Playing hide and seek, Alpine County style
January 20, 2011
One day, the summer before last, my dog and I were hiking on Poor Boy Road when a number of people on quads caught up with us. They were members of the search and rescue team who were looking for a missing woman. One of the group, Stacy James, questioned me for clues in their search. This was my first encounter with Alpine County Search and Rescue.
The next encounter came on Jan. 18 at Pickett’s Junction where the search and rescue was holding a public winter safety awareness day next to the yurt of Hope Valley Outdoors, the cross-country ski shop of Joyce Coker who had invited the group to hold their event there and had provided them with skis. Joyce rents out skis and snowshoes to adults and children. There are 60 miles of trails, about 25 of them groomed. She offers lessons and tours of which the most popular is the full moon tour.
The Alpine County Search and Rescue is comprised of two sheriff’s deputies, sheriff’s department coordinator Tom Minder, and Chris Harootuian, and about 20 civilians including civilian coordinator Lance Lopes. All are medically trained as first responders. There are also trained dogs on the team. Members are Alpine and Douglas county residents.
Rescuers hold monthly meetings and weekend training days conducted by the four trainers in the membership. All-season training topics include building lean-tos, using map and compass, starting fires with wet wood and water rescue. Recruitment is mostly by word-of-mouth. The group is funded chiefly by the Alpine County Sheriff’s Department. Cooking breakfast for the Death Ride is the major fund-raising opportunity; last Saturday’s event, where a donations box was displayed, was partly to assess the possibility of holding an annual ski day to raise money. Opening such events to the public also attracts new members.
One focus of this day was on Nordic skiing proficiency. The intention is to develop a Nordic team capable of rescue. Another aspect of the training was avalanche rescue using beacons. Dummy Bob, acting as victim, was buried with a beacon, and searchers used their beacons in search mode, to find and retrieve him, working with probes and shovels at high speed because, generally, anyone buried in an avalanche has between fifteen and thirty minutes to live. Skiers and snowshoers in avalanche country are advised to turn on their beacons before leaving their cars and to keep them on.
On display in the area was an ice hut which can be hauled to the site on a sled pulled by a snow mobile. The ice hut, originally designed for ice fishing, is set up over the injured party. Once a Coleman stove is fired up the temperature rises rapidly. Lifting the victim off the snow onto a pad or brush provides further warmth.
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The rescue team has an impressive list of resources at its disposal. It works in cooperation with El Dorado and Douglas counties search and rescue teams, sharing equipment, manpower and the same radio frequencies. Helicopters from Gardnerville and Auburn provide care flights to hospitals and the California Highway Patrol helicopter can drop rescue workers and equipment as well as transport the injured. The team owns snowmobiles and quads. It has access to the sheriff’s department’s command trailer at the county yard. The command trailer is equipped with satellite phone, ham and aircraft radios, a full weather station, multi lap-top computers and satellite television among other gadgetry suitable for use in fire, flood and other disasters. The rescuers carry Sheriff’s Department two-way radios. The department is working on putting a repeater on Hawkins Peak to afford better reception for cell phones.
Verizon cell phones work well in certain wilderness areas and failing voice connection, texting may work. Cell phones also help pin-point the location of the user. The new smart phones offer a wealth of rescue-related information such as details of topographical maps.
At the event I learned about the 10 essentials for backcountry travel, which include:
• Sun protection
• Insulation (extra clothing)
• Illumination (at night the beam of a small flashlight shows up greatly magnified on a helicopter search screen)
• First Aid supplies
• Repair kit and tools
• Nutrition (extra food)
• Hydration (extra water)
• Emergency shelter
The SAR meets at 6 p.m. the first Wednesday of the month in the brick building next to Woodfords Auto. The group welcomes volunteers willing to do paperwork as well as to work in the field. There is also a group in Bear Valley. The volunteers not only do good work; they also have fun.
Thanks to Lance and DeAnna Lopes, Tom Minder, and other SAR volunteers.