Rescue class weathers epic snowstorm

Published: March 16, 2006

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Trekking into the Stanislaus National Forest last weekend are members of the National Ski Patrol's advanced mountain rescue class.
Photo courtesy of Christina Bonetti

Editor's note: Union Democrat reporter Amy Lindblom spends many weekends each winter on the slopes of Dodge Ridge as a volunteer member of the National Ski Patrol. Last weekend, she was on a team in the high country for rescue training. It was the same weekend that the coldest storm the area has experienced in years hit.


We thought we were ready.

We were nine students headed up for an advanced three-day winter mountaineering and rescue class. All on area volunteer ski patrols and search and rescue teams, we needed continual certification to remain active members.

For two of the students, this class would additionally prepare them for a grueling, high-altitude ski adventure in France.

For five months we'd practiced navigation skills until they came to us as easily as finding the store. Most could tie bomb-proof knots with our eyes closed. We got to where we could find a buried avalanche victim within three minutes. We could haul a victim up a steep slope using only skis, a rope and small pulleys.

So much for preparation.

Before the weekend was out, several of us wanted to quit. Including me.

Day 1

Friday morning we left our cars at a trailhead near the Dodge Ridge Road off Highway 108.

We were excited yet apprehensive. The ominous forecast called for heavy snow and plummeting temperatures.

Similar classes in past years sweated through in T-shirts. But our 50-pound packs were filled with multiple warm layers, several pairs of gloves, down jackets and waterproof outerwear.

The same storm that dropped a foot in downtown Sonora dumped four feet where we were. Our snowshoes and skis still sunk deep into the drifts.

Perfect conditions for skiing, miserable for camping. Yet, they were also ideal for what we were attempting.

"People generally don't get lost on warm sunny days," said Mark Hahn, lead instructor. "They get lost because it's cold, snowing and the visibility is reduced. They get in trouble when the cold causes impaired judgment."

What we were in, he assured us, were real conditions.

Hahn, of Sonora, is a member of the Pinecrest Nordic Ski Patrol, Dodge Ridge Alpine Ski Patrol and Tuolumne County Search and Rescue.

He has joined in several actual winter rescues — hunters caught in early season storms, snowboarders too far out-of-bounds from Dodge Ridge, lost hikers trekking around Pinecrest Lake.

On those multiple-day searches he had only what he had on, an emergency bivouac shelter, extra food and firestarters in his pack.

Also with us was Steve Shields, a member of the Bear Valley Alpine Ski Patrol and former member of Yosemite Search and Rescue and United States Air Force Pararescue and Combat Search and Rescue teams. Last June, he summitted Denali in Alaska.

Four other Pinecrest Nordic Patrol instructors, all experienced in trans-Sierra ski trips, were on hand to teach and offer moral support when things got tough.

They did.

Shields, sort of the weekend drill sergeant, challenged us with every step to think and communicate clearly, to make good decisions, to help rather than hamper a search and rescue mission.

Our three-day goal was to show mastered rescue skills in multiple scenarios — finding and rescuing lost skiers, snowboarders and, during a night-time search, two plane crash victims.

Friday's exercise bluntly showed the physical exertion we were expected to endure.

We were given map coordinates and told to find three targets within a two-mile area. By noon the snow was dumping, winds were whirling and it took us two more hours than planned to find the targets.

We reached our group campsite around 2 p.m., dumped our packs and had just enough time to set up tents, grab a quick snack and head out for more work.

For several hours we practiced finding avalanche beacons buried in the snow and struggled through thigh-high snow to rig up haul lines.

We finally gathered around a community kitchen — in the snow — and fired up our backpack stoves for dinner. Still, we all knew the harder parts of the class was still ahead.

Overnight, the temperature dropped to 10 degrees and snow never stopped falling.

Several times I had to shove snow off the tent to keep it from collapsing on me and my tent-mate, Christina Bonetti, a member of Tuolumne County Search and Rescue.

Our breath condensed inside the tent, then froze and fell back down as snow. We couldn't believe it: It was snowing inside the tent.

By morning several students — myself included — nearly canned the class. The thought of another night with only a tent wall between us and the still raging snowstorm sounded like bitter hell.

But no one want to be quitter. So we ate our oatmeal, drank our tea and got ready to go. We also tried to stop complaining.

Day 2

Saturday we split up into two teams. Our mission: to find two lost snowboarders.

One team went up a steep ridge and the other went low along a popular cross-country ski trail.

Members of each team took turns breaking trail in the deep snow.

When the lead person got tired, the second in line leapfrogged to the front and everyone took turns pulling a 70-pound sled holding our rescue gear. Once we found our victims, we had to haul them out in the sleds.

By Saturday afternoon the instructors took pity and let us eat dinner in a Forest Service bunkhouse and get warm. Inside we cooked our freeze-dried dinners while our wet gloves and clothing dried out.

But we were back at the trailhead by 7 p.m. for the night search.

This time we were told a small plane with two people on board crashed near Dodge Ridge. We had to find and rescue anyone still alive.

It was 17 degrees and, yes, heavy snow was still falling. Our headlamps lit the way. Team members spread out about 40 feet apart to search for plane debris.

During the three-hour search we found four fires — stove fuel lit on fire in metal paint cans — each about a quarter-mile apart.

Cardboard wrapped in aluminum foil flung into the snow represented the plane debris.

With each find we notified an incident commander by radio.

After we found the "victims" — one was dead, one had a broken leg — we had to build an emergency shelter with a tarp and a ski pole for them, then build a fire before we could say we were done.

At 11:30 p.m., we fell into sleeping bags, too exhausted to care that we hadn't brushed our teeth in two days. Three students returned to their tents, the rest of us took the Forest Service bunks.

Day 3

Sunday our task was to find two lost skiers.

One team from the east found one skier with the broken leg in a tree well near an avalanche zone. The other team quickly followed from the south but had to get down a steep slope to reach to its victim.

One victim then had to be carried out.

Our search efforts were faster this time, perhaps because we knew we were almost through.

By 2 p.m. Sunday, we were done. All but one student who quit after Saturday afternoon got certificates.

The students who finished: Christina Bonetti, Tuolumne County Search and Rescue; Bob Garcia, Homewood Alpine Ski Patrol; Sue Demars, Sugar Bowl, Alpine Ski Patrol; Tom Ryan, Bear Valley Alpine Ski Patrol; Wade Melcher, Penny Hutchinson and David Kelly, Pinecrest Nordic Ski Patrol — and me, Dodge Ridge Alpine Ski Patrol.

And, yes, we are all ready to do it again — just not this winter.

Sierra Views is a weekly feature profiling various people and places of the Sierra foothills; every one and every place has a story. Have a profile suggestion? Call the editor at 588-4546 or 736-1234.


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