The infamous winter of 1996-’97

North Idaho locals share memories of the biggest snow season in recent history

By Ben Olson, Zach Hagadone and Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

For longtime North Idaho locals, there are three topics that frequently come up in conversation: how fast Sandpoint is changing and growing; downtown traffic; and the infamous winter of 1996-’97, when it started snowing and didn’t seem to stop.

Photo by Emily Deier, who said snowpack at their house was more than six feet.

The winter began with a bang on Nov. 19, 1996 when about four inches of snow fell throughout the Inland Northwest, followed later in the day by more than an inch of freezing rain that coated trees, roads, buildings, vehicles and power lines. Trees came crashing down across the region, leaving hundreds of thousands without power throughout eastern Washington, North Idaho and western Montana. When it was all said and done, four people lost their lives in Spokane and Kootenai counties, and damages were estimated at $36.5 million in today’s dollars, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It turned out, Old Man Winter was just getting started.

Over the next few months, snow fell. And fell. And fell. Downtown Sandpoint resembled old Ross Hall photos from the 1940s, with 10-foot-high snow berms piled in the middle of the streets and cave-like sidewalk canyons cut through the waist-high snowfall. Rooves all over town collapsed from the weight of the snow — including the roof over the auditorium at Sandpoint High School, giving high-schoolers more than a month of winter break while the damages were repaired. The Idaho National Guard was even called in to help school employees that had been shoveling for hours to reduce the weight. 

Shovel brigades were a regular sight around town as they worked night and day lessening the heavy burden of snow from rooftops. 

For anyone that was around that winter, it remains one of those quintessential North Idaho moments in time that instantly established your street cred — especially when newcomers complain about a mere foot of snow.

Audra Mearns was building her first house at Schweitzer during the winter of ‘96-’97. “Got the first floor done when it started snowing. Covered it with a tarp and lived in it for the winter.” Audra said people even skied over the top of their house, having no clue there was a home underneath

We reached out to a handful of longtime locals to ask their memories from that famed winter. What follows are their responses, lightly edited for space.

A.C. Woolnough — former principal at Sandpoint High School

“It was winter break and an ideal time to get caught up on paperwork and planning for the next semester. The choir had recently been practicing in the auditorium and I had enjoyed a few minutes of my own private concert as I listened to them rehearse. A short while later, while sitting in my office wondering why I wasn’t up on Schweitzer, it happened. The entire building shook and a tremendous noise ensued. Instinct took over as I remembered childhood earthquake drills and dropped to the floor under my desk. Clearly a train had derailed and locomoted into the building or a large airplane had crashed into it. 

“As the noise and vibrations subsided, I arose and went looking for whatever it was. I started in the cafeteria and heard what sounded like a waterfall coming from the auditorium. When I opened the door, I saw water pouring from broken pipes in what was now our new outdoor arena. A 20-by-20-foot section of the roof had collapsed due to the inordinate snow load and, I was later told, the cheap construction of the roof with rafters spaced too far apart. Fortunately, no one was inside at the time and there were no injuries — except to the insurance company’s pocketbook.”

Arlene Cook — director of Ski Patrol at Schweitzer Mountain Resort

“I’ve worked on the mountain since 1980, so all the years kind of blur together, but I do have a few memories. I was working as a ski patroller for John Pucci. It was a pretty snowy winter from the beginning but really started dumping late February, early March. I remember that we had to add to our snow stakes, as they didn’t read as high as the snow was deep. We topped out at about 180 inches on the top of the mountain. I remember the avalanche hazard being high in the backcountry, and some fairly low angle slopes sliding. Gene Klein and Dan were skiing west of Sam’s Alley and kicked off an avalanche and Dan got caught and went for a ride. He survived, but it scared the crap out of both of them.

“The cover to our satellite dish collapsed. Penelope the dog was inspecting.’ Photo by Rosemary Lucas-Olsen.

 “There was so much snow that it was hard to keep ahead of it. We had to dig out a trench for Chair 1 towards the top of the Face so peoples’ skis wouldn’t drag in the snow. It kept blowing in, so we were constantly trying to keep it dug out. We had a lot of early days doing avalanche control work, and just trying to keep everything dug out. We also had some really epic skiing!

“We’ve had quite a few powderful seasons before that and after that, but in my lifetime the winter of 1968 was the most snow I ever remember. I was just a kid, and Schweitzer wasn’t keeping records back then. We were snowed in for weeks and school was canceled for almost a month!” 

Scot Auld – former lifty, current Human Resources Director at Schweitzer Mountain Resort

“My memories of the winter of ’96-’97 center around one unifying theme: shoveling. It was my fourth winter in Sandpoint, and my third ski season working at Schweitzer Mountain. At the time I was a lifty, working weekends — mostly for the free ski pass. 

“When the weather forecast called for significant snowfall overnight, we were required to come in an hour or more before the usual 7:30 start time. This was because with deep snowfall, Ski Patrol had to access the mountain top earlier to allow extra time for avalanche mitigation.

“If memory serves, in the month of December alone the mountain operations crew had something like 21 early mornings — in a row. We would arrive at our lifts with a foot or more of snow to remove (by shovel) from around the terminal, on the ramp and on every one of the chairs. And it kept snowing. All day. So you never stopped shoveling. The skiing was epic, but many days we barely had time to make runs. At the end of each day I’d head home from Schweitzer tired and sore but still energized because I love snow.

“Yet my task was not complete. That year my wife Wendy and I were living in a house her great uncle owned out in Sagle. And just that summer he had added this tremendously huge, beautiful deck off the second story. I called it the “helipad,” it seemed so big. And there was no way in hell I was going to let Uncle Mike’s new deck collapse on my watch. So every day, after shoveling out my chairlift all day long, I would come home to another foot of snow on the helipad… and I’d grab the shovel.”

