Weather History



Among some longtime locals, the collapse of Squaw Valley’s Blyth Arena on March 29, 1983, is a legendary tale of conspiracy, mystery, and subterfuge. Even after 30 years, unsubstantiated rumors still persist that the structure, completed in 1959 for the 1960 Winter Olympics, was purposely destroyed to expand parking at the famed resort.

Analysis by engineers and Squaw Valley management determined the likely cause to be inadequate engineering combined with heavy snow buildup during the big winter of 1983. These claims, however, have done little to assuage those who still think dynamite brought the building down. 

When Alex Cushing, owner of the relatively primitive Squaw Valley ski area, managed to land the 1960 Winter Olympics in the spring of 1955, plans for building the required infrastructure got underway in earnest. It was a huge undertaking with a $16 million price tag.

As part of Alex Cushing’s pitch to land the 1960 Winter Games, he promised that the United States would build a brand new Olympic Village from scratch, which pleased many non-European delegates during this Cold War period.

One of the key structures for the VIII Olympic Winter Games was the Blyth Memorial Arena. Easily accessible by both spectators and athletes, the arena was a modern and uniquely engineered structure that had won first place over 600 other entries in the 1958 Progressive Architecture Design Award for recreational facilities.

Blyth Arena was enclosed on three sides with the south side open. The building was designed similar to a suspension bridge with a span of about 100 yards. There were 16 steel support columns (six on each end of the arena) that held up the roof, but no true support columns within the perimeter of the arena. The roof beams were a clear span from the ridge to the side walls and abutments. Cables anchored to concrete blocks were attached to the top center of each beam, so the dead weight of the blocks counterbalanced the roof load.

Blyth Arena was still under construction during the February 1959 North American Championship winter sports competition, which was billed as a “dry run” for athletes who hoped to compete in the upcoming 1960 Olympics.

The west and east sections of the roof were actually separate structures capable of flexing independently under the weight of snow. The arena could seat up to 9,000 spectators plus room for 2,500 people standing, and provided a 360 degree unobstructed view of the ice rink.

Blyth Arena had already withstood some heavy hitting winters such as 1969 and 1982, but the 1983 season was a monster with rapid-fire storms. It still ranks as one of the worst in California history. (See Nugget #257)

Unlike most buildings in snow country, which are beefed up structurally to passively carry anticipated snow loads, Blyth was designed with an active system to make the roof shed snow. The roof itself consisted of galvanized metal with the lower section heated so that snow at the bottom would constantly slide off into concrete troughs at the west and east ends of the building. That allowed snow on the upper portion of the roof to also slide to the bottom rim.

Heat was produced by the huge refrigeration compressor that kept the ice rink artificially frozen. In the years following the Winter Games, however, the compressor was replaced with a smaller, more energy efficient unit supplemented by oil-fired boilers.

Note lack of snow on Blyth Arena roof when snow-shedding system was working properly in 1960. Courtesy Bill Briner, Squaw Valley’s official photographer during the Olympics.

During the 1970s, complaints that the roof leaked were sent to the U.S. Forest Service which had assumed ownership of the building after the 1960 Games. Instead of simply caulking the cable-related openings so that the building’s active snow-load management system could continue to function properly, the Forest Service coated the entire roof with fiberglass waterproofing. Once that was done, snow no longer slid off the roof as designed.   

During the summer of 1982, the Forest Service surrendered ownership of Blyth Arena when Congress passed legislation to liquidate the federal holdings in Squaw Valley. Subsequently the former Olympic Village (present-day Olympic Village Inn) was sold to a developer and Blyth was purchased by Squaw Valley Ski Corporation.

After Squaw bought Blyth, Peter Bansen, a Ski Corp employee, volunteer fireman, and former assistant manager of the rink, took over running the facility.

By late December 1982, deep accumulations on the roof of Blyth threatened the structure. To reduce the load, Ski Corp brought in snow cats to plow the roof; snow depths ranged from four to eight feet. This winter was far from done, however, and heavy wet snow continued to pile up in the Tahoe Sierra. Frequent storm days drove skiers off the mountain and onto the protected ice rink making for handsome profits.

