On Friday, January 29th, after two nights of heavy snow, Carson City SAR responded to a 4:30 AM callout for a lost person in the McClellan Peak area. It was reported that the lost person had gotten his truck stuck up on the mountain before most of the snow had fallen, and was unsuccessfully attempting to hike out. As this area spans Carson City and Washoe County, and the location of the subject at the time was unknown, it became a mutual aid search with the Carson and Washoe SAR teams. An Incident Command Post was setup at the end of the pavement on Goni Rd. Washoe County SAR staged on the Washoe Lake side in the State Park.

Once our team’s Jeep Rubicons arrived, the first order of business was to get the tires aired down to 12 psi for better traction and flotation on the deep snow. Meanwhile, another team was out getting a tracked side-by-side from Carson City Public Works.

The phases of most any Search and Rescue mission can be described with the acronym LAST, short for Locate, Access, Stabilize, Transport. In this case, since we didn’t have coordinates for our lost person, the Locate phase was the longest and most difficult. Our Jeep Rubicons were pretty much limited to the main road, and had to turn around within the first few miles due to deep snow.

As the sun was coming up, we had the tracked side-by-side unloaded and ready to head up the mountain. We also met the Washoe SAR Team as they came over into the canyon from the Washoe Lake side. The Washoe SAR Team continued up the mountain on their tracked quads, and the Carson SAR Team wasn’t far behind in the tracked side-by-side.

The tracked vehicles proved to be much better suited for the snow, and got the teams within sight of the top of McClellan Peak. We ran into the Washoe Team in this area again. They weren’t able to reach the top with their vehicles, so we decided to give it a try in ours. Unfortunately we didn’t even make it as far as they did, and high centered in the deep snow. Hopping out of the vehicle, we sank into the snow nearly up to our waists! Thankfully the Washoe Team was still in the area and circled back to give us a tow out.

About this time, one of Washoe County’s RAVEN helicopters was in the air and spotted our lost person in a canyon to our southwest, just north of the cinder pits. The Locate phase was over, and it was time for the Access phase. Heading back down the mountain, we had the location in sight; however, the steep descent into the canyon’s deep snow gave us pause to immediately attempt access. One thing we’ve learned in training is to never descend into an area you may not be able to get back out of. An attempt to reach our lost person from this location may have only resulted in a stuck vehicle too far from our missing person, creating another problem to deal with.

With their greater maneuverability, one of the Washoe Team’s tracked quads was already headed down into the canyon. Their other tracked quad followed us back around the mountain to try to access the scene from below. Once we were on the downhill side, we made an attempt to get into the area, but neither vehicle could make it up the steep hill. We tried another access point higher up, and the tracked quad was able to get up and around to the subject and the other Washoe SAR quad that was already on scene. Our tracked side-by-side was not able to follow all the way, although it got close enough that a ground transport of the subject would’ve been possible with a quad or litter shuttle.

Carson SAR prepared a snowshoe team and began an ascent to the scene to provide additional support if needed. About this time, another helicopter returned that had a hoist. It hovered above the scene and lowered a rescuer to help Stabilize and package the subject for Transport. The subject was suffering from the effects of hypothermia: cold, confused, and unable to continue on his own. After a few minutes, the helicopter circled back around and hoisted the subject and rescuer up into the helicopter. They then flew off to Washoe Lake State Park where the subject was transferred to an ambulance for ground transportation.

It’s searches like these that we’re very thankful for our neighboring county’s support, and especially the helicopter. Without air support, it would have been extremely difficult to locate our missing person, and the subject’s outcome could’ve easily been much worse.

An incident such as this one reminds us of the importance of backcountry travel safety.

  • Before heading out, leave your travel plans with a friend or family member. Include your intended route and destination, and when you plan to return. This way, if you’re overdue, a search into your presumed area can be expedited and better focused.
  • If you become stranded in a vehicle, stay with your vehicle. Your primary objective in a survival situation is shelter from the elements, and a vehicle makes an excellent shelter, free from wind and precipitation. If you still have fuel, you can run the heater. Just make sure the exhaust pipe is clear if you are stuck in deep snow to prevent carbon monoxide from entering the vehicle.
  • Another important reason to stay with your vehicle is that it is much easier to spot from the air. An aircraft may easily miss a person walking through the backcountry without any visual aids to catch the eye.
  • Often times, people may wander for hours and never make it too far from the vehicle, needlessly exposing themselves to further danger. In the time it may take you to make a dangerous and arduous journey to safety, a rescue crew may be able to get to your vehicle where you have been staying safe, dry, and conserving your energy and supplies.
  • And of course, keeping a few survival items in your vehicle can go a long way to staying safe and comfortable while you await rescue: Seasonally appropriate clothing, blankets or sleeping bags, extra water and food, and a way to make a warming/signal fire if possible. A mobile phone, radio, or satellite communication device can be extremely helpful. Make sure to have a way to recharge the batteries on these devices to stay in communication with your rescuers. Self rescue items to carry in your vehicle may include a shovel, tow strap, or other advanced recovery tools such as a winch or hi-lift jack.

More info on this incident on CarsonNow.org