Tahoe blizzard warning: Wind gusts hit 100 mph at some Sierra peaks

As a blizzard started pounding the Sierra on Thursday, wind gusts whipped at more than 100 mph at certain peaks in the Sierra including near the Palisades ski resort.

Already, a blizzard warning is in effect for the Lake Tahoe area south to Yosemite as up to 12 feet of snow is expected to blanket the region through Sunday. 

Yosemite National Park officials said the park will be closed starting at midnight Thursday due to the winter storm. The park will remain closed at least through Sunday at noon and possibly later. Visitors who are currently in the park are advised to leave as soon as possible and no later than noon on Friday.

At Palisades Tahoe, spokesman Patrick Lacey said they were bracing for the storm as best as they could. He spoke as an excavator was hauling snow out of the area to make room for more.

He said that he expects most of the upper mountains to be closed through the weekend for safety reasons. But otherwise, Lacey said, bring it on.

"We're a ski resort," he said. "We love it."

A number of ski resorts in the region plan to alter their operations on Friday. 

"It’s definitely coming down, I’m getting pelted in the face. Good thing I’m wearing sunglasses, because yeah it is definitely snowing," Lacey said from the resort’s base on Thursday afternoon. "Yeah this is going to be a big one for sure. We do ask for your patience, especially on the upper mountain lifts. This is for your safety. This is just coming all at once."

The Alpine side of the resort is scheduled to be closed on Friday, while limited operations are scheduled for the Palisades side. But once the snow passes, Lacey said the additional snowfall will provide prime conditions. "I mean this could really really impact the season, and extend our season as well."

Live weather cameras in Lake Tahoe area

Meantime, at Heavenly Mountain Resort, spokesperson Cole Zimmerman said, "We’re prepared for a big one right now."The high winds and heavy snow prompted the resort to shut down its gondola and upper mountain lifts on Friday. "We’re just taking this day by day with safety in mind," said Zimmerman. "And the last thing we have to look at frankly is road conditions, if it’s safe for people to get to our mountain."But once the storm passes, Zimmerman said, "it will be great for those powder hounds."

But getting to ski resorts might prove challenging if not impossible.

Widespread blowing snow with strong gusting winds will create blizzard conditions, white-outs and near-zero visibility, making travel "dangerous to impossible" Friday into Saturday morning, when the heaviest snow is expected, the National Weather Service said.

By Thursday morning, Highway 80 at Donner Summit was covered in snow. Chain controls are in effect for parts of I-80 and Highway 50. 

The California Highway Patrol is expecting the roads in the area to be shut down for long stretches during this intense winter storm.

"If you don't have to travel, don't," said CHP Officer Ruth Loehr. "Control it, by not being part of the problem." 

Beyond the closures and delays, slippery conditions can cause collisions or vehicles leaving the road into high snow drifts where deadly hypothermia is possible or going off cliffs. Running vehicles covered by snow can cause carbon monoxide asphyxiation. 

Kevin Cooper, spokesman for Calipass Resorts, said that ski resorts are already preparing for power outages.

Pacific Gas and Electric says they will bring in additional utility crews, contractors, materials and mountain machinery, knowing that access to downed power lines can be difficult or impossible. That's because many power poles span forests instead of established roads. 

And in Lake Tahoe, people are already stocked up with groceries and extra emergency supplies, preparing to hunker down for several days.  

On Wednesday, some Bay Area residents were planning on heading up to the mountains before the blizzard hits. 

"Up to Tahoe for the weekend," Tim Finnigan said as he was renting ski equipment in Berkeley

He thinks he will beat the incoming snow by driving up Thursday afternoon.

"We’ll see how much of it stays open," Finnigan said. "Worse comes to worst, we’ll just ski the lower mountain."

All the snow is good news for the snowpack. The statewide survey found the snowpack is at 80% of average for this date, but still just 70% of the peak April 1st average. 

"We have a big storm starting here through the weekend ant it will be a cold one," said Andy Reisling, a California Water Engineer. "The first cold storm of the year and it will be a good producer." 

Another California Water Engineer said it will take several additional storms within the month of March to get the state from the current 70% of April 1 average up to 100% of average by the first of April. 

For updates on chain control, visit this Caltrans QuickMap

KTVU's Roberta Gonzales and Joey Horta contributed to this report.