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Tahoe residents celebrate – and dig out – from epic winter snowfall

Experience 'epic' downhill skiing in the Sierra

Randy Pench, Sacramento Bee senior photographer, took to the black diamond slopes on Friday wearing a GoPro. Experience a few of his ski runs.
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Randy Pench, Sacramento Bee senior photographer, took to the black diamond slopes on Friday wearing a GoPro. Experience a few of his ski runs.

Brian Santos felt conflicting currents of emotion Saturday after historic winter storms dumped a bounty of snow on the northern Sierra Nevada – a region dependent on winter tourism and also vulnerable to the heartache such storms can bring.

At the Truckee Donner Lodge, where Santos was working as day manager, the heat was back on. The massive frosty mound that had covered the parking lot was cleared. The place was filled with guests as Interstate 80 jammed with skiers flocking to mountain resorts for the three-day Martin Luther King Day weekend.

Yet Santos had just emerged from a few hellish days. His family was snowed in from Tuesday until Friday in their nearby Pla Vada Woodlands home. They went without electricity for four days, and trees throughout the neighborhood had toppled under the snowfall.

“On Tuesday night, there were 16 trees that went down,” Santos said. “The snow was so wet. And then the wind picked up and was snapping them like twigs.”

Now the Tahoe region is bracing for – and cautiously celebrating – more snow to come. A second significant storm system, called an “atmospheric river,” is expected to hit late Tuesday. It stands to blanket the upper Sierra and Truckee-Lake Tahoe resorts under another 2 feet of snow while also creating new perils for residents and motorists.

On Saturday, under clear skies and a picturesque backdrop of snowy peaks, drivers raced up from the Sacramento Valley and Bay Area, only to wind up in paralyzing crawls in many locations as they neared the ski areas.

Traffic was backed up over the roughly 7-mile stretch on Highway 50 between the Sierra-at-Tahoe resort and the small town of Strawberry en route to South Lake Tahoe on Saturday morning. Drivers traveling into the area on Highway 80 also faced slow commutes. Chain controls were no longer in effect Saturday, though drivers were advised to have them handy.

“We’ve got blue skies out there,” said California Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Nelson. “(There are) perfect conditions for the holiday weekend, so the traffic is pretty intense.”

Santos couldn’t help but feel torn.

“Truckee is still in an emergency,” he said. “There are people who still don’t have power. Some are trapped in their houses. And yet we still have so many people coming up – by the thousands.”

At Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows resorts, Sam Kieckhefer, spokesman for the neighboring properties, exulted Saturday. “The snow coverage we’ve gotten is phenomenal, and the amount is historic,” he said.

The 15 feet of snow that fell at Squaw accounted for the largest January snowfall in 45 years, putting the resort at two-thirds of its average annual snowfall of 450 inches.

Ski patrol officers and avalanche crews worked overtime to blast away dangerous crests and groom runs for skiers and snowboarders. Crews dug out around chairlifts to secure access to 85 percent of mountain courses at Squaw and 70 percent at Alpine Meadows, Kieckhefer said.

Reno residents Curtis and Esther Fisher, who have been skiing Sierra Nevada ranges for 40 years, showed up Saturday at the Tahoe Donner Ski Area feeling gleeful after so many years of drought, short ski seasons and often woeful conditions.

“It is nice to see that it is still possible to have an epic winter,” Curtis Fisher said.

The January snowfall has been a little too epic for Joe and Carolina de la Torre and their neighbors in the Tahoe Summit community above Truckee. The couple and their two children were out of power for 16 hours in the midst of last week’s storms and then Joe had to chainsaw a heavy tree branch that slid off their roof, fortunately not crashing through their home of 20 years.

“The old folks (in the community) say it used to be like this,” said Joe, a plumber. “The younger people have never seen this.”

He has been using a backup generator to power a snowblower in between stints shoveling. Their twin 7-year-old daughters haven’t been to school for a month, given the winter holiday break and ensuing closures prompted by snow days. “All the parents are trying to hold down the fort,” Carolina said.

In historic downtown Truckee, where parking spaces were nearly impossible to find Saturday, Siobhan Smart, owner of the Wagon Train cafe, was celebrating the snowy winter.

Smart, who lives near Truckee’s Trout Creek, was nearly washed out twice before by flooding from warm winter storms in 1997 and 2005. In recent years, she saw her town suffer from drought that crippled ski resorts and caused water shortages and economic fallout across California.

“After all these years of drought, this weather is meeting the needs of this state,” she said. “And for businesses here, it’s amazing.”

As skiers flocked to the Tahoe area to take advantage of epic snowfall, residents continued to dig out.

Staff writer Nashelly Chavez contributed to this report.

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