Snow cave credited for ensuring women’s survival in Sierra backcountry
March 3, 2019
Two Bay Area women can count themselves lucky to be alive after becoming stranded over the Presidents Day weekend near Tahoe amid a snow blizzard and sub-freezing temperatures.
Rescued by a select group of search and rescue volunteers, staff from the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office and the California Highway Patrol, the misadventure of the two women, who wish to remain unidentified, along with their poodle "Parker," began Saturday, Feb. 16.
After parking their car, the pair and their pooch set out to do some cross-country skiing in the area near Peddler Hill off California Route 88.
But at some point they became disoriented and with heavy snow falling, were unable to make their way back to their car. They called relatives and notified them they were lost. It was relatives who then called 911.
El Dorado County Sheriff's Deputy Greg Almos said they received the call about the women's distress at midnight on Saturday. On Sunday they did a "hasty search" but all attempts were failing due to conditions. Almos said that even snowmobiles and a snow cat couldn't navigate in the deep snow.
"We even contemplated sending a drone," he said, but there was a blizzard. "It's tough to even send people out there due to the conditions."
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Fortunately, the women knew enough to build a snow cave in the heavy snow and were able to survive Saturday night when temperatures dropped below freezing.
Meanwhile, various agencies and search and rescue volunteers from throughout the state were assembling to help with at least 50 volunteers coming from El Dorado County, Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue, Marin County, Contra Costa County, Monterey County, the Bay Area, Amador County and Placer County.
Almos said they asked for whatever they could get in the way of help and that's why they got so many people.
"We have a typing of search and rescue volunteers and we asked for a type one volunteer which is highest type. It's someone who can work in just about any conditions and can be hard to get so that's why so many people came from out of the area."
Almos said the husband of one of the women also received a text Sunday afternoon indicating they were in trouble and couldn't send their location on the cell phone which apparently died shortly thereafter as the cold drained the batteries.
The text indicated that one woman was in the snow cave and the other was going to try to make it out and get help. Their plans changed as the weather worsened.
Some friends of the women also went searching on Sunday against Almos' advice. When they came back they provided information indicating there were some tracks down a ravine. Almos passed that information on to the helicopter pilots and on Monday the pilots were able to find them within a few minutes using that information.
Jared Boothe, a flight officer/paramedic with the California Highway Patrol's Valley Division Air Operations said the helicopter crew spotted the women around 9:30 a.m. on Monday.
"If they hadn't had the skill set and experience to build a snow cave, it likely would have been a fatal event as temperatures were reported to be a minus 8 degrees without considering wind chill," Boothe said. "If they had sat out in the open, they likely wouldn't have made it out."
The pilot said the women were transported out separately because the staging area was only a few minutes away and it allowed the women to be quickly checked out by a medic. Calstar and Care Flight air ambulances met the rescue helicopter near Peddler Hill and then transported both skiers to Sutter Roseville Medical Center for treatment.
Snow cave haven
Fortuitous that these two women not only knew they would need a snow cave to survive but how to build one, Boothe emphasized that if people are going to be out in the Sierra in this kind of weather they need the skills to survive should they get lost or injured. How to build a snow cave is something most people may not know.
He also said it takes some training in how to do it safely and the right way.
"They dug the snow out into cave shape. That shields them from temperature outside and the wind. Generally the temperature inside is 30 to 32 degrees, which is much warmer than outside the cave, and it shields you from the wind chill.
"You need the skill set regardless of where you are in order to save your life," he said, adding that one thing people need to remember is that the batteries in their cell phones die quickly when exposed to extreme cold. Keeping a cell phone inside your jacket next to your body can help prolong the batteries.
Another device Boothe recommends for those out in the back country is a personal location beacon. It uses a satellite service to send a signal to the local search and rescue team with your location. It also runs on batteries like a cell phone so keeping it under a parka and near the body keeps the batteries alive longer.
All those involved in the rescue agreed that they do many kinds of rescues.
Dan Lewis, the pilot of the helicopter that hoisted the women out of the snow, said these searches can sometimes last for days and it was lucky the way things worked.
A couple of days before a different crew found a skier who had skied the backside of Sugar Bowl. Using night goggles, they were able to rescue him.
As for the condition of the women, Almos said one of the women was released from the hospital the same day she was taken there. There was no further information on the condition of the second woman. Parker, the dog, was taken to a vet and is doing well.