It’s almost too easy for folks to reference the Donner Party when a big blizzard roars through the Sierra Nevada Mountains putting a halt to life. For some that don’t know the area it’s the only historical connection they can make between snow and these mountains. Storms can be big in the range and with a reoccurring drought and over four years of mediocre snowpack, there has almost been a residual feeling that maybe past notorious weather instances were all just an urban legend. Then the term ‘atmospheric river’ started flowing off of forecasters tongues out of nowhere. Skiers and snowboarders brains swelled with confusion and eyes welled up with excitement.
Essentially an atmospheric river is as it sounds—a river of moisture in the sky that brings forth a lot of precipitation and if it’s cold enough that means lots of snow. For the jubilant mountain folk of California, this term has been rather obsolete because they typically happen once a decade with the last atmospheric river hitting northern California in 2005-2006.
That is until the second week of January 2017 when an atmospheric river brought a lot of moisture to the Sierras inundating the mountains with rain and snow, causing rivers to rise and flood, mudslides, avalanches, power outages, and no school for over a week. Ski resorts couldn’t manage to open with the crazy weather and with the month not even finished ski resorts had already broke snowfall records for the month. Squaw Valley reported 177 inches of snow in the first 12 days of January, breaking the 175-inch record set in 1981-1982. The resort has thus begun a new phrase for the month, deeming it JanuBURIED. Mammoth Mountain, as of January 23,, reported 241 inches, breaking the 2010-11 mark of 209 inches. Over 20 feet of snow has fallen throughout most of the Sierra’s in this month alone. It’s interesting to note that the U.S. record of snowfall for one month (390 inches) took place in Tamarack, California in January of 1911. It’s unlikely we’ll see that number in 2017, but at this rate, who knows.
While the snow piles up, shovels continue moving snow, and inevitably, backs start hurting. So one has to wonder how we coped with these hefty storms in the past. Without snowplows, moving around would be a challenge and understanding weather patterns from more than just reading the horizon was nearly non-existent. In the winter of 1846-1847, the Donner Party was enveloped by storms that started when the group passed through at the end of October. Not super uncommon for early storms but the storms kept hammering and the group would perish en route. Then I heard about the winter of 1951-1952, and the aggressive series of storms that shut down US-40 (at the time, the main highway that ran through the Sierras) for a 30-day period and trapped one of the most luxurious and powerful streamliner trains that the Southern Pacific Railroad had to offer, affectionately named the City of San Francisco.
On January 13th, 222 passengers en route from Chicago to San Francisco were caught in a snow slide and stalled for three days while passing over Donner Pass. The region received nearly 13 feet of snow throughout this week and relief would arrive with the storm break on the 16th. Even amidst the extreme cold temperatures everyone survived, and eventually arrived at their final destination.
This event and clip helped to accentuate the mountain life perspective especially given the past nostalgia that it portrays. The reality is that Mother Nature can be relentless; storms can be impactful leaving behind the remnants and memories of her sometimes brutal force. Yet as humans we learn to adapt and the storms play to both are strengths and weaknesses. For some folks in California this month may have been a nightmare, but in the big picture, it’s not as big as some storms. And we’re better prepared (mostly).
And for the silly humans that like to stick plank(s) on their legs and ski and snowboard down hills of white, it has been a dream in the making.