A little more than a quarter-century ago, the Sierra was experiencing one of its driest winters on record, with less than 20 percent of average snowfall lying on the ground by the end of February.
Without the extensive snowmaking systems that exist today, most resorts were on very limited operations; some even shut down. Disgruntled skiers and snowboarders were hanging up their boards; motels and hotels were shuttering their doors, and ski shops were considering putting out their summer merchandise.
A Five-Day Onslaught
Then, on the first of March 1991, it started snowing, with more than 50 inches hitting the ground in Truckee over the first five days of the month. When April finally rolled around, more than 200 inches of snow — Sugar Bowl received half of its annual 500-inch average in 31 days — had fallen in the Sierra during March, bringing the snowpack to 75 percent of average.
“Huzzah!” cried the skiers and snowboarders, resorts and lodges, shop owners and farmers in the Central Valley. “We’ve been saved.”
And they began to call it the Miracle March.
Flash forward to late winter of 2017-18, and things were looking almost as grim as it did 27 years earlier.
The Sierra was again in drought mode: The period between November and January was the tenth driest in recorded history (dating back to Gold Rush days), and the ski resort snowpack totals were in only in double digits inchwise, 27 percent of average at best.
With most resorts having beefed up their snowmaking since the early ‘90s, they were making a go of it this time. But there’s only so many laps you can make on the same white ribbon before you think of better things to do.
A Change in the Weather
Then, after 25 days of mostly bluebird February weather, the skies darkened, the wind kicked up and it began to snow. Some 10-20 inches fell on Sierra resorts in the waning days of February, giving the industry some hope.
But that was just the hors d’oeuvres.
In the ensuing days, several powerful storm systems bore down on the Sierra, and between the night of Feb. 28 and the morning of March 4 up to 100 inches of snow had fallen on the mountains, bringing the snowpack closer to 50 percent of average.
Now, ski resorts are reporting triple-digit (or close to it) base depths: Squaw Valley has 117 inches, Sierra-at-Tahoe 109, Sugar Bowl 104, Mammoth 100-plus, Homewood 122, Northstar 95, Kirkwood 83 and so on.
And with weather systems expected to impact the Sierra later this week and into the middle and end of next week, those numbers should inch higher.
It’s a bit too early to say were are experiencing another Miracle March, but the Sierra ski and snowboard season is off life-support.