March 1995 seemed like any other spring month. It was sunny and warm in Southern California. It seemed like a perfect time to go skiing in the Sierras. My brother Dave and his wife Donnie had planned to join Joyce and I and ski at Sugar Bowl in the Sierras near Donner Summit. We had been doing this year after year and looked forward to another skiing vacation. We had no idea what we would be facing in the days to come.
Dave and Donnie flew from Chicago to San Jose with their skis. We met them at the San Jose Airport on Friday, March 17th and loaded their baggage and skis in and on the car. From there we made the three and a half hour drive to the cabin. The roads were clear all the way to the cabin. When we arrived we noted that there was about twelve feet of snow on the ground. The altitude of the cabin owned by our son Jon and his family is 7,000 feet. Since our car was equipped with all wheel drive we were confident we could drive to and from the ski areas. We skied on Saturday, Sunday and Monday at Sugar Bowl. It was the first opportunity for us to ski that season, but we skied too long each day and overdid it a little. So we decided to take it easy Tuesday and drive to Truckee for shopping and lunch. Around two o’clock it began snowing and as time passed the storm became more intense. I convinced Dave, Donnie and Joyce to pile in the car and head for the cabin on the other side of Donner Pass. On the western outskirts of Truckee I was stopped by the California Highway Patrol to inspect my car. Since I had all wheel drive they let me proceed. We didn’t realize it but we were taking a huge risk. As we approached Donner Summit the snowfall was so intense that the wipers could not clear the windshield. The few cars we saw were off the road and out of service. We felt all alone out there.
Dave and I rolled down the side windows and stuck our heads out to see where we were going. The road had been plowed earlier, but now there was fresh snow about a foot deep to drive through. By this time I was driving less than ten miles per hour on a highway that normally handles traffic over seventy miles per hour. Soon Dave shouted, “Turn
off here”. He saw the Soda Springs turnoff to the cabin so I turned the
car into a foot and a half of unplowed snow. The off ramp was short and led to the plowed Soda Springs Road. Driving to the cabin from there was uneventful because the roads had been freshly plowed. This was the start of an enormous storm that lasted three days. Since there was already twelve feet of snow on the ground before this storm, it was clear that the private, state and county plows would be overtaxed.
BEGINNING OF STORM - TUESDAY
I was concerned about the snow load on the cabin before the storm and wondered just how much extra weight the structure could take. Up to this point the snow load had distorted the cabin in such a way that it was difficult to open the front door to the outside. The rear door was completely blocked by the snow that had fallen from the roof. By Wednesday morning three feet of new snow had fallen making access to the highways impossible. During the night while I was in bed, the cabin began to creak. As new snow was added to the compacted
snow on the roof, I was concerned about a possible collapse. The more it snowed, the more the mysterious creaking.
The next morning I cleared the snow off the car roof hoping it would stop snowing. However, as the snowfall continued, all available snowplows were directed to plow Interstate 80, the major highway from central California to the eastern states. The local roads could not be plowed. We were snowed in! There was no place to go. Snowfall continued throughout Wednesday and Thursday adding a total of eight feet of new snow on top of the twelve feet existing when we arrived. The wires to the cabin were below the snow level. I had never seen anything like it.
THURSDAY - WHERE IS THE CAR?
Throughout the storm we had water, power and heat. The phones also worked. We were worried about running out of propane for the furnace, so we burned logs in the Franklin stove. To gather the logs I had to drop through a trap door in the second story porch. Under the porch there was a small space not filled in with snow where I could reach the logs. I fed them up through the trap door to Dave who carried them to the stove.
For entertainment we read, played hearts or watched TV. By watching TV I mean we watched our grandchildren’s tapes. There was no TV feed to the cabin. After watching “Fox and Hounds”, “Cinderella” and others more than once we began to get cabin fever. Fortunately we had a case of wine and lots of food. As long as the power stayed on and the cabin did not collapse, we were comfortable.
Jon and Kitty called us regularly to see how we were doing and to give us the latest weather report. Each morning we expected the storm to be over, only to learn that another storm was on the way. It was nearly impossible to leave the cabin and if we did we needed to be aware of the possibility of sinking through the snow and disappearing.
Hour by hour large snowflakes floated across and down past the large front windows. Occasionally the snowfall would let up only to be followed by strong winds and more snow. Depending upon the time of day the temperature varied from zero to twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Although we were reasonably comfortable and had plenty of food, we began to realize how the Donner Party must have felt with their endless snowfall. Curiously enough, we were located at about the same altitude as the Donner Party and just ten miles west. They also had to endure a twenty foot snowfall!
On Friday morning the snowfall ceased and the sun came out. It was time to dig out the car. Donnie and I put on snow shoes and worked our way to the car. The plan was to clear the snow away from the drivers side, across the back and up the passenger side. That’s what Donnie and I did. The biggest problem we had was where to find space to throw the snow.
I conned a snowplow driver into plowing the driveway up to a few feet from my car. After clearing the remaining snow by hand, the car was driven out to the road where I cleared the snow from the hood and roof. I had five feet of snow to be removed from the roof of my car, and no place to put it. Therefore, I drove to the end of the road where there was a cul-de-sac and distributed the snow over the entire area.
During the dig out, I shot pictures from the cabin window looking at the road and from the road looking at the cabin. Before the next storm hit we quickly packed the car, secured the cabin and headed toward Sacramento. The roads were plowed, and with all four wheels gripping the snow, we escaped. The California Highway Patrol controlled the downhill speed as we progressed westward on Interstate 80. Even so, we remained tense as the road conditions were still hazardous. Soon we left the high snow banks and entered a warmer climate at the lower altitudes. Although we enjoyed the experience of being snowed in, we sighed with great relief to be released from the grips of a wintry storm.
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