RENO, Nev. (AP) – No one really knows how much snow fell on the infamous Donner Party when pioneers were trapped in the Sierra Nevada for months and dozens died near Lake Tahoe during the winter of 1846-47.
But that season has now entered the history books as the second snowiest in the 77 years of recording at the Central Sierra Snow Lab — more than 56.4 feet (677 inches, 17.2 meters) and no end in sight.
And there’s still a chance it could surpass the record of 67.7 feet (812 inches, 20.6 meters), set in 1951-52 when more than 200 passengers on a luxury Chicago-to-San Francisco train took three Stuck for days near Donner Pass west of Truckee, California.
Over the weekend, the “winter that just won’t end,” as the Reno National Weather Service put it, surpassed the previous No. 2 record of 55.9 feet (671 inches, 17 meters) set in 1982-83. This was the second and most remembered of consecutive blizzard buster seasons for an avalanche that killed seven people at a Tahoe ski resort on March 31, 1982.
Since December, a parade of atmospheric storms has dumped so much snow on the Sierra that Tahoe’s ski resorts have had to close several times.
The final day of the Nevada High School State Ski Championships has been canceled. Roofs collapsed under the weight of snow and schools were closed for days. Interstate 80 has been closed multiple times between Reno and Sacramento.
“It started early and just seems to keep going,” said Eric Sage, 45, of Sparks, who has shoveled his way through many great winters in Truckee but can’t remember any like this one. “Stacked up, big storm after big storm after big storm – wham, wham, wham.”
The official record holder is UC-Berkeley’s Central Sierra Snow Lab, established in 1946 in Soda Springs, California, northwest of Lake Tahoe.
“We’ve seen bigger storms and years with higher snow-water equivalents in other years … but the relentlessness of this season makes it probably the most unique,” said Andrew Schwartz, the lab’s manager and principal scientist.
More snow is forecast for the next 10 days, but no one knows what spring will bring.
“Historically, some of our big seasons have been active through late spring,” said Tim Bardsley, the National Weather Service’s senior hydrologist in Reno.
The official winter season coincides with the water year and begins on October 1st and ends on the following September 30th. Snow sometimes falls well into June in the Sierra.
To beat the 1951-52 record this winter would need another 135 inches (343 cm) to fall – unlikely but not impossible.
“There’s basically nothing that would suggest just because we’ve been so active that we’d go the other way,” Bardsley said. “I would almost say that quite the opposite is the case.”
Several of the snowiest winters recorded at least a quarter of their entire seasons after March 15. Now the fourth snowiest winter of 2010-11 received 225 inches (572 cm) of its 643 inches (1,635 cm) total — or 35% — after March 15.
The snow lab has records dating back to 1880 based on Southern Pacific Railroad measurements. These unofficial measurements, taken near where the train ran aground in 1952, suggest that more snow may have fallen in 1938, and almost as much in 1880 and 1890.
The lab does not officially recognize these numbers as they come from slightly different locations and use a different methodology.
Mark McLaughlin, an author of several books on the history and weather of the Tahoe-area Sierra, accepts the railroad numbers and believes that the snow that fell on the Donner Party in 1846-47 is similar to the snow of 1951-52.
Ten major storms brought rain and snow to the mountains in the first two weeks of November 1846. The memorial at Donner Memorial State Park indicates snow depth reached 22.5 feet (6.9 meters) before some of those stranded resorted to cannibalism.
The now third-ranked 1982-83 winter followed the season when Tahoe’s deadliest avalanche struck the Alpine Valley south of Truckee. About 228 centimeters of snow fell in the four days before the disaster.
The 1960 Winter Olympics, the first televised ones, put Lake Tahoe on the map after the world got a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains surrounding the alpine lake with turquoise waters. But winter itself started slowly and Olympic officials panicked in the weeks leading up to the Games.
“There wasn’t any real snow until New Year’s Day and the Olympics were in the third week of February,” McLaughlin said. “Then the storm door opened and it snowed and snowed and snowed. There was so much snow that no one could practice downhill skiing on the mountain.”
Author Peggy Townsend and her husband, parents of pro skier Cody Townsend, said they were blown away by the snow piles when they arrived at their cabin in the Olympic Valley area near the base of a ski resort in Tahoe last month. They had to park at the end of the street and dig through 10 feet (3 meters) of snow.
“We’d have to dig about three or four times a day just to get to the woodpile,” Peggy Townsend said. After four days they had enough.
“When there was a gap in snow,” she recalled, “we just said, ‘We’re going to get the fuck out of there.'”
Associated Press writer Jake Bleiberg in Dallas contributed to this report.
This story corrects an earlier version to show that another 135 inches of snow (343 cm) would need to fall this winter to beat the 1951-52 record.
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