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Sierra Storm: Avalanche Shuts Down Highway 89; I-80, Highway 50 Remain Closed; Search For Missing Northstar Skier

TRUCKEE (CBS SF) -- An intense winter storm front, stirring up powerful winds and whiteout blizzard conditions, continued to hammer the Lake Tahoe area early Monday, triggering an avalanche that shut down Highway 89 near Tahoe City and hampering search efforts for a missing Northstar skier.

UPDATE: Snowy Sierra Road Travel Nightmare Continues with I-80 Closure, Gridlock on U.S. Hwy 50

Palisades Tahoe Mountain Operations reported the avalanche -- on Highway 89 between Tahoe City and River Ranch -- around 6:45 a.m. Moments later the popular resort announced it would be closed for the day.

"For safety reasons, we will not be open for skiing/riding today," resort officials posted on Twitter. "Thank you for your understanding."

The Sierra Avalanche Center in Truckee has issued a Backcountry Avalanche Warning for the greater Lake Tahoe area through Tuesday.

"Heavy snowfall and extremely strong winds have created unstable avalanche conditions in the mountains," the center warned. "Large natural avalanches and human-triggered avalanches are expected."

Meanwhile, the challenging weather conditions were slowing the search for 43-year-old Rory Angelotta, of Truckee, who has been missing ever since he was last seen Saturday morning at the Northstar ski resort.

According to the Placer County Sheriff's Office, Angelotta was reported missing when he failed to show up for dinner Saturday night with friends. His car was found in the resort parking lot and his calls went straight to voicemail.

The Placer County Sheriff's Office responded and immediately dispatched additional emergency resources including Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue, Nevada County Search and Rescue and Northstar Ski Patrol on Sunday.

The investigation has revealed that around 11:30 a.m., Angelotta's ski pass was scanned at the Comstock lift. There was no other activity registered to his pass since that time.

"Searchers responded and combed the mountain and surrounding areas, despite extreme weather," the Placer County Sheriff's Department said. "Rescue personnel were on skis, snowmobiles, and a snowcat during their search. They faced high avalanche danger, strong winds, whiteout flurries, frigid temperatures, and heavy snow loads before calling off their search in the evening."

The sheriff said Angelotta was an experienced skier and was believed to have avalanche equipment on him.

"Search efforts continue today, but due to the ongoing severe storm and closed highways, searchers face significant challenges," officials said.

On Monday, Northstar was closed after experiencing "blizzard conditions over the past several days and have received more than 6 feet of snow in just 48 hours."

Nearby, a 70-mile stretch of I-80 remained shut down from Colfax through the Lake Tahoe region to the Nevada state line.

Caltrans said late Sunday afternoon that Highway 50 would remain closed in both directions between Placerville and Meyers due to heavy snow, at least until Monday. The agency will reassess the conditions Monday morning but does not have an estimated time of reopening.

"Highway 50 is currently closed," the CHP posted. "We cannot make it more clear ... Please don't attempt to drive to the snow."

State Routes 20 and 49 are also closed, according to authorities. Caltrans said downed trees and power lines from the storm were also contributing to the closures. On State Route 20, officials said there was less than one lane width that was passable Monday morning.

The blinding driving conditions triggered a 20-car pile-up on southbound Highway 395 in Washoe Valley Sunday morning. The Washoe County Sheriff's Department said at least three people were injured and the highway had been shutdown.

"Expect major travel delays on all roads," the National Weather Service office in Reno, Nevada, said on Twitter. "Today is the type of day to just stay home if you can. More snow is on the way too!"

Palisades Tahoe had received more than 2 feet of new snow over a 24-hour period ending Sunday morning. Meanwhile, Northstar near Truckee received 34 inches of fresh snow at the summit and 27 inches at mid mountain overnight into Sunday morning.

At Donner Pass officials with the University of California, Berkeley's Central Sierra Snow Laboratory got another 38.9 inches over the last 24 hours to smash the previous record of 179 inches of snow in December set in 1970.

"Snow rates are still heavy and we could even break the 200" mark today," lab workers tweeted.

The snowpack in the Sierra was at dangerously low levels after recent weeks of dry weather but the state Department of Water Resources reported on Christmas Eve that the snowpack was between 114% and 137% of normal across the range with more snow expected.

A winter storm warning stretching all the way to Tuesday has been issued by the National Weather Service for the Lake Tahoe area.

"The Sierra Nevada which has already picked up locally several feet of snow over the last few days is expected to see an additional 2 to 5 feet of snow going through Tuesday," the weather service said.

EMERGENCY COMPONENT - LOCAL

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