Climate Change



The first significant winter storm in nearly
2 months delivered heavy rain to the Tahoe-Sierra on Thursday followed by lowering
snow levels over the past 24 hours. Considering rainfall plus the new
snow’s liquid content, nearly 3 inches of water drenched the high country near
the Sierra Crest. Some locations on the West Slope picked up more than 5 inches or rain.

Snowfall amounts were a bit disappointing due
to the warm nature of the storm: much of the moisture fell as rain below 7,500
feet. Lake Tahoe resorts reported totals of 8 to 12 inches of new snow, with a maximum at
Heavenly Valley ski area where 2 feet fell on its upper mountain. Despite the storm, California’s snowpack is still only about 12% of normal for this time of year. 

This winter storm would normally be worth
little mention, but in an extremely dry winter like this one, the desiccated Sierra
watershed needs every drop or flake. The natural snow will enhance existing skiing
and boarding terrain already open due to snowmaking, but it is unlikely to make
much of a difference off-piste and in the trees. 

Northern California receives the bulk of its precipitation between Thanksgiving and Easter and these wet months are critical for establishing the Sierra snowpack which provides much of the Golden State’s water supply. The weather this winter has been so dry that Sacramento just set an all-time record for consecutive days with no precipitation during the rainy season — 52 days. (From Dec. 7, 2013 to Jan. 28, 2014.)


In late January 2014, the Sierra Crest has bare-bones snow cover. Looking north from Alpine Meadows ski area past Squaw Valley and towards Donner Pass.

North and east facing slopes hold snow better than west or south aspects. Depicted is Alpine Bowl at the Alpine Meadows resort. Best to stay on the groomed runs.


The 2014 Tahoe ski season has been mostly a man-made affair with pressurized snow guns saving the day. Rumors are spreading that Vail-owned Northstar-at-Tahoe has run out of water and its snowmaking operations will be limited moving forward.

Much has been made of the extremely dry nature of the 2013 calendar year as the driest in many parts of California. However, hydrologists, meteorologists, and water management agencies all use valuations based on a “water year” which better reflects the nature of California’s Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The use of a calendar year may not be consistent  with how water is measured seasonally, but it does illustrate the unprecedented lack of precipitation over the past year or two.

This infrared satellite image from 4 kilometers perfectly illustrates the stubborn high pressure ridge that has been keeping California sunny and dry for nearly 2 years now. The semi-permanent ridge normally migrates south or splits during winter months to allow weather systems into the West Coast. Note how Pacific storms ride up and over the clockwise circulation of the high and then plunge south into the heartland of the nation. This is part of the atmospheric pattern that has delivered record cold and snow to the Midwest and East Coast this winter.  

Skiers are complaining that 2014 is the worst winter in memory. Note the lack of cover away from the man-made snowmaking at Alpine Meadows from two weeks ago.

Just two years ago, however, snow conditions were even worse at Alpine Meadows at the same time of year.

Donner Ski Ranch near Donner Pass has yet to open this winter due to lack of snow cover.

Boreal Mountain Resort near Donner Pass relies heavily on snowmaking and slope grooming which has paid off handsomely this winter. Billed as the Tahoe resort closest to Sacramento, Boreal has the greatest percentage of terrain open in the Tahoe-Sierra.

It’s been bone-dry in Southern California also, but while Northern California communities are already into voluntary 20% water rationing with possible mandatory restrictions soon to come, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is at record storage throughout its whole system. Lawns there will stay green, pools full, and cars washed and shiny. The dichotomy is made possible by massive water imports from Northern California and the Colorado River. The issue has been a contentions issue between the two regions for more than a century.

UPDATE! Today (1-31-14) California announced that, due to severe drought conditions, it is halting all water deliveries through its massive State Water Project until further notice. The system supplies 25 million residents and irrigates 750,000 acres of farmland. The total cancellation is unprecedented in the State Water Project’s 54-year history. 



Tahoe Skiing Icons



When 19-year-old Wilhelm “Bill” Klein first
arrived on Donner Summit in the fall of 1936, he looked around and wondered,
“Where are the mountains?” Bill and his older brother Fred, both Austrian-born
ski instructors, didn’t see any towering mountains with summer snowfields like
they were used to.

Bill couldn’t fathom where it would be possible to ski
amongst the jagged volcanic cliffs and bulky granite features that comprise
much of the Summit’s rugged terrain. The Klein brothers were visiting
California at the invitation of Dr. Joel Hildebrand, a future Sierra Club
president and the U.S. Olympic team manager.

Austrian Bill Klein couldn’t fathom where someone could ski in the rugged terrain near Donner Pass.

Dr. Hildebrand had learned to alpine ski in
Europe and wanted to educate Americans in the new style of parallel skiing. The
Kleins had sent him a letter that outlined their teaching qualifications and
Hildebrand paid for their flight from Europe.

While he was giving Bill and
Fred a tour of the Tahoe-Sierra, Hildebrand assured the young men, “Don’t
worry about the cliffs and boulders. Come winter they’ll all be covered with
more than 10 feet of snow and the skiing will be great.”

