Peter Brumis knew something was very wrong after he dropped into the chute near the top of Echo Peak and felt his knee crunch as the joint gave out.
The 36-year-old South Tahoe resident admits he broke the very first rules of backcountry skiing when he headed out alone late in the day. The friends he'd called all said they were busy, but the snow was too good to resist.
Brumis started his descent just before 3:15 p.m. on Jan. 2. Other than a few snowboarders who'd dropped in before him and his dog, Cody, Brumis was alone. There was no one around to help him when he fell shortly after his first turn.
"It was the scariest experience of my life. I knew how late it was, that I was alone and that it was very cold. Once I did make my way down the mountain, I collected myself and realized my knee was trashed. It literally felt like I could tear an artery or do something worse to my leg," Brumis said.
Brumis, a skier with 14 years of backcountry experience, tried skiing on one ski to get to the bottom of the slope. But with his dog shaking and the temperature dropping quickly, he knew he didn't have time to waste.
So he called Search and Rescue on his cell phone at 3:30 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, he heard the throb of the helicopter overhead.
Brumis propped his ski in the snow with its florescent-pink base facing the sky to show his location. The helicopter circled back, but couldn't land on the snow for fear of starting an avalanche. Before turning away, the pilot came over the loudspeaker to tell Brumis that they'd be back.
It was almost 6 p.m. when the helicopter returned with a harness to hoist Brumis and his dog. Dangling from the helicopter as the machine took off, Brumis forced himself to keep his eyes open. He figured he'd never get another view like it again. Doctors later diagnosed Brumis with a torn MCL, ACl, meniscus and an impact fracture.
"Hopefully people can learn from my mistakes and a couple of things that I did right - swallow your pride and make the call. Most of all I'm grateful to those people who risked their lives to save mine," Brumis said.
The Search and Rescue team
Most search-and-rescue missions don't involve experienced skiers like Brumis, El Dorado County Search and Rescue Snowmobile Team Leader Terry Carroll said. It's the novice outdoor enthusiasts who usually get in over their heads and need help getting out.
That's when they call El Dorado County's Search and Rescue Tahoe unit - a 30- to 35-person all-volunteer organization dedicated to preparing for and executing search-and-rescue missions in South Lake Tahoe and the wilderness areas nearby. A group capable of responding to diverse situations, they field specialty Nordic, snowmobile, technical rope rescue and swift water teams in addition to basic search-and-rescue crews.
Not only did Brumis have backcountry experience, he'd volunteered with search and rescue before.
"It equipped me with the ability to think quickly and assess my situation. And I realized I didn't have a lot of time to make decisions. The people who are still doing it commit a huge amount of their personal time to go out and help people who need it," he said.
Search-and-rescue volunteers are required to finish mandatory medical training, attend a majority of the meetings, and respond to at least 20 percent of the call-ins. The nonprofit received 93 service calls last year and 2013 is shaping up to be just as busy with six calls since Jan. 1.
"It could easily be a full-time job for someone. A full-time, unpaid job," Nordic and K-9 Team Leader Scott Longoria said.
Many of the missions Longoria has responded to over the five years he's volunteered for Search and Rescue have been dangerous for both the rescuers and the victims. Three years ago on New Year's Eve the group got a call about a missing snowboarder who'd ridden out of bounds.
Longoria and the rest of the team found the rider around midnight. Not prepared for the sub-freezing temperatures, the snowboarder suffered from severe hypothermia and had already started to strip layers. If rescuers hadn't found him when they did, Longoria doubts the rider would have survived the night.
"You see it all. I don't think anybody expects to get into trouble, so I don't think many people are prepared for something to go wrong," Longoria said.
When that worst-case situation does happen, an extra pair of gloves and socks and an extra base layer could save your life. But the backcountry essentials - shovel, beacon, probe - don't do much good unless you're also skiing with a partner.
As the number of people going into the backcountry increases, so to does the number of Search and Rescue call-ins. The days of needle-in-the-haystack searches are ending, Search and Rescue Lead Coordinator Greg Almos. Today, rescuers are part of streamlined teams that use GPS and technical skills to save people as quickly as possible.
"We need people to be trained and have that knowledge base. This isn't something you can just come in and do," Almos said.
The organization accepts applications year round and though Almos said there are command and organizational positions that don't require backcountry skills, Search and Rescue missions require more and more expertise.
Search and Rescue doesn't bill the people saved, but that's another thing that might change. Legislators in Wyoming proposed a bill that would allow sheriff's offices to charge people for search-and-rescue missions. Almos doesn't think El Dorado County taxpayers would have to pay for those services, but the non-county residents - about 90 percent of the calls - might face a hefty fee. Douglas County Sheriff's Office estimated that the search for the missing snowboarder found Thursday cost $40,000.
"We work in a unique environment. A high percentage of what we do is rescue-oriented. In the winter we get a lot of recreationists that get themselves into trouble because they don't have a plan," Almos said.
To apply or donate to SAR, visit www.searchandrescuetahoe.org.