A WET WINTER’S TALE

Since this “wet season” is off to a very dry start, I thought I would treat us all to a story about a different kind of Tulare County winter. This one dates from February 1969, a wet time indeed in our region.

Big Whitney Meadow is one of those off-the-beaten-track places that only a handful of people visit each year.  It can be found at an elevation of about 9,700 feet in the Golden Trout Wilderness Area of eastern Tulare County, just a few miles west of the crest of the Sierra Nevada.

No road goes there, and to get to the meadow most travelers either walk or ride horseback. In season, however, you also can ski in, which is what this story is about.

With one enduring exception, almost no one visits Big Whitney Meadow during the winter months. That exception results from the fact that Big Whitney Meadow contains a snow survey course. Since 1948, employees of the California Department of Water Resources have visited the meadow four times each winter to measure and document the depth of the snowpack there. The resulting data helps hydrologists forecast the spring and summer flow of the Kern River into the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Snow survey trips attract a certain type of stubborn, outdoors-oriented person. The work involves long, strenuous days of cross-country skiing at high altitudes. And, at times, one must deal with hostile weather. February 1969 was one of those times.

The February 1969 snow survey party headed to Big Whitney Meadow consisted of two men, Murt Stewart and Douglas R. Powell, the latter a professor of geography at UC Berkeley who loved snow survey work and took time off from his campus work each winter between 1956 and 1984 to ski into the High Sierra. What follows comes from Powell’s account of this particular trip.

If everything had gone well, a February snow survey trip into the upper Kern River watershed would have taken Stewart and Powell about nine days to accomplish. What they did not fully understand as they began, however, was that they were skiing into one of the century’s most intense Sierra Nevada blizzards.

The first obstacle the two faced was to ski over 11,000-foot-high Cottonwood Pass. Deep, soft snow from previous storms made the going slow, and from the summit of the pass, dark clouds filled the western sky. Moving as fast as the difficult conditions allowed, the two skied down to the tiny snow survey cabin at Big Whitney Meadow. They arrived at dusk, just as heavy snow began to fall.

By morning, when the two ventured outside to check conditions, three feet of new snow had fallen, and the storm was dumpihng snow at the rate of about three inches an hour. The snowfall continued all day at that rate without letup, and by dusk the twenty-four hour snowfall had risen to about six feet.

When Stewart and Powell emerged the following morning, they could instantly tell that that the heavy snowfall had continued all night. After thirty-six hours of continuous storm, about nine feet of new snow now buried Big Whitney Meadow. By this time travel, even on skis, had become almost impossible.

The snow continued all the second day, still at three inches an hour, then quit abruptly at 6:00 pm, exactly forty-eight hours after it began. The new snow total at the cabin now equaled twelve feet!

By dawn the following morning the sky had cleared, and the snow surveyors spent much of the day laboriously collecting the required ten samples from the Big Whitney Meadow snow-survey course. Each required drilling down through more than fifteen feet of snow.

According to their measurements, the two-day storm and its twelve feet of new snow had added up to 16 inches of water to the Sierra snowpack.

To put this in context, this snow course’s annual average end-of-the-winter reading is slightly over 17 inches of water. An entire winter’s precipitation had fallen in forty-eight hours!

Professor Douglas Powell continued his snow studies into the 1980s. In hindsight, he would conclude that at Tulare County’s Big Whitney Meadow in late February 1969, he had witnessed one of the heaviest snowfalls ever measured anywhere in earth.

The moral of this story, a familiar one to readers of this column, is that it emphasizes once again the extreme variability of our climate.  We have dry years (all too frequently) and, less predictably, we also have wet ones. The late winter and spring of 1969 brought powerful storms and flooding to much of California.  Instead of having too little water, we had too much.

One of these years, we’ll be there again. In the meantime, enjoy your holidays and the blue skies with which currently both curse and bless us.

© Wm. Tweed