CoCoSAR Snow and Ice Adventure

(Or, How a Zero-Degree Night Makes for Warm Friendships)

By John Banuelos

MRG members have been training for an MRA Recertification in Snow and Ice rescue for a number of months near Donner Pass. Todd Rogers, as the MRG operations corporal, decided to conduct an overnight snow-camping experience coupled with exercises in how to build emergency snow shelters on the weekend of Jan. 23 and 24.

Three members of MRG took him up on his offer (John Banuelos, Chris Coelho, and Matt Shargel), along with three Type 2 CoCoSAR members (Kristl Buluran, Pat Dodson, and Natalie Zensius) and two Type 1 members-in-training known as the Riggs twins – all giving up the warmth of their own beds to enjoy a frigid night on the snow.

As is the tradition of CoCoSAR, fellow team members helped make sure everyone was stocked with everything they would need for snow travel, including a proper shelter and a suitable sleeping bag. Kristl’s coach, Mark Sembrat, made every effort to properly gear his charge, which included a minus-20-degree bag. As it happened, Kristl was possibly too well geared, and an intervention was required to reduce her pack weight and equipment bulk. 

Post the S&I training, at 1600 hours Saturday, Todd gathered his band of eight and off we marched towards Castle Peak, in the Tahoe National Forest. With Matt and Todd at the lead, and I as the sweep, we covered lovely terrain while passing people on touring skis and snowshoes who were heading back to their cars. We pressed deeper over a snow-covered meadow and through the forest. While the dims lights of sunset helped maintain the views, it was clear that the growing dimness would soon bring a rapid drop in temperatures. 

We found a campsite just before dark and everyone prepared their place on the snow, pitched their tents, and readied for the night to come. Some tents would be shared, while others would have a single individual. One (unnamed individual) even pitched a simple but claustrophobic bivy. Eventually all of us gathered at a common site, our tribal response to the environment, to prepare meals and tell tales. Matt told his ghostly tales of searches from times past, somewhat embellished. Others merely chatted. It was our time to perform the campfire ritual that bonds a tribe and only the cold of the night drove us to our shelters. It would reach zero degrees before dawn. All were in bed by 2000 hours.

Some slept as cozy as at home. Others felt the chill despite their best preparations. Bottles of water froze. Each member faced a small crisis or two in the night, with the snow and cold increasing any discomfort. The warmth of the dawn sun would be most welcomed by all.

Todd, on the other hand, found a different way to warm all of us up: learning and preparing snow shelters.

Shovels in hand, after a lecture and examples of fine designs, we all began our constructions. Some were tragedies in the making, others would surely save a life, one was a virtual palace that could house several individuals. No matter the outcome of our designs, all members were fully warm as we spent hours digging and refining designs. Zero degrees, icy breathes and small discomforts became a distant memory.

As the sun truly began to warm the day, we broke camp and began our trek back to the vehicles. While not all had the best of nights, we all enthused about another night to camp in the snow. Why?  Everyone had new tales to share at the next gathering around a fire.