much as the same month in 2004, when the lab recorded 50 inches — the biggest October snowfall since the lab was established in 1946. The feeling that Tahoe was in for a candy-coated start to an epic winter was also brought back to reality by the warm weather pattern that followed the snow event. Daytime temperatures in the two weeks after the storm averaged nearly 50 degrees.
“That storm laid down a fair bit of snow. We’re now at 127 percent of average for the water year,” said Central Sierra Snow Laboratory Researcher Randall Osterhuber. “But it’s no surprise that the snow has melted out on most aspects already. It’s pretty typical for temperate weather to follow a powerful storm this time of year.”
It’s true. There are even anecdotal reports from the Donner Party winter of 1846 that a couple weeks of nice weather followed the October storms. Winter came back in a big way that tragic season, but there’s no telling if the same will be true this year.
“Anything can happen, and I’m sure it will,” said Osterhuber about early season snow being a sign of a big winter ahead. “A lot of people try to make long range climate forecasts, but nobody knows how the winter will pan out. The winter of 2010 was huge, and the winter of 2011 was a drought — both these winter’s started with substantial October snow storms.”
Opening the ski season with a week of consecutive powder days was a seriously sweet Halloween treat, so let’s hope we haven’t rotted out our ski teeth just in time for another dismal winter like last year. But come snow or sun, as long as the nights stay cold, we’ll be skiing again soon, if only on man-made snow. Weather permitting, Northstar and Heavenly are slated to open Nov. 16, Squaw Valley and Kirkwood on Nov. 21, and Alpine Meadows on Dec. 7. See you on the slopes.
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