Pacific-bred winter storms soon covered rocks, trees and nearly everything else with deep snow. Bill Klein then realized that the Tahoe-Sierra really was a skiers paradise.

The Sierra Club had just built their Clair
Tappaan Lodge at Norden near Donner Pass and Dr. Hildebrand was trying to convince the Klein
brothers to start a professional ski school there.

Noted ski historian Morten
Lund wrote, “It was California’s luck that the Kleins brought with them their
technique, their devotion to skiing, and their knowledge of ski mountaineering.
These talents were in very short supply in the United States in 1936. The
Kleins were matched by no more than 20 other men in the country—probably less.”

Southern Pacific Railroad was a big booster of California winter sports and ran frequent trains from the San Francisco Bay Area to the new Sierra ski operations. Circa 1933.

The brothers established their legendary Ski School
Klein that winter. They received free room and board along with 50 cents a
lesson. Most of their clients were visitors from San Francisco and the Bay Area
who stayed in nearby Soda Springs or at the Rainbow Tavern down the road. Affable, technically
skilled, and excited to be at the new frontier of alpine skiing, it’s no surprise that the Kleins
soon had more students than they could handle.

The Sierra Club installed a rope tow for their members in the 1930s.

By 1938 the Klein brothers had trained more
instructors to help staff their ski school and were teaching up to 150 skiers
every weekend. Bill Klein displayed a powerful, but graceful skiing style that
inspired his students to succeed.

American skiers were thrilled to get lessons from highly-trained European instructors like Bill Klein shown here.

Within the first few years, through their popular school the Kleins had taught parallel skiing to thousands. In 1940, Bill and Fred
Klein helped organize the California Ski Instructors Association, which made
unified teaching its goal.

In 1939, Bay Area investors (including animator Walt Disney) opened the Sugar Bowl ski resort with Austrian Hannes Schroll as ski school director. The spectacular Sugar Bowl was located on the south side of Highway 40 and the transcontinental railroad, about a mile from where Bill and Fred Klein were teaching skiing. After Schroll left Sugar Bowl for other pursuits Bill Klein would take over the job.

Sugar Bowl is the “Grand Dame” of Sierra resorts and was California’s first true alpine ski area. Named for the prodigious accumulations of snow in the region, Sugar Bowl receives nearly 40 feet of snow a year, more than any other Tahoe resort.

During World War II, Bill served with the 10th
Mountain Division as a technical master sergeant in charge of the instructors
who were teaching American troops to ski. But when the time came for the 10th
to be deployed to Europe, Klein was detached from his unit. His superior
officers recognized Klein’s command of the German language and his ability to
handle men, and in 1944 he was assigned to a German prisoner of war camp in New

Among its many amenities, at its 1939 opening Sugar Bowl boasted California’s first chairlift, a single that lifted skiers nearly 1,500 feet to the top of Mt. Disney.

After the war, Fred Klein left the ski industry and started a career in
aeronautical engineering. Bill returned to the Sierra Club’s Clair Tappaan Lodge, but when
Hannes Schroll retired as Sugar Bowl ski school director Bill took over the

In 1947, a European named Dennis Wiles got a
job at Sugar Bowl working as a cook. He was a decent skier and soon asked Bill
Klein to train him as an instructor. Klein obliged and Wiles worked at Sugar
Bowl teaching skiing for several seasons.

Nearly 40 years later it turned out
that Dennis Wiles was really Georg Gaertner, a former German prisoner of war
who avoided repatriation by escaping from the New Mexico POW camp that Klein
had worked at. Klein never recognized him and later said that Gaertner had
removed the FBI’s wanted poster from the nearby Norden post office shortly after
his arrival at Sugar Bowl. Gaertner was later pardoned and wrote a book called Hitler’s Last Soldier in America.

FBI wanted poster for Georg Gaertner, a Sugar Bowl ski instructor.

Klein headed the Sugar Bowl ski school until
1957, when at the age of 40 he turned the position over to Badger Pass ski
school director Luggi Foeger who was ready to move up to a bigger mountain.

Bill ran a fashionable ski and clothing shop at Sugar Bowl until 1993, and also
a ski and sporting goods store in San Francisco, which he sold in 1987. In the
off seasons, Klein worked as a successful real estate developer in the Bay

Bill Klein sure had style, circa 1946.

Klein has been honored with many awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award by the
Professional Ski Instructors of America and the Charley Proctor Award for his
contributions to the sport by the North American Ski Journalists Association.

Bill Klein with former student and Donner Summit local Starr Walton. Starr competed for the United States in the women’s downhill during the 1964 Winter Olympics where she finished first among the Americans.

Bill Klein gave up skiing at the age of 90,
and retired with his wife Anneliese in Incline Village, Nevada. One of
America’s first and best known ski instructors, Bill died peacefully at home on
November 23, 2013 at age 96.  

Bill Klein with his wife Anneliese, circa 2009. Bill had a well-deserved reputation as a “Gentlemen’s Gentleman.”

excerpted from my award-winning book “Longboards
to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports.”