Since 1976, the Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue team has been heading out in blinding blizzards in the middle of the night. They seek to find and return to their loved ones those lost in the mountains around North Lake Tahoe. While the goal is simple, the task is not. It takes a group of crack back-country skiers and snowmobilers who know where to go, when to go and how to get there as quickly as possible. Once they get there, their work has just begun; then they have to get people out safely.
Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue volunteers work closing with local sheriff department and other agencies to find lost skiers and snowmobilers, including during this search in Galena Creek
Over the years the team has conducted more than 300 searches, rescuing more than 500 people.
“Just about everybody gets out,” says Doug Read, who estimates that he has been on 150 of those searches. He says that some of the searches are quick, and some, like a recent one for a lost Sugar Bowl ski instructor, can go on for days.
The members of the Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue Team are all volunteers who are called away from their daily lives to save the lives of people they have never met. There is an A Team and a B Team. The A team are the experienced, highly trained searchers who are called out in the middle of the night. Many of these folks have been going out on searches for decades, and are familiar with the routes the lost are most likely to travel. There are currently 39 members on the A team.
“Rescues can be a dangerous business. Avalanches are an ever-present threat. They are often skiing in a blizzard with a high avalanche danger, in the dark.”
A searcher battles deep snow during a Pole Creek search.
The B team, which currently includes 22 members, is composed of folks who are training to becoming a member of the A Team. Long-time team member Sara Carbonari was on the B Team for more than 10 years before being elevated to the A team. She says that she joined TNSAR “to learn about the terrain and places to ski with people with lots of experience and knowledge. I fell in love with the members and their attitudes,” she said.
There is a lot of thought and planning that goes into the rescue process before they strap on skis and head out into the wilderness. First they try to get into the head of the lost person: “What were they thinking? Are they still moving or hunkered down?” Carbonari said.
Members of Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue conduct a search and rescue operation in the Pole Creek region
Then they move on to taking into account the searchers’ situation: “What risk are we taking? Am I prepared. Tired? Hungry? What are the clues? What areas have already been searched?” she said.
Once they are on a search, rescuers are looking for tracks and signals that might give an indication of where the lost person might be going. This is where experience and expertise are key. Once they find a missing person, the next phase begins: They call for backup and assess the patient’s condition (all of the rescuers have some level of medical first aid training). The goal is to stabilize the person and get them out as soon as possible.
Training on Castle Peak
The questions they then ask are: How close can we get a snowmobile or snowcat? Can they walk or ski out themselves? One important consideration is that it is extremely difficult or impossible to carry out a lost person for a long distance. Thus the need to bring a snowmobile or sled as close as possible if the person is not capable of getting out on their own.
Rescues can be a dangerous business. Avalanches are an ever-present threat. They are often skiing in a blizzard with a high avalanche danger, in the dark.
A member during a search and rescue in Galena Creek; training on Castle Peak and team members undergo avalanche training on Castle Peak during a snowstorm
“It is very important to be familiar with terrain. And, know where you are,” said Carbonari. They keep in constant communication with each other and always travel in small groups.
The TNSAR is just one team of a series of cooperating agencies and groups who work on searches including the various law enforcement agencies such as the county sheriffs and California Highway Patrol, as well as search dogs, Office of Emergency Services, Red Cross, Civil Air Patrols, and the ski patrols for the various ski areas.
While the Search and Rescue’s primary mission is to rescue those who are lost, another important task for the team is public education. They developed a brochure called Winter Awareness, which is distributed throughout the region. And every winter they present “Winter Aware” to fourth graders. It teaches children what to do when they get lost, how to be prepared when heading into the wilderness and the basics of outdoor education.
The Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue Team is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations and one major fundraiser for financial support. That fundraiser is The Great Ski Race, the cross-country ski race held every March between Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area and downtown Truckee. The past few years, the race has been cancelled due to lack of snow, so the Team is hoping for a banner year of support this year to make up for lost funds. This year’s race is March 6 at 9 a.m.
For more information, visit tahoenordicsar.com or thegreatskirace.com.