What to do in a Sierra snowstorm: Bring supplies and be prepared to hunker down

Watch how strong winter storm will hit Northern California this week day by day

National Weather Service Sacramento helps you plan your week in this model's forecast timing of rain and snow this week. Light showers will begin ahead of Tuesday's system. A much stronger winter storm will hit Northern California through Friday.
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National Weather Service Sacramento helps you plan your week in this model's forecast timing of rain and snow this week. Light showers will begin ahead of Tuesday's system. A much stronger winter storm will hit Northern California through Friday.

It was getting dark in Tahoe on the first weekend of January. It was snowing and I didn’t have any of the things in the car you’re supposed to have in these situations.

Snow had closed Interstate 80, and the only other route back to Sacramento was also closed. After skiing knee-deep powder all day, I was stuck. So I drove to a bar.

The bartender mentioned a couple bed and breakfasts but suggested, given the hundreds of other people in the same situation as me, that I might be sleeping in the car.

I had no sleeping bag or blankets and the temperature was close to freezing. No shovel to dig myself out if I parked for the night and the snow kept falling. I had a couple Clif bars and about a half tank of gas.

If, like me, the calls for snow in this week’s forecast are tempting you to jump in the car and head for the hills, pause for a moment. Read this story. Listen to Dick White below.

I got lucky. After passing just one “no vacancy” sign, I stopped at Tahoma Meadows Bed and Breakfast, where I rented Moose Hollow, the last available cottage. Several drivers who stopped after me were turned away.

I soon discovered other guests at Tahoma Meadows — a collection of small lodges built for the 1960 Winter Olympics — had much more difficult journeys than mine.

Danielle Flores, 33, a stay-at-home mother from San Jose, was stuck with her three children at the Edelweiss cottage.

Flores had barely reached the cottages following a calamitous 14-hour journey a day earlier.

She told me she was driving up Highway 89 South from Highway 50 and reached the tight turns that wind over cliffs above Emerald Bay. She hit the gas coming around a corner and the two sets of chains she had had installed on her boxy SUV snapped off the tires.

She slid into the railing above the cliffs and her children, looking over the edge, yelled, “Oh my god.” She managed to move the vehicle to a soft area across the road but then couldn’t move it from the spot.

She had to pay two companies to get her out — one to tow the vehicle and another to remove the chains, which had wrapped around the axle.

After a costly trip to South Lake Tahoe, where she had new chains put on the tires, she got back on the road. The children hadn’t seen snow since 2012 and they hadn’t had the best Christmas. She wanted to make it to a nearby sled hill that had been the original destination.

She reached Tahoma Meadows at midnight. After a late start the next day, she learned the roads home were closed; she was stuck for another night. She said the whole thing cost more than $1,700.

“I’m glad that my kids and the dog had a little fun,” she said. “Hopefully we can go home.”

Dick White, the cottages’ owner of 20 years, said the roads usually close about once a year. With 110 mph winds and up to 5 feet of snow bearing down on the mountains this Wednesday, it’s looking like a second closure is about to come.

As I was driving to Alpine Meadows Ski Resort early on a Sunday morning, White was pushing his daughter to depart for college in Santa Barbara before the storm arrived.

“A lot of us are total weather junkies — like farmers,” he said. “(The storm) ended up being as strong as the possibilities.”

White said travelers should pack extra supplies in their cars and should know the Caltrans website and its phone number (1-800-427-7623) before driving into the Sierras in bad weather.

I’m new to California but not to mountains or snow. I grew up in Montana, where the school buses have built-in chain systems for the tires and would come wheeling down roads that hadn’t even been plowed yet to pick us up for school in the mornings. Dangerous mountain roads remained open even amid heavy snows.

White suggested a few possible reasons for the different handling of roads in the Sierras. Many drivers who aren’t used to snow make casual weekend trips from the Bay Area or Sacramento to the mountains that killed the Donner Party. Some of them even remove required chains once they pass checkpoints, he said.

Big trucks use the route, sometimes causing accidents when they pass one another, he said. White said he has suggested Caltrans should institute a European-style rule restricting trucks from using the fastest travel lane.

Another major factor is the sheer volume of snow that can fall in the Sierras. I never saw storms drop 5 feet of snow over one or two days when I lived in Montana, Colorado or New Mexico.

My night at Moose Hollow, surrounded by stuffed bears and stuffed moose — with a TV remote on hand in a sleigh-shaped holder — wasn’t unpleasant. But it could have been much worse. In the future, I’ll respect these storms. Maybe I’ll stay home if the forecast calls for several feet of snow. Or at least I’ll toss some supplies in the car.

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