The Pacific storm that has been pummeling the West Coast is about to land a second punch. Its onslaught in California dumped record snows and record rains, measured in feet, not inches. Some ski areas dug out from deep snow while others closed due to torrential rains and wind.
Floods, mudslides, evacuations, and road closures plagued the California lowlands with a record-breaking 12 inches of rain. A mudslide on I-80 near Colfax temporarily closed the main access from Sacramento to Tahoe ski resorts Sunday Dec. 19, and southern California resorts closed with rains while ski resorts in the Sierra piled up foot after foot of snow.
So much snow fell at Mammoth Mountain that it crushed records. The storm dumped up to 15.5 feet of snow in four days, bringing Mammoth's season snowfall total to 249 inches by Tuesday morning. "That's an absurd amount of snow for December. Usually, we hit that in January or February," spokesperson Dan Hansen told OnTheSnow. "Our records go back to 1968-69 when we started tracking snowfall. This is the snowiest December, and we just came off the snowiest November."
Strong winds and minimal visibility kept much of the upper mountain lifts closed Friday through Tuesday when a window of blue sky revealed the summit. But then avalanche danger kept the upper mountain closed. "Patrol has a lot of avalanche control work to do. Anytime you put 15 feet of snow on a steep slope, you'll have trouble," Hansen said. "But the last 36 hours have had the kind of snow you want to ski." Dropping temperatures changed the consistency of the snow that came down in the storm from wet Sierra cement to light and fluffy
The depth of the snow in the base area tripled in four days to 10-to-12 feet, burying building entrances and cars. But where do you put all the snow? "Parking lot crews, plows, and groomers are working around the clock, doing as much as they can to stay ahead of it," said Hansen.
Most of the Tahoe resorts amassed 6 feet of snow in the storm, catapulting Squaw Valley USA, Alpine Meadows, and others across the 20-foot mark for total snowfall for the season. Northstar-at-Tahoe garnered more than 8 feet of snow from the storm. Many Tahoe resorts as of Tuesday morning are running more than 100 inches ahead of recent winters at this time for total snowfall.
Southern California resorts struggled in the storm. Warm temperatures and rain forced the closure of several resorts for at least three days. Mountain High, Snow Summit, Snow Valley, and Mt. Baldy suspended operations beginning Sunday while the storm pummeled them with torrential rains and high winds. The wet, warm system kept snow at bay further inland for Arizona Snowbowl and Sunrise Park; both have yet to open for the season.
On the upside, the rain recharged snowmaking reservoirs. Mountain High was able to collect more than 1.5 million gallons of water. "I can't impress upon you how much water was running off the mountain," spokesperson John McColly told us. "We're ready to start snowmaking again as soon as we can." Temperatures Monday evening, Dec. 20 dropped to around freezing and snow began falling again, but the resorts remained closed due to winds and wet conditions. "Today is light years ahead of yesterday," he added on Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 21, "and tonight's storm is expected to be big and cold." Mountain High hopes to re-open Wednesday morning, Dec. 22 with an anticipated foot or more of new snow.
The bulk of the storm bulldozed east into Utah, bringing more than 4 feet of snow to Alta and Park City. Many Colorado resorts picked up around 2 feet of snow. Fringes of the storm trailed into Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming resorts, where an avalanche in the Jackson Hole sidecountry injured a ski patroller in a slide that carried him 1,000 feet down slope.
The second punch of the Pacific storm is expected in the California mountains Tuesday night and Wednesday, Dec. 21-22. The National Weather Service has predicted gusty winds, blowing snow through mountain passes, and more snow with a freezing level dropping to 4,000-to-5,000 feet in the Sierra and 5,500-to-6,000 feet in Southern California. The storm is expected to take a breather Thursday and Friday, Dec. 23-24 before ushering in another system deemed significant on Christmas Day.
This storm also is set to bring snow to the Washington and Oregon Cascades as well. The National Weather Service predicts that the "series of moist Pacific systems will continue to inundate the western U.S. through the middle of this week."
But the best news for skiers and riders boiled down to a single statement in the forecast: "Snowfall will continue to be measured in feet in some of the higher elevations of the western U.S."