Stranded motorists in June Lake surprised by helping hand
When a pair of urban-dwelling visitors found themselves stranded on a June Lake road in the dark in the middle of a storm last weekend, they knew they were in trouble.
What the two women did not know, though, was that a helping hand was on the way in the form of new Mono County Sheriff Ralph Obenberger—“O.B.” to his pals and colleagues.
By the time their adventure was over, Montrose-area Search and Rescue Captain Janet Henderson and Reserve Deputy Cindy England also learned that June Lake and Mono County is not exactly Los Angeles County, where caution is standard and skepticism is pro forma.
It was Friday, Jan. 11, and they were headed back home from a visit to June Lake in a Los Angeles County search and rescue vehicle. It was 15 degrees and dropping when their vehicle came to a complete stop—in an avalanche zone near a curve—with no lights and no power.
They called their home station in Los Angeles County to get permission to get a tow, but found out that official protocol meant they would have to wait for six or seven hours for a tow truck from Southern California to get to them. The idea unnerved them—their vehicle was almost invisible to oncoming traffic, especially in the deepening snow. It was too dangerous to leave it, and almost as dangerous to stay in it.
“It was really, really cold and beginning to snow hard,” said England. “It was a bad place to break down.”
Several drivers zipped by them, and then a vehicle pulled up and a man got out and asked if they needed help. He identified himself as Ralph Obenberger, with the Mono County Sheriff’s Department.
But the two women, longtime city dwellers, said they were not so easily convinced the man was who he said he was, and that he meant no harm.
“We were hesitant to open the door to him and I was texting my colleagues in Montrose asking them if they could confirm his identity,” England said. “He looked like a nice guy, he didn’t look like a Ted Bundy, but then again, people thought Ted Bundy was nice guy too.”
But their colleagues in Montrose confirmed that Ralph Obenberger was indeed Ralph Obenberger and, that he just so happened to be not only with the Mono County Sheriff’s Department, but the Mono County Sheriff, newly appointed as such just before the holidays.
“It was just tremendous,” said England. “He said he would talk to our watch commander and see if he could speed things up, and he did. He got us into his truck to warm up and then he cut through the red tape and got permission to get the vehicle towed by a tow company in Lee Vining.”
They said Obenberger offered them a ride back to June Lake and invited them to stay at his home, where he and his wife Ellen and son Adam lived.
“They were just so welcoming, so warm,” England said.
The next day, Saturday, she said the Obenbergers had planned a trip to Reno.
“They left us there in the house while we waited for our vehicle to get diagnosed,” she said. “He (Obenberger) said ‘don’t worry about locking the doors’ and our jaws just dropped. That would never have happened where we are from.”
The two women had been visiting the area in advance of a Mountain Rescue Association training event (to be held later this month on June Mountain).
By all accounts, it was a lucky thing that Obenberger happened along in his unmarked vehicle when he did.
“I worked in Los Angeles and I know and understood their protocols,” Obenberger said, “but I also knew there was no way they could wait for a tow truck to come up from Los Angeles for the six or seven hours it would take.
“It was already 15 degrees and it was going to keep getting colder and the snow was beginning to pick up. So I called their watch commander and convinced him to let us handle it from here. If we have to pick up the bill, that’s what we will do.”
“You just do what you have to do to get things done.”
The shop in Lee Vining notified the two women that their vehicle could not be fixed locally. By Saturday afternoon, they were on their way home, with Lee Vining Shell towing the vehicle all the way to Southern California.
“You have such a great community out there,” said England. “We have been up here to climb and on search and rescue missions, but this was a highlight for us. Sheriff Obenberger definitely went above and beyond.”