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Teams sought to renew their snow and ice rescue skills
The bitter wind bites and lifts snow and ice crystals, flinging them against the black rock and white ground, hitting the Search and Rescue team in the face as they struggle up the steep mountainside.
They have been climbing for precious minutes now, trying to reach an avalanche victim. A steady avalanche beacon sound—“beep, beep, beep”—is the only lifeline they have to the unknown victim.
“Beep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beep.”
Time is running out. It’s been 10 minutes since they got the call, every single second counts.
“Beep, beep, beep.”
“Over there! Over there! Go, go go!” yells a team member, seeing a bright gold mitten sticking out of the snow.
The team rushes over to find a young man half buried, half conscious, but alive. His left foot is crushed and his head is bleeding but he is alive.
The group springs into action.
“We have a victim down, right knee injury, losing consciousness, location coordinates to follow.”
“Check his vitals, here, get me a backboard, find me some tape, grab that strap.”
The radio and various voices crackle and spit; orders fly fast. Thick red straps, anchors set in the heavy, wet snow, human sweat, muscle, and knowledge—this will all get the man down the hill.
The day is darkening, the cold intensifying and it’s a long way down big June Mountain. The victim will need to be lowered on a backboard attached to ropes anchored in the snow, one length at a time.
The team members roll the victim onto the backboard, and slowly, slowly, they begin the long, steep descent to the Conference Center. Hours later, they reach the parking lot, where a waiting ambulance takes the victim on to Mammoth for a broken leg and concussion.
This happens just about every day in the winter somewhere, be it here in the Sierra, in Colorado, or at Tahoe. People get lost or buried by avalanches. They get hurt. They crash and burn far from the groomed trails or cities or houses.
And every time, in every place, local volunteer search and rescue team members respond to the midnight call, pull on their boots, gloves, headlamps, and coats and head out the door.
How do these search and rescue team members know what to do? Where do they learn how to create a snow anchor, to lower a person on a backboard down a 5,000-foot mountain in a blinding storm, to stabilize someone with a broken leg and concussion?
How do you know you can trust that knowledge?
This past weekend, about 300 Search and Rescue team members from across the entire state—19 teams in all—ascended June Mountain Ski Area in a massive “ice and snow” search and rescue re-certification process.
All of them were members of the California division of the national Mountain Rescue Association, or MRA. By early morning Saturday, the parking lot at June Mountain was awash in orange, gold, and green.
Avalanche dogs romped and played by the big search and rescue vehicles as teams from as far south as San Diego geared up for the once-every-three-year ice and snow re-certification.
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, 300 participants ascended June Mountain in thin, straggling black lines, each team followed by a proctor, who would test the teams through a series of exercises to determine if they could be recertified.
They didn’t come down again until it was dark; until every single team had worked it’s way through the tests set before them.
Cindy England is a home health physical therapist, a Montrose County Sheriff Reserve Deputy, and MRA member. She and her fellow Montrose team member, Search and Rescue Caption Janet Henderson, spearheaded the massive training event last weekend.
They are both avid climbers and when it was time to do snow and ice recertification, the two Southern California women immediately thought of the Eastern Sierra and June Mountain.
“We needed a place with snow and that could take the impact of 300 people and there’s not much snow in Southern California,” Cindy said.
The massive undertaking also could not have been possible without the help of the local Mono County Search and Rescue team, who provided assistance during the event. Although the Mono County SAR is not a member of the MRA, due to issues with travel time and training time, it is an associate member.
“We do similar training to what they do,” said Mono County SAR president Dan Corning. “We just tend to do it up here, closer to Yosemite.”
England also said June Mountain general manager Carl Williams and the head of June Mountain’s ski patrol, Eric Diem, were invaluable, working months in advance of the event to be sure the mountain was ready for the event. The Mono County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the county search and rescue teams, provided logistical support as well.
So the next time you bust your leg in the backcountry and orange-clad search and rescue team members come to your aid, remember what it took for them to get there—well before the 12-mile hike to your location in the dark.