In the field with the Alpine County Search & Rescue

by Gina Gigli

Last Saturday, Alpine County Sheriff John Crawford drove me up to Hope Valley, so that I could observe the training program for the Alpine County Search and Rescue team and take a ride in their new snow cat. The team consists of sheriff's deputies plus volunteers from the community, who represent many ages, sizes, professions, and include husband and wife, father and son, and several Boy Scouts from Carson Valley.

These hearty and hardy souls are braving blizzard conditions to continue learning to assist in the wintry emergencies that often happen in high country. Outfitted in heavy-duty snow gear, including shovels in backpacks in case of avalanche, they all are dedicated to saving lives. The sheriff's office owns six snowmobiles for the eastern slope and four for Bear Valley. Volunteers who use their own snowmobiles also pay for their fuel. But as Woodfords Fire Chief Buck McClelland exclaimed, "Snowmobiling is my life!"

I am snug and dry in the front passenger seat of the nine-passenger snow cat, as Deputy Tom Minder drives from the staging area, down an incline, across a shallow icy stream, up the snow bank, and around Hope Valley. Through the tinted windows, we see cross country skiers and snowmobilers sharing territory. Winter willows delineate otherwise hidden waterways. The snow cat "turns on a dime" and Crawford notes how the ride is smooth and relatively quiet.

This transport unit was transferred to Alpine County from the Marine base at Pickel Meadow. Now medical personnel can be driven closer to the accident scene. Members of the search and rescue team have tinted the windows, because snow can be bright for victims who have lost their goggles. They also installed the communication system and created the graphics on the exterior. With its vivid orange color and flashing lights, it's not difficult to imagine that this vehicle will be a welcome sight to those who need assistance.

Deputy Ron Michitarian represents Alpine County at statewide search and rescue meetings in Sacramento to insure that assistance is given and received by neighboring counties.

"All we have to do is make a phone call, and we have help," he said.

With recent media attention drawn to victims being billed for the costs of their rescues, I asked the sheriff if that is the case in Alpine County.

"No, not yet," Crawford said. "The taxpayers pick up the bill, because the budget comes from the sheriff's office. The Alpine County Board of Supervisors designates $5000 per year to be split between Markleeville and Bear Valley for search and rescue operations. We pay time and a half when deputies work off-duty, and the volunteers spend their own money on gas and going places. Of course, we have to feed deputies and volunteers."

Crawford said there are two dangerous places where backcountry skiers can get into trouble on the eastern slope.

"One is the Caples Lake drainage, and the other is the backcountry of Silver Lake. We have a good relationship with the Kirkwood Ski Patrol, who attempts to locate lost skiers before calling us. Search and rescue can be very dangerous. Out of 30 volunteers on the Markleeville side, we'll get 10 responders, because their professions keep them busy. Bear Valley has about 20 volunteers. They all know some basic first aid and CPR. Some are members of fire departments and EMS."

A painted-white converted four-wheel-drive school bus serves as the command post, with a radio, phone, computer, and other equipment such as avalanche shovels. Jack Doyal donated his time to remove the seats and install cabinets, as did Gary Ceragioli, for the former bus. Trucks and trailers are used to transport snowmobiles, and rescuers often huddle in trailers to get a respite from bone-chilling weather. Another truck with new equipment is shared by all emergency services.

After rigorous training in Hope Valley, the search and rescue team members were invited to Under Sheriff Rob Levy's house for a barbecue.

The sheriff said they've had one rescue so far this year.

"Two CHP radio technicians working up at the repeater site on Monitor Pass got their snow cat buried in snow. They radioed for help at 9:30. We had our briefing, and everyone got on his or her snowmobiles. The two men were rescued at midnight, and were they ever happy to see us. Search and rescue members were back home by 3 AM. The next day, Cal Trans pulled out their buried snow cat, but their winching cable broke three times."

Crawford, who first served as a cadet for the Washoe Tribal Police, has worked for the Alpine County Sheriff Office for 22 years.

"We don't have the same problems as big cities have. Our officers are friendly and approachable. We are a small county with limited resources and more and more visitors, and that's good. We'll continue to do our jobs, but we have to be prepared for an increase in population and think ahead. Our feeling of security can be attributed to the fact that all of us are watching out for each other."

n Gina Gigli is a resident of Markleeville.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment