Preparation key to survival for wayward snowmobilers
Lost in a frigid winter storm with two fellow snowmobilers, Erica Baxter voted around 8 p.m. to help build a snow cave with a small camping shovel to hunker down for the night.
It was roughly five hours after Baxter, her boyfriend Clinton Schue and roommate Calvin Yeager ventured into El Dorado National Forest toward Freel Peak under a hazy gray sky last Sunday afternoon.
It was a “boys’ trip” – designated to be two to three hours but destined to be longer – and Baxter was invited.
During Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday, 30 personnel ranging from volunteers to law enforcement from surrounding agencies searched for the trio caught in an unexpected snowstorm.
It’s a tough ride with steep slopes and minimal tracks from other riders. Baxter said an alternate route was taken by Schue and Yeager at Freel Peak. The exhausted trio was about 12 to 13 miles into the forest when they decided to stop.
Around 8 p.m. a vote was taken. Schue wanted to continue to find the way out. Yeager, who had experience in backcountry survival, and Baxter voted to stay put and build a cave.
A fire was attempted but gas from the snowmobiles poured on frozen sticks just burned off. The group tried to replenish their water supply by putting snow in containers and placing them near the idling engines. There wasn’t enough heat from the engines to melt the snow.
Baxter was too cold to drink water anyway, but hours later at Barton Memorial Hospital she was given fluids intravenously.
The three didn’t have food. Baxter and Yeager had a burrito lunch at Margaritas Mexican Cafe and didn’t expect a prolonged trip.
As they huddled together inside the snow cave and tried to get the most out of their dying cell phones, used to contact friends with the best location possible, they spoke fondly of their warm beds.
“It makes you think about things more,” Baxter said. “It makes you appreciate things more.”
Each of the three sleds, which had full tanks of gas before departure, were turned on in intervals outside the cave to shine their lights for rescuers.
“No doubt, it was definitely an uncomfortable situation,” Schue said.
On Monday morning around 7:40 two rescue personnel on snowmobiles contacted the group. Yeager and Baxter had signs of exposure and hypothermia and were flown out of the wilderness by helicopter. Schue was able to ride out with the rescuers, leaving behind the other two sleds to be retrieved later.
“Their teeth were chattering and (they) couldn’t feel their feet or anything,” Schue said.
“I couldn’t really talk. I was stuttering,” Baxter said, adding “It was just unbearably cold.”
El Dorado County sheriff’s Deputy Mike Sukau, part of the search and rescue team, said the group did the right thing by staying put.
While not criticizing the group, Sukau said they should have possessed a global positioning system device to pinpoint their exact location. Avalanche beacons would have helped as well as checking weather forecasts.
The day he returned home Schue said he bought a GPS device.
Schue’s neighbor and fellow snowmobiler John Gallardo said flashlights, extra gloves and socks should have been brought on the trip.
“They learned their lesson a hard way,” Gallardo said.
Baxter said she plans to go on future trips but will bring extra provisions.
“We really want to thank the rescuers and the volunteers and everyone else who was involved,” she said.
– E-mail William Ferchland at firstname.lastname@example.org
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
When the Judicial & Law Enforcement Center was built 40 years ago, there were only 19,400 people living in Douglas County.