A Perfect Storm: A Test of Training, Gear, Teamwork, Fitness, and Trust

By Matt Shargel

The first winter storm of the year in the Sierras always seems to catch folks in the backcountry off guard. This year, the Mountain Rescue Group responded to two Type 1 searches in the aftermath of the year’s first snowfall and freezing temperatures. Below is a summary of our efforts to find and rescue a missing man and his nephew who got lost while spending the day hiking and hunting in the backcountry near Ebbetts Pass.

We arrived at Bear Valley late Tuesday evening, got what sleep we could, and were ready for an 0800 briefing on Wednesday at the fire station. The storm had been blowing all night long and left nearly a foot of cold fresh snow on the ground. We drove to the field CP at the Hermit Valley trail head and had to chain up the MRG truck for the first time that I can remember.

After a briefing, we headed out on the first search assignment of the day as a team of five (John Banuelos, Jeremiah Kost, Larry Fong, Joe Keyser and I). In county, we are drilled to have our gear prepped and ready to go when an assignment is given, and we try as much as possible to maintain this habit on T-1 searches as well; our readiness on T-1 searches often results in the first and highest POD assignments heading our way.

We hiked and snow-shoed about two miles down a drainage to the start of our search area, which was focused on a major clue found the day before: a smoldering campfire and emergency blanket. The storm was beginning to pass, but the air was still very cold and significant snow was still falling.

As we were dividing up the search area, we heard a radio call that a team farther down the drainage had found fresh tracks. A team of two from Calaveras was continuing an assignment from the day before, having spent a night in the field. It had snowed about a foot overnight and the tracks they found were on top of this, but covered by about half an inch of fresh snow.

Our distance down the drainage was making radio comms to CP sketchy at best, but we could clearly hear and respond to the Calaveras team. We were faced with a field decision without clear feedback or direction from the CP. Our in-county experience and our practice during the MRA Wilderness Ops certification all kicked into high gear.

How would we get information from the Calaveras team back to the CP? How could we physically support this team and at the same time, work on our own search area? If we split up, what backcountry and emergency gear were we carrying, and could we maintain our commitment to providing care in the field to a downed subject while still having gear for our own safety? And as team lead, if we were to split up, did I trust in the judgment, ability, and training of the new smaller teams?
As I went through this checklist, first in my own mind and then with everyone on the team, every “no-go” concern I had was covered and our response decision was made.

Jeremiah and I double-timed it down the drainage trying to pick up the trail to potentially cut off the subject if he was headed back upstream. Banuelos, Keyser, and Fong continued on from the fire pit clue. The plan was sound, but as those with experience know, we must adapt to what we find and we were sure in for much more action that day!

Just as Jeremiah and I located another unburned campfire attempt along the tracks, the Calaveras team caught up with the adult subject. Jeremiah and I were about 10 minutes behind. Their radio traffic could not be heard by any other team due to the distance. When we caught up with the Calaveras team and the subject a few minutes later, we took over coms and IC as the two Calaveras members tended to the subject. We provided dry clothes, warm soup and an emergency blanket.
The subject reported leaving the deceased youth subject up the drainage near the first campsite.

We were now faced with the challenge of communicating this sensitive information back to the CP. Our first step was to get teams heading in the direction of the youth. I directed our second group (John, Larry, Joe) to change the radios to tac4, and then used our internal radio codes to communicate the significance of the situation and the location for follow up. At the same time, due to the critical nature of the situation, I sent a priority HELP message through the SPOT device.

After several failed attempts to contact CP via satellite phone to satellite phone connection, I called Rick Kovar at OES, then I radio relayed via the main (CLEMARS) frequency asking CP to call Kovar directly from their own satellite phone. Kovar passed the sensitive intel on to CP along with our location.

CP dispatched a CHP helicopter based on these directions and promptly flew over us in the field where we were with the first subject. Via radio to the helicopter, we were able to direct it to our exact location in the forest.
Now our training on landing zones and helo operations was kicking in. What FOD or other hazards were in the area? Were comms clear between us and the helo? And how far could we move the subject in his current condition?
The helicopter attempted a landing next to where we were, but the terrain was prohibitive, a large, snow-covered boulder on a slope by a creek. The helo then located a secondary location about a 10-minute hike downstream in a small gap in the forest. We assisted the subject to this location and loaded him while the helo hovered a few inches over the uneven ground.

Again, in-county training and experience kicked in as we approached the helicopter. From where did the pilot want us to approach? And foremost in my mind was how the uneven terrain would change the distance between our heads and the rotors. We crawled through the snow and intensely blowing rotor wash!

After the helo cleared the area, we grabbed our gear and the subject’s gear and high-tailed it back up the drainage while trying to coordinate responses of other teams to the first campfire location. The subject had given us very clear information about the youth's specific location and the Calaveras team knew just where to head.

As we met up with our first team of three that was investigating tracks leading up the side of the drainage, Jeremiah joined the two Calaveras members following tracks up the side of the drainage in another direction. About an hour later, this team located the deceased youth near another fire pit along the path of the tracks.

At this point, it was really getting dark, we were all getting tired and hungry, the multiple adrenalin rushes of the day had worn off, and I, for one, was very disappointed and saddened that we were unable to find the boy in time to save his life. We were facing a long and cold hike out of the backcountry through heavy snow along terrain that had already proved disorienting to one experienced team from another county.

We built a large warming fire at the location of the subject’s first camp, melted snow for water, ate what food we could manage, and gathered other teams to this location as an impromptu field staging and rally point. When relieved by another team (BAMRU), Jeremiah and the Calaveras searchers came down the side of the drainage and joined us, deputies from the local Sheriff’s Office and searchers from Marin at the campfire.

After this much-needed rest and mental refocusing and time to brief the deputy and coroner, we hiked back up to the main CP, passing a fresh recovery team coming down the “trail.” We checked in around 11 p.m., found a place to sleep in Bear Valley, then drove back to the OES Wednesday morning.

Key lessons
• Searcher fitness it critical – the first part of the day was roughly equivalent to the Diablo endurance hike (DEH). The hike out was like getting to the bottom of the DEH and turning around for a second lap. Jeremiah did the biggest day with his extra assignment up the mountain to the second find. We must be ready to respond at all times!

• Comms was a major challenge due to the distances involved, as well as the sensitivity of some information. We adapted use of the SPOT, satellite phone and our radios to work around these difficulties. The team members from BAMRU should be commended for their critical recognition of the poor radio conditions and their endurance as an impromptu and in-the-field radio relay.

• Be ready for the unexpected night out. We were one cloud-bank and one less helicopter away from having to care for a hypothermic subject throughout the night and perhaps into a second full day. We had ways to heat food, build fire, make good winter shelter, continue medical care, and maintain communication lines despite tough terrain and winter weather. Those with enough experience know that the gear we carry in county, as well as out of county, is there to serve a real-world, tested and critical role. Very little of our gear came back unused. And we were all very thankful to be in a position to provide it in a time of dire need.