Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue, Inc. Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue, Inc.


February 2010

Four Seconds… until your next breath; 1060 days, 9 hours and 29 minutes until the end of the world (Dec 21, 2012); 41 days until the Great Ski Race; 5,328 hours until the Man burns in the Black Rock Desert; 156 days until my birthday; and only 518,400 more seconds until the next TNSAR general meeting at the Granlibakken Hut. Monday, February 1st, 6:30pm.

Quite a Month… we had here in TNSAR country. First we had a classic Tahoe Junuary thaw, people skiing in shorts etc., etc., then someone turned the heat off and winter came back throwing punches (last I heard the Sierra snowpack is up to 117% of normal), and the pagers sang out multiple times. TNSAR went out on four searches this past month. January 12th TNSAR responded to a call for 3 missing snowboarders off the backside of Sugarbowl. As ski, snowmobile, and snowcat teams geared up, Sugarbowl Patrollers dropped off the backside, found tracks, and eventually located the missing party of three. With fresh GPS coordinates from the Patrollers, four TNSAR snowmobiles and the Team Snowcat raced up Cold Stream Canyon and shortly thereafter rendezvoused with the missing snowboarders. When asked what had transpired, the snowboarders dimly responded, “…took a wrong turn, dude…” Yes. Indeed. Well put. I’ll have to quote you on that…Oh, and have you seen any of these signs recently?

On an extremely blustery evening, January 18th, TNSAR responded to a callout for two missing snowboarders off the top of Lakeview chair in Alpine Meadows. With heavy snow and crazy winds (gusts were clocked at 134 mph over the ridge), the two snowboarders drifted east, off the ridge, and into Outer-outer land, ultimately ending up in Paige Meadows. Their cell phone 911 call yielded extremely accurate GPS coordinates and swarms of TNSAR searchers from all directions descended upon the two snowboarders. No fewer than 20 TNSAR volunteers were involved with this search. By the time search teams found the X on the map, the missing snowboarders were hunkered down in a snow cave fully expecting to spend the night. After some gentle persuasion and a brief description of the menu items at the Bridgetender, the victims opted to depart their cave and were transported out to inspect the menu in person. Later, searchers and searchees gorged and imbibed in true Bridgetender fashion.

A few days and many feet of snow later, TNSAR responded to a callout for an injured skier on Donner Peak (January 23rd). Five skiers left the Sugarbowl ski area for a last run down the much travelled “Lake Route.” This is an exhilarating ski off the east side of Donner Peak all the way down to the neighborhoods on the South Shore of Donner Lake. Somewhere along the way, one of the skiers suffered a tremendous fall. Realizing the enormity of their compadres’ injuries (head and neck trauma, multiple broken bones), the other skiers immediately called 911. Sugarbowl ski patrollers responded from the ski resort above with a backboard and sled while TNSAR skiers and snowmobilers responded from below Donner Peak through the snowshed tunnels. With unstable weather, extreme terrain, and waning daylight, helicopter support was questionable, so TNSAR basically geared up for an epic recovery. Three skiers were in route approximately 300 feet below the accident site, six more skiers were standing by a short distance away, one snowmobile was stationed a quarter mile away inside the abandoned train tunnel, and the Team snowcat was staged a few miles away on old Highway 40. Luckily CHP’s H24 helicopter arrived and was able to “hot load” the victim and transport him to emergency care in Roseville. FYI, a “hot load” is a maneuver where the helicopter doesn’t actually land. It hovers under full power, skis barely touching the snow, for just long enough to load the victim and scare the pants off any onlookers nearby. This is a terrifying, last resort, Hail Mary, “…let’s see if this works…” landing technique used by deranged pilots who are brain damaged. It is, and was, awesome to see. The men and women who perform these ‘landings’ are unbelievably talented. Deranged but talented. Again, TNSAR responded en masse for a recovery that, thankfully, had a quick and happy (as happy as could be considering the extent of the poor fellows’ injuries) ending.

The following night, January 24th, TNSAR was again called out to Sugarbowl for a missing Boy Scout. The 15 year-old lad accidentally separated from the rest of the Scouts and wandered off the ridge into Cold Stream Canyon. Armed with the Boy Scout motto, “ Be Prepared”, the Scout whipped out his iPhone, loaded his GPS app, and called in his coordinates to the Sugarbowl Ski Patrol. Shortly thereafter, TNSAR responded with snowmobiles and the Team snowcat and transported everyone to warmth and safety.

Vestibular Disorientation...just have to mention something that happened to me on that Alpine Meadows search on January 18th. Like I said before, conditions were horrendous, zero visibility, heavy snowfall, and howling winds when my partner and I skied off the backside of Alpine Meadows. Looked a bit like this picture only with less focus. So there we were, trying to figure out where we were and where we were supposed to go when all of a sudden we found ourselves in the middle of a wide open slope. No trees, no rocks, no landmarks, just snow everywhere we shined our headlamps. It was like driving through a raging snow storm with the high beams on, except that we were skiing down this open slope. At least I thought we were skiing. It felt like I was moving along at a nice clip. I was balancing right, balancing left, leaning a little ways this way, counterbalancing a little ways that way...when all of a sudden I realized that I was standing dead still. I was completely stopped. Not moving a bit. In an instant, I was thrown forward and was barely able to stand. It felt like someone rear ended me. I was waving my arms, doing everything I could to stand upright. And again, I was stopped, completely stopped, standing dead still out there on that open slope. (Insert weird Twilight Zone music here.) Turns out I was suffereing from something called Vestibular Disorientation. Any pilots out there probably know exactly what I'm talking about. It's a condition of complete whackiness where you cannot tell up from down, right from left, skiing down a slope from standing still. Most often it affects pilots who fly into dense cloud cover where they lose all sense of reference. Their feet are firmly planted on the pedals on the bottom of the aircraft, but they can't tell if the bottom of the aircraft is under their feet or above their heads, right side up or wrong side down. It all has to do with the inner ear and the organs that help maintain our equilibrium. When there is no visual point of reference to tell your brain which way is up and which is down, there is a sensory free-for-all in your inner ear and all hell breaks loose. In my case, the heavy snowfall and lack of visibility (I literally could not see the tips of my skis) tricked my brain into thinking that I was actually moving through the snow when the snow was really coming toward me and bombarding my goggles. It was one strange sensation. According to aviation statistics, between 5% and 10% of all aviation accidents can be attributed to this type of spatial disorientation and 90% of these accidents are fatal.  The plane goes into what is known as a "graveyard spiral." In my case it was a "telemark spiral."

With skis firmly planted on the snow, I think…


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