The classic ski movie “Hot Dog” was being filmed at Squaw during the winter of ’83. The production company was using portions of the Blyth facility for storing props and equipment. Many Squaw Valley and North Shore locals were cast as extras in this flick.

On March 29, 1983, Blyth Arena was booked with a Tiny Tots skating session in the morning, public skating in the afternoon and broomball games in between. Peter Bansen went to work at 6 a.m. that morning, fired up the compressors and picked up the receipts from the previous evening.

To this day Bansen doesn’t know why, but as he walked on the rink’s ice surface he looked up at the roof. Two of the huge, steel box beams that supported the roof were bending at just about the middle of their span. Deeply concerned, Bansen met with Ski Corp’s General Manager Jimmy Mott and asked him to come down to the rink to check out the situation. After looking at the Blyth support beams, Mott told Bansen “I don’t know what I’m looking at – just do whatever you think is best.”

Bansen wasn’t sure if a roof failure was imminent or even likely, but he decided to err on the side of caution. He closed the arena for the day. He changed the answering machine message, called all employees and told them not to come in, and when the “Hot Dog” production crew arrived he killed the electricity and told them there was a power failure. To be sure that none of his staff entered the building he changed the locks. When he left, he believed that the facility was empty.

Once outside, he inspected the building and noticed that the lower cables that supported the two distorted beams were starting to fail. As each individual wire in the woven cable snapped, it generated a chilling, flat twang. Bizarrely, the roof didn’t appear to have too much snow on it, except for a drift in the middle that extended from the edge of the roof almost to the ridge. 

Rink manager Pete Bansen was walking across the parking lot when a huge portion of the roof collapsed with a loud boom and billowing cloud of dust. Despite all of Bansen’s precautions, Squaw Valley employee John Moors had entered the building to work on a special project. A large chunk of snow trapped him inside the building for a few minutes, but luckily he escaped unscathed and there were no injuries or fatalities

A forensic engineering report released in 1987 pointed out that the arena was structurally under-designed for snow loads at that location. In 1977 a group of consultants had agreed that the structure was in good shape, but recommended additional support to bring the building up to code. Money was spent on improvements, but nothing was done to increase the load capacity.

The collapse of Blyth Arena left a gaping hole in our collective memories of all the historic events that occurred there, including the U.S. hockey team’s miraculous 1960 victory over the Gold Medal-defending Russians.  

Until its collapse, Blyth Arena had been very popular with locals and visitors alike who enjoyed the year ‘round skating there. Figure skating exhibitions, youth hockey and broomball leagues brought in thousands of people every year.      

Blyth Memorial Arena was a conspicuous landmark and epicenter for Olympic competition during those glorious Winter Games at Squaw Valley.

Special thanks to Pete Bansen for sharing his comprehensive overview of the Blyth Arena history and collapse.

Sign up >> to get your FREE Tahoe Nuggets!




































Weather History



Over-snow vehicles are ubiquitous today in Tahoe’s mountain country. They range from high powered “sleds” as modern snowmobiles are commonly called, that scream up the steepest slopes to the super expensive and sophisticated snow cats that can level moguls and groom a resort’s snow surface into ribbons of smooth corduroy.

Outfitted with specially designed implements, modern snow cats enable operators to trick out perfectly formed half pipes and other artificial terrain features popular with snowboarders and skiers. Improving technology for these rigs has been a boon for both backcountry power-sports enthusiasts and downhill skiers and riders looking for a smooth level surface on the hill.

Modern snow-cats and snow groomers are loaded with advanced technology and can have price tags north of $250,000.

The first mechanical over-snow vehicle was invented by Virgil D. White of New Hampshire in 1913. Over the course of nine years he modified a Model T Ford automobile, substituting runners or skis for the front wheels. Another set of rear wheels were added and traction belts installed to provide additional grip on the snow.

The traction belt consisted of a series of metal plates joined together by steel links. The outer plates were cleated for traction and side-slipping protection and the inside plates were curved to fit over the tires and act as track guides. The steering runners were fitted with keels to facilitate turning and prevent slide-slipping. White’s “Snowmobile Attachment” invention worked reasonably well, but it never reached production.

