Tahoe Snowstorms



California’s version of a Pacific-bred “superstorm” is currently pounding the central and northern portions of the State with damaging wind gusts and torrential rain that’s generating urban and small stream flooding. Thousands are already without power in the San Francisco Bay Area and the strongest, most potent of three storm surges is still more than 24 hours away.

This graphic depicts jet stream position with core wind speeds exceeding 140 mph. Note wind gusts up to 80 mph in western Nevada. Driving back from Reno on Thursday, Nov. 29, I observed a brush fire ripping through dry sagebrush and scrub just south of Interstate 80. 

Relatively mild temperatures are keeping snow levels generally above 7,000 feet meaning mostly rain at Lake Tahoe beaches with heavy wet snow slowly piling up on the upper slopes. Even with its higher base elevation, Kirkwood Ski Resort has picked up less than two feet on the upper mountain so far due to the slushy, condensed nature of the snow.

With the arrival of the final moisture surge late Saturday through Sunday, freezing levels are projected to rise well above 8,000 feet limiting snowfall accumulations at Lake Tahoe resorts.

Projected storm total precipitation amounts approach 15 inches near Lake Tahoe.

As the first wave of moisture moved into Northern California two days ago I decided to check out the forecast for the upper elevations of Mt. Shasta where the precipitation will be all snow. According to the National Weather Service, anticipated total snowfall accumulation at 12,366 feet is at least 18 feet, with more possible. If measureable snow falls every 24 hours (which seems likely), it can be considered a single storm event that may set a new Sierra record.

California’s current single snowstorm record is 189 inches (15.75 feet) measured over 7 days at the Mt. Shasta Ski Bowl in February 1959. Only wrinkle in this formula is that the Mt. Shasta Ski Bowl (where they’ll measure the snow) is much lower than 12,000 feet and the snow will lose a lot of its loft which means lesser totals. Despite the rain in Tahoe, with any luck we’ll set a new state snowfall record at Mt. Shasta this week!

Daily measured totals during Mt. Shasta’s 1959 record single snowstorm event.

This storm series will continue to make headlines over the next 48 hours, but one thing is clear. The timing of this rough weather couldn’t be better. A wet and warm system like this one is the principle culprit that causes virtually all the wintertime floods that strike California and western Nevada.

In 2009, scientists spent time and money to see what would happen if California picked up 8 feet of rain in 3 weeks. The media dubbed the resulting catastrophic flood event “Frankenstorm.” You have to wonder if this is an example of over-the-top newspaper hyperbole or climate change fear mongering?

Known as a wet mantle event, heavy precipitation coupled with high freezing levels pumps a huge amount of water into regional streams and rivers, sometimes even overwhelming reservoir capacity.

Deeper into the winter season the lower elevation snowpack is usually well-established and susceptible  to rapid melting, which adds water from previous cold storms to a drainage system already challenged by the typical 10 to 20 inches of rain that accompany these “atmospheric river” events on the West Coast. Several locations in the North State have reported more than 7 inches of rain in the past 24 hours alone.

Infrared satellite image from 4 kilometers above surface shows deep moisture plume surging into northern California on November 30.

These semi-tropical surges of heavy precipitation are California’s version of a hurricane with similar impacts over a large swath of territory. This time around, however, there is no low elevation snowpack to melt and regional reservoirs (including Tahoe) are all boasting hefty storage capacity. And with much of Western Nevada and Eastern California suffering serious drought conditions any spillover will help alleviate dry soil conditions there.

Even with the good news about available storage capacity, the Truckee River watershed is getting hammered and portions of the Truckee are under a flood warning, particularly between Squaw Creek and Truckee, as well as the lower stretches at Farad, Reno and Vista. The highest flows will be on Sunday (Dec. 2) due to saturated soil and continuing heavy rain.

Downstream of Squaw Valley, the Truckee River is projected to exceed flood stage by nearly 4 feet with a flow of 7,800 cubic feet per second. At Farad, near the California-Nevada border, the Truckee River is expected to hit 12,600 cfs, which is about one foot above flood stage. Moderate damage is possible to low-lying trailer and public parks, as well as some roads and bridges.

A wet mantle flood around New Year’s Day 1997 caused major damage to bridges on the upper portions of the Truckee River. Generally most damage occurs on the lower reaches of the river near Reno. Flood warnings are currently posted for this stretch of river on Sunday.

This weekend the NWS is anticipating hydrological impacts similar to Truckee River floods that occurred in 1955, 1963 and 1964. Check out my overview of historic Nevada floods.

To read about the February 1963 flood event, check out Tahoe Nugget #227:

I’m currently developing a profile about how authorities handled the Truckee River Christmas flood of December 1964 to be published in an upcoming Nugget. Stay tuned and stay dry.








Tahoe Characters



Near South Lake Tahoe is a spectacular, glacially-carved basin known as Desolation Wilderness. Towering above the shattered cliffs and glacial debris looms Dick’s Peak, elevation 9,974 feet, standing stoic and solitary in this region of rugged extremes. The obdurate mountain is a fitting monument to Captain Richard Barter, a man whose remarkable feats of survival have withstood the test of time.