Tom Trulock — former Mountains Operations Office, currently director of Utilities Division at Schweitzer Mountain Resort

“A bit fuzzy that far back but it was the year we had to retrofit the Great Escape Quad due to manufacturing defects in the chair grips that attach the chair to the cable. This was not a problem just for Schweitzer, but for every resort in the world that had this make/model of lift. … getting parts delivered was glacial at best … it was January before the lift was able to run and we were well into a very big winter by then. I recall having to put our big snow blower out on the Main Road in mid-October because the berms were so high our plows weren’t able push berms out any further and the road was shrinking down to one lane. Haven’t had to do that in October since.

Francis and Beverly McNall standing on the sidewalk in front of their home. Photo by Janice Riley.

“The lift project was a seven-day-a-week job, and line crews were walking from tower to tower in November/December in chest-deep snow. We finally had to run a cat down the lift line so they could move from tower to tower. The cat operator came close to getting stuck a few times — going downhill. … 

“About midway up the [quad] we had to plow a trench under the loaded side because the snow was so deep you could touch it with your skis from the chair. Several places on Chairs 1 and 6 had to be barricaded to keep skiers out from under the lift line because the chairs were so low to the snow. … In June of that year, top-to-bottom skiing was more than doable and I was out flagging a new run. When the snow finally melted I went out to look at my flags and they were 10 feet off the ground in most places.

“When I was talking about that season to Brian Crettol, one of our longtime patrollers, his standout memory — he worked on the lift project until January — was all of the epic powder he was missing because he couldn’t go skiing. I suggested it was probably time he got over that.”

David Sawyer — Sandpoint mayor, 1996-2000

“As I recall, that was my first winter as mayor. There were a number of buildings that collapsed. Seems like part of the auditorium at the high school went down.

“I recall that city staff from Public Works and the Parks Department collaborated on a 24-hour-a-day basis to snow blow the roof of what at that point was our fairly new City Hall.

That action probably saved it from collapsing.

 “When we finally had Earth Day in the middle of April, there were still piles of snow in the parking lot at City Beach.

“I’m not sure, but that heavy snow could have led to spring flooding, where we were actually sandbagging the intake pump station at the end of the jetty where the Marina is. 

“And it was the only time I had the opportunity to cross country ski to work!

“Seems like there was a lot of tension around snow plowing the streets in dealing with all of the automobiles. A large part of this was that, at that point, the Sandpoint Independent Highway District (which we used to joke about and say very Independent Highway District) was in control of that plowing, not the city. And of course they wanted us to remove the cars, not them.”

Elissa Glassman — communications specialist, Northern Lights, 1996-present

“I started that year — almost 25 years ago — but Jay Peterson, who has been a lineman for over 35 years, said that he also remembers on New Year’s Eve, in 1996, trying to get the power back they heard all the cheers [when the lights came back on] from the people in lodge.

“They worked through Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Years — working 16 hours straight. They weren’t able to be with their families, they were out working. … They’re super dedicated.” [Note: Peterson is still out there working the lines. “He started young,” Glassman said.]

Steve Klatt — former Bonner County Commissioner, current Road and Bridge director

“After coping with 60-plus Bonner County winters, the details of individual winters begin to blur together with the exception of some truly notable winters and the winter of 1996-’97 was one that is hard to forget. 

“A detail that is quite notable when trying to gain perspective of overcoming the challenges of winter is the radical difference of equipment available to assist in those 25 years. There simply were not dozens and dozens of pickups with plows running around here, nor were there a multitude of contactors with snow blowers and skid steers in trailers driving from home to home. There were a few pickup plows and there were a few old tractors with buckets, but there were a whole lot more snow shovels and sore backs than anything else.

“Imagine the lovely country scene with a foot of snow on the ground when a storm rolls in that deposits 16 inches of snow in 24 hours. You have shoveled for most of the day and a good part of the night trying to keep up, only to wake up needing to start over again. Then the next storm rolls in and delivers another 12 inches that you are trying to throw up over snow banks to keep some part of your driveway clear. The doggone road crew comes by and stuffs your driveway completely shut again.

“About this time I’m growing concerned about a couple of roofs and got out a ladder to get up on the most problematic one. The air is absolutely full of very large snowflakes as I step from the ladder on to the roof and the ladder starts to go out from under me. I jump backward off the ladder thinking I will land in the deep snow, but one foot lands on the firm shoveled path and a searing pain erupts from my ankle. I am lying on my back in three feet of snow and being covered quickly by the falling snow, when I begin to realize my wife won’t miss me for several hours. 

“Out of the snow I crawl and up the path on my hands and knees to the driveway where I can prop the snow shovel under my arm and hobble to the house. Oh yes, that ankle cast was just one part of a memorable winter.”

Jason Topp — 21-year-old operator for Bonner County Road and Bridge in 1996, current District 1 foreman

“It was a big winter. I started in ’95 with the county, so I got thrown right into it. … I can remember the drifts were horrible. We’d push snow from one side of the road to the other, and the wind would blow so hard you couldn’t even tell we came through there. You’d have to turn right back around and go right back through it again. Out there in the Samuels area we had areas pushing 12-foot berms from the drifts. … There were several days where we worked 24 hours through — didn’t get to go home. We’d pull over and sleep in the trucks sometimes and get right back at it again. … It came in early and it just didn’t stop. … It’s sure different nowadays compared to what it was. Our equipment wasn’t what we have now, either.”

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