White’s “snow-mobile” adaptation to winter travel was still being used in the early 1940s as depicted in this photo of a car on Highway 40 near Donner Pass. Note skis on the front in place of tires and traction belts on the drive wheels.

The first commercially successful snowmobile was designed and built by Carl Eliason in northern Wisconsin in 1924. Eliason, an auto mechanic, steam engineer, blacksmith and general store owner, struggled with a foot deformity and could not ski or snowshoe into the forest to hunt, fish, and trap with his friends. To make up for his disability, Eliason used his mechanical knowledge and old fashioned Yankee ingenuity.

Working in his shop, Eliason built a small over-snow vehicle using various automobile and bicycle parts, powered by a 2.5 horsepower, liguid-cooled outboard boat engine. This primitive motorized toboggan utilized four snow skis to glide on and a cleated conveyor belt webbing to provide floatation and propulsion. The driver steered by a rope attached to two short skis mounted under the front of the rig.

The Eliason Motor Toboggan was patented in 1927 and sold to hunters, fishermen and trappers. Over time the prototype unit was improved upon and within a few years certain models of the machine could seat up to four passengers and reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.     

Truckee resident James McIver, Jr. was exactly the kind of man a pioneer mountain community like Truckee, California needed in the early days. An expert horseshoer, dairyman, dynamite technician, and engine mechanic—McIver was a man of many talents.

In the early 1930s he built one of the first snowmobiles; a bulky machine built from a kit that adapted a Fordson Tractor power plant and drive for traveling through snow. Unlike Eliason’s nimble motor toboggan, McIver’s “Snow Devil” utilized two long rotating cylinders with raised screw threads welded to their surface. The two rotors were chain-driven to rotate and literally screw their way through snow.

McIver’s rig could travel up to 5 miles per hour and haul supplies and passengers on the sled it pulled behind. This rugged, reliable vehicle was too slow to travel very long distances, but one year Jim and Constable Tom Dolly used it to deliver mail regularly from Truckee to Hobart Mills five miles away. During the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver, Canada, a transportation movie in the California Exhibit showed Jim and his snow devil crossing a frozen Donner Lake.

FRONT VIEW: This photograph, taken by Judge Vernon of Tahoe City, shows the Snow Devil pulling a sled with passengers, and Jim McIver on the hood. Mechanic Glenn Coffy is driving. Coffy owned an automobile repair garage in Truckee.

REAR VIEW: Note cyclinder drive chain on left hand side of Snow Devil. McIver’s original snowmobile is on display at the Heidrick Agricultural History Museum in Woodland, California, where they have a collection of antique tractors and trucks. 

Snowmobiles served a purpose, but their small size and exposure to the winter elements limited its function. Inventors and innovators realized that there was a market for a more substantial over-snow vehicle, such as one that could carry utility repair crews into the mountains or troops into war. One of the first successful innovators was Emmitt Tucker.

Tucker was born in a log cabin near snowy Grants Pass, Oregon, in 1892, and even at a young age he began dreaming of a vehicle that could travel through deep, soft snow. In the mid-1920s he moved to southern California where he continued working on his idea of an over-snow tractor. Similar to McIver’s corkscrew-powered snow devil, Tucker built several spiral driven machines that also worked on a screw principle to move though snow.

Dissatisfied with the machine’s performance, he searched for a better system. By the late 1930s, he developed the first Tucker Sno-Cat using a steel track that rotated around a rear-mounted pontoon. For balance on his first unit he installed three skis, one up front and two in the rear. To better position his R&D, in 1942 he moved to Grass Valley, California, just below the Sierra snow belt. He set up a production line and was able to sell about 70 of his prototype Model 222. Some of his first customers were the railroads, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

While modern Tucker Sno-cats utilize 4 sets of tracks, a few experimental units and early production models used 2 sets as seen here in the 1950s. 

In 1943, the U.S. Weather Bureau assigned Dr. Robert W. Gerdel to work with Dr. James E. Church from the University of Nevada-Reno who had started a snow surveying system in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Dr. Gerdel was then authorized to establish a snow laboratory at Soda Springs near Donner Pass where scientists could study snowpack hydrology and snow physics.