Desolation Wilderness features scenic hiking, camping, rock climbing, and swimming in the summer, and stellar snowshoeing and backcountry skiing during the winter

Dick Barter was a retired British sea captain who shipped into Tahoe when he was hired by the son of commercial stager Ben Holladay. In 1862, Holladay had pre-empted the unoccupied land surrounding picturesque Emerald Bay and built a two-story, five-room villa. The following year Holladay hired Captain Barter to take care of the estate during the harsh winter months.

The decision to employ an old sea captain to protect a remote mountain hideaway made good sense. When deep snow blanketed the Sierra, the only way in or out of the bay was by boat. To survive the winter there a caretaker had to be seaworthy. Captain Barter was definitely the right man for the job.

Mountain glaciers carved out Emerald Bay (right) and the smaller Cascade Lake basin just to the south. The Emerald Bay glacier managed to push through its terminal moraine to reach the Tahoe Basin. Current water levels allow for boat access. The road on the ridgeline of the lateral moraine between the two is not for the faint of heart!

Barter’s solitary life at Emerald Bay was full of hardship and danger, but for 10 years the captain lived the life of a recluse at Holladay’s isolated cottage.

Despite his eccentric lifestyle, the venerable sailor gained a reputation as an easy going old salt that enjoyed the taste of bourbon whiskey. If Barter craved a drink and conversation during the snowbound winter, he sailed for it. It was 16 miles from Emerald Bay to the saloon in Tahoe City, and a risky voyage in a small boat. But neither distance nor danger deterred Barter’s efforts to reach his favorite watering hole.

Captain Barter was a fatalist who expected death to come by drowning, avalanche, or grizzly bear attack.

In January 1870, the old captain almost met his maker when a sudden gust upset his boat two miles off Sugar Pine point. He struggled frantically in the cold water, but finally succeeded in getting back into the boat. The weather was intensely cold and deadly hypothermia was setting in, but Barter refused to give up. After what seemed like an eternity in the numbing water, the 63-year-old skipper climbed back into the little dinghy and furiously rowed against the biting wind shouting, “Richard Barter never surrenders! Richard Barter never surrenders!” The old captain’s grim determination saved his life.

The half-frozen sailor rowed into Emerald Bay at daybreak, but his ordeal was far from over: Months later he recounted his story to a visiting journalist from a San Francisco newspaper: “And so, after many hours’ labor, I reached my landing, crawled into the house, and for 11 weeks I never left; ‘cause you see, my feet and one hand was froze and I couldn’t get out.”

Ben Holladay’s cottage would have been located on the shoreline in the foreground.

Since Barter couldn’t walk on his feet he tied a small cushion to each knee in order to get around. Despite his serious injuries, the old captain wasn’t idle. During his three month solitary confinement Barter meticulously crafted a seven-foot miniature model of a man-o’-war steam frigate. He showed it to the reporter who noted that it was a marvel of workmanship.

Captain Barter and his dog next to the model ship. “Every rope, block, and sail was in its proper place; a wind-up clock hidden in the hold drove the running gear and propeller. On the deck of the wooden vessel stood 225 crew members, officers, marines, boatswains, and sailors, all hand-carved from small pieces of wood.”

It was an amazing feat, but the self-reliant recluse had also built and rigged a full-sized boat. No small replica, the ship weighed four tons, which he launched by himself. Not a single person had visited him throughout the whole winter and spring.

After examining the skipper’s work and appreciating the physical challenge their construction required, the journalist was a bit skeptical that the old sailor had really experienced that near-fatal ordeal the previous winter.

To prove his case, Barter limped over to a dressing table in Holladay’s cottage and removed a small jewelry box. He lifted the lid and handed it to the newspaperman exclaiming proudly: “Them’s my toes!” Inside the little box were several of the captain’s frostbitten toes that he had amputated and then salted to preserve as a memento of his fearful night on Lake Tahoe. 

Beginning of the newspaper article where the journalist describes meeting Captain Barter and listening to his amazing tale of survival.San Francisco Daily Alta California, August 22, 1870. 

Barter knew that his luck on Tahoe wouldn’t last forever. On Fannette Island he chipped out a burial crypt in the granite, installed a coffin, and erected a small wooden chapel over it as his final resting place. But he would never get the opportunity to use it.

Reluctant to die inside his employer’s cottage, Captain Barter built this small chapel so that when he was ready to die he could “just crawl inside the coffin and shut the lid.” 

Fate finally caught up with Barter in October 1873 while he was sailing back from South Lake Tahoe where he had spent the evening drinking. A sudden wind came and overturned his boat, sending him to the depths of Tahoe. Portions of the wrecked boat were salvaged off the rocks near Emerald Bay, but Captain Barter’s body was never recovered.


Fannette Island is the only island in Lake Tahoe. The tiny structure on top is not Barter’s chapel. It is a granite teahouse constructed for Laura Knight, a later owner of the Emerald Bay property. 

***This story is an excerpt from “Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 2”