Fresno Search in the Sierra National Forest

By John Banuelos

There were four Sierra searches caused by a single snowstorm. The October 22nd snowstorm had set up a cascade of missing hunters and hikers in the Sierras. CoCoSAR had already responded to the Bear Valley call, and now we were off to the Sierra National Forest near Fresno.  A search for Matthew Hanson had been initiated by Fresno SAR on October 28th. He was late from a backpacking trip that started on October 16th, with a projected return of October 25th. CoCoSAR had three members to send: Jeremiah Kost, Andy Csepely and me. For Jeremiah and me, this was our second Type I search within a week.

As with any Type I deployment, you come “loaded for bear.” Each team member came with gear suitable for sub-zero temperatures and any major change in weather patterns.  It had been made clear by Fresno SAR that every responding team would be placed in the field with an expectation of handling a full 72-hour tour.  Weather looked mild, but changes were coming. Plus the altitudes were going to drive sub-freezing temperature in unprotected snow-covered terrains.  Included in our stash were night vision gear, FLIR, an Iridium phone and SPOTS. At 1845 hours on October 28th, we were off and ready for the five-plus-hour drive to CP.

Meanwhile, a Hasty callout was made at 1900 hours to a search for a missing 14 year-old. As a rule, all in-county searches take priority over out-of-county searches. So though we were en route, timing was perfect because we were nearing Morgan Territory Road where the search was to take place. By 2100 hours, the subject was found and the three of us continued on to the Fresno search. We rolled in at 0400 hours, got a few hours of sleep and rose ready to deploy at 0800 hours on October 29th.

Fresno SAR had a detailed itinerary left by the subject. He had also indicated possible diversions within his plans. Search teams were to be assigned to high probability locations where he might hunker down and to passes where he might try to cross over on the White Mountain Divide. 

CoCoSAR was given several possible passes to search along with Bighorn, Ambition and Valor lake, between 10,000- to 12,000-foot elevation. We were to be inserted by Blackhawk helicopter with two other teams made up of BAMRU and Marin SAR.

The helicopter insertion went as expected. We had to prepare for blade wash and noise and to follow crew instructions precisely. With no ability to hear any instructions from the crew, hand signals had to be heeded. Every member of the crew is focused on very precise tasks and there is little tolerance for anyone’s inability to follow directions.

Our helicopter did initial passes over a wide area in a search pattern before prepping for the insertion of the search teams. This allowed us to assess the terrain. As expected it was snow-covered, with little forest cover, and filled with masses of broken granite boulders. While it looked like heaven to explore as a hiker, it would be tough to cover as a searcher looking for a lost hiker.

Never assume that the pilots are fully informed about the assignment and insertion point of the teams in the helicopter. Fortunately, Jeremiah had kept track of our position on his GPS and when he told me that the pilots were about to drop us at a location too far away from everyone’s primary search assignment, I was able to give the pilots a better insertion point for all the teams involved. This was right at Ambition Lake. It was now 1200 hours.

We had a 1 KM by 3 KM search area that went from 10600 ft up to 12000 ft of elevation. We were already at 11,000-plus ft. of elevation. The entire area was full of granite boulders covered with snow. Areas of our assignment required steep ascents. They were not technical, but caution was needed. There was a danger of twisting an ankle or a knee if the snow gave way into an open space between boulders. Working in unstable footing with a heavy pack (needed in these conditions) creates a constant stress on the body’s core muscle groups. Add the altitude, and bonking rises to a possibility far faster than one would expect.

At 1530 hours, the subject had been found after new information on his itinerary had been given to the search manager. A helicopter was able to sight and retrieve the subject at Cathedral Lake, which was three kms south of our search assignment.

While we were near our original extraction point, it was important to continue to listen to the radio for helicopter operations updates. Two issues came up. One was that the helicopters needed fueling, which could have meant a night out, since they would not fly at night. The other was a discussion on a different extraction point for teams in the area, which could have meant a need to move fast to prevent a night out.

Andy’s HAM skills were called on again and again. He kept in touch with other teams using a HAM repeater in the area or on Clemars 1 using an extended antenna. Communication with CP was done primarilyy with Eagle (other aircrafts in the air) relays of information from teams in the field to CP.  Monitoring all traffic in this environment was critical, and Andy did it well. We were able to convince CP to use the original extraction point.

Fresno SAR had an on-site food service truck and a pasta dinner and dessert was provided for all the teams. This same food service had provided breakfast and packed lunches for the teams. We drove off the mountain with full stomachs to make the five-plus-hour drive back to OES.