This M-7 model was the first snow cat used on snow surveys at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory near Donner Pass, circa 1945.

It was the perfect location for Emmitt Tucker to test his new invention and the scientists at the Snow Lab were more than happy to put Tucker’s Sno-Cats through their paces. Soon the U.S. government and military were testing snow tractor technology across the country, and the Tucker Sno-Cat would later become famous around the world.  

Hydrologists studying Sierra snowpack in 1948. Note that their M-7 snow cat is hauling lots of equipment. Before these over-snow vehicles were introduced, all gages and equipment had to be carried by men on skis or snowshoes. Castle Peak near Donner Pass in background. 

The United States military started working on troop carriers early in World War II when strategists were planning a winter invasion of Norway. The M-7 model shown above was an early prototype.

This Canadian high-speed troop carrier is model CL-61, AKA the “Rat.” Developed by Canadair, it had articulated steering and full power through rear take-off to all four drive belts, circa 1955. 

Over the past six decades, snow tractor and snowmobile development has produced vehicles that barely resemble these earliest prototypes, but the mechanical concepts for today’s rigs are primarily based on the work of those early dreamers of mechanized transportation.  

This 1957 Kristi Ber-Kat model rear engine speedster reminds me something from a Jetson’s cartoon. There were only 7 made between 1955 & 1957.

This beauty is a Bombardier-designed “School Bus” during testing by the California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric for power line patrol at Soda Springs near Donner Pass, circa 1951.

Propeller-driven vehicles like this colorful Indian Air Snow Sled were good for travel in open untimbered or sparsely timbered regions such as the upper Midwest. Powered by an airplane engine, they are fast but ill-suited to either steep slopes or densely forested areas.

Air-propeller sled zipping along in dry Colorado powder. This type of vehicle performed poorly in deep Sierra Cement. Note uncaged prop behind driver.

*Special thanks to Dr. Robert Gerdel’s son Chuck who has shared many photographs from his father’s collection with me over the years.




Weather History



This winter started off at a blistering pace precipitation-wise, but then after the Christmas holidays the spigot turned off and we just set a new all-time record for the least amount of precipitation for the first two months in the calendar year. 

Average precipitation for the months of January and February—normally two of the wettest months of the year with a combined average of more than 17 inches of water—was just 2.2 inches. At Tahoe City, which averages 11 inches for the two months, less than one inch of precipitation fell in the bucket. Reno also set a new dryness record for the two months with little more than a tenth of an inch.

At first the 2013 water year was off to an epic start with double average rain and snow, similar to the top 10 winter of 2011. But neither could keep up with the elevated precipitation trajectory set by the winter of 1983. That monster season is still the overall wettest in Sierra history and the benchmark by which others are measured.

Thirty years ago the West endured one of the most brutal winters in the annals of Sierra weather. Nearly 67 feet of snow fell at Donner Pass in 1983, the sixth greatest all time total for that location since 1878. The incessant storm activity and heavy snowfall took its toll on local residents and businesses, as well as visitors looking to ski some of the deepest powder in decades.

In 1983 potent storms arrived in October and persisted until early May with only short reprieves. Heavy snow buried the mountains, torrential rain lashed the lowlands and 25-foot waves pounded the coast from Fort Bragg to San Diego.

The big winter of ‘83 was not a complete surprise. An unusually strong El Niño event in the Pacific Ocean was adding more juice to the jet stream and climatologists warned of increased potential for a wet winter. A persistent, deep low pressure system in the Gulf of Alaska combined with an intensified high pressure dome in the central Pacific to squeeze the jet stream and effectively double the speed of the westerly flow of air across the ocean.

Fast moving storm systems embedded in the jet stream were fueled by released energy from exceptionally warm sea water as they raced toward the West Coast. Depending on your perspective, it was either a recipe for disaster or a powder hound’s ultimate fantasy.

The Storm King wasted no time in fulfilling the prophecies for a heavy season. As a harbinger of things to come, rare September snowfall hit the mountains. Enough, in fact, that twice that month CalTrans was forced to require tire chains on Interstate 80 and other local roadways.

In late October, activity picked up again as a strong flow of moist, subtropical air from near Hawaii inundated the Sierra with heavy rain and high elevation snow. More than 10 inches of rain soaked Blue Canyon that month, more than double its October average. The jet stream soon shifted, however, and a week later the first in a series of cold storms from the Gulf of Alaska slammed the West Coast.

Southern Pacific crews check the lead engine in Truckee after clearing track in 1983.

This relentless stream of powerful weather systems buried the Truckee-Tahoe region. Most resort operators had never seen anything like it. And to top off November, the last storm was a wild one, dumping four feet of snow in downtown Truckee which paralyzed traffic and closed schools for two days.

Eastbound train coming through the Donner Pass tunnel and snowshed system. In the mid-1990s this portion of track was abandoned and the rails removed. Today hikers and mountain bikers explore it during the summer months.

Alpine Meadows Ski Resort picked up 87 inches of snow that month, which got the ski season off to a great start. By Dec. 1, more than 6 feet of snow covered the ground at Norden, compared to an average of 11 inches for that time of year.

After that barrage there was a three week lull between storms, typical for December or January in the Sierra. And then, just before the economically important Christmas-New Year’s holiday period, the most intense storms so far roared in with damaging winds and 10 feet of new snow. Fierce winds associated with this dynamic weather system exceeded 90-mph at Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County.  The Golden Gate Bridge was closed for only the third time ever.

Southern Pacific cook stands on 15-foot high snow measuring stake near Donner Pass. That’s a solid snowpack if he can walk on it without skis or snow shoes.

In the mountains, Donner Pass received another 7 feet of snow and the snowpack rose to a solid 11 feet deep. Despite all the holiday traffic, CalTrans shut down westbound Interstate 80 for two full days. Power lines were ripped down by the tempest and communities in Truckee and Lake Tahoe went dark. Some customers in the Truckee area were without electricity for 13 days while temperatures plummeted to 7 degrees below zero.

Southern Pacific telegrapher’s cabin buried near Donner Pass in March 1983.

By New Year’s Day mountain highways were clear for everyone to enjoy some of the best holiday skiing in memory. Alpine Meadows reported a base of 10 to 15 feet while Sugar Bowl boasted 12 to 18 feet of white gold. A strong ridge of high pressure dominated for the first half of January, blocking the Pacific storm track. Sunny days and warmer temperatures gave locals hope that the destructive storms had abated.

The 3-story Soda Springs Hotel remained open during the 1983 winter despite overwhelming snowfall.

But on Jan. 21, 1983, another juiced up Pacific storm barreled onshore, pounding California with heavy rain and snow, high winds, and massive waves along the coast. The surfing town of Santa Cruz was inundated with an incredible 25 inches of rain in 36 hours and up to 10 feet of new snow immobilized Lake Tahoe. By early February, the snowpack at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort had reached 26 feet deep.

Southern Pacific crews shoveling the roof of a collapsed building next to the concrete train snowshed.

Storms in February, March and April continued to batter California with rain, wind and snow. The statewide precipitation averaged 200% of normal in February and 300% in March. Around the first of March another huge cyclone dumped  7 more feet of snow on Donner Pass.

In Truckee and Lake Tahoe, where residents were longing for sunshine, it snowed every day from April 18-30, including 40 inches on the last weekend of the month. Snow depths at Soda Springs (shown here in April) exceeded 17 feet; some of the deepest snow since World War II.

In terms of precipitation amounts, runoff volumes and the geographical extent of winter flood damage, 1983 is unparalleled in modern history. The severe weather killed 36 people, injured 481, and caused $1.2 billion in economic losses in California.

In late August 1983 my brother Tom and I took the tram up to the top of Squaw Valley for some summer skiing. Note the blast holes from avalanche control exposed in the lingering snowpack.

The impact was so devastating to the Golden State and around the world that 1983 is the year that put the previously little-known word “El Niño” into the lexicon of the media and popular culture.


Old timers always refer back to the epic winter of 1952 when comparing snowdepths. In 1952, the snowpack in Tahoe City reached about 20 feet deep, an incredible event that even 1983 coudn’t beat.