Tragedy brings formation of elite rescue organization

Seth Lightcap/Sierra Sun

Seth Lightcap/Sierra Sun

Out of a tragedy 32 years ago for one Tahoe family, hope is now extended every year to others waiting for the return of lost loved ones.

In 1976, Larry Sevison's 12-year-old son Lance became lost while skiing with a friend on the backside of Northstar-at-Tahoe during one of the worst storms of that winter.

"There was not an organized group," Sevison said of search-and-rescue efforts available then. It took a "kind of rag-tag group" of skiers "that was able to bring the boys out."

While it was too late for Lance, his father moved forward to ensure that another such tragedy wouldn't duplicate itself. Sevison helped pull together a handful of volunteer Nordic skiers into the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue team.

Three decades later, Sevison, now 73 years old, and scores of other men and women remain part of an organization tasked with finding people lost in the worst mountain weather when other first responders cannot.

"In many instances the people are quite far away and it takes more expertise than we can provide," said North Tahoe Fire Protection District Chief Duane Whitelaw, about the small cadre of backcountry skiers whose motto is, "Go as fast as possible."

They are electricians and Web designers, firefighters and hydrologists, they have jobs and families.

Approximately 100 men and women donate their time to the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue team, an all-volunteer organization.

Though not obligated to go out on every call, Tahoe Nordic can, in the event of a lost skier, snowboarder or snowmobiler, put together eight to 10 members at a moment's notice, said 25-year veteran Randall Osterhuber.

The organization keeps a list of about 55 members, according to Osterhuber, a professional hydrologist at the Central Sierra Snow Lab on Donner Summit.

"At the minimum, everyone is at least competent in medical and survival training," Osterhuber said. "We are strong skiers and have knowledge of the terrain."

In addition, the skiers must be trained in avalanche safety and know how to use a map, compass and GPS.

Two weeks ago, family and friends gathered at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort. But the get-together wasn't a festive one.

Two San Francisco men had gone missing from the resort, and whether they had survived two nights of blizzard conditions was anyone's guess. The members of Tahoe Nordic SAR had a pretty good idea, however.

They suspected the skiers were near the remote Hell Hole Reservoir but could not find the tracks because of high winds and heavy snow, Osterhuber said. His team guessed correctly at the wayward skiers' whereabouts because of training. The group holds two training days a month during daylight hours in order to become familiar with the topography of the backcountry.

"We try to recognize the features and natural corrals that people get lost in," he said.

The two San Francisco men were found about 7 miles west of the resort near Hell Hole Reservoir by a Placer County Sheriff's helicopter after two nights sleeping in snow caves, but not before dozens of Tahoe Nordic members entered the backcountry.

Sevison, meanwhile, remains active with search and rescue and drives a snow cat to help "bring people in or out," he said.

The rescue organization's effectiveness is in part due to its rigorous training but also key is the group's ability to deploy as soon as a call comes in, which usually comes at night, Sevison said.

"We like to leave as soon as we get the call," said Tahoe Nordic President Russ Viehmann. "When we have the best chance of finding tracks."

Tahoe Nordic members have found every one of the approximately 300 wayward skiers, snowboarders, snowshoers and snowmobilers they have set out to look for " except one, Viehmann said.

Some 22 years later, members haven't given up the search. They will stage a hike this summer to look for remains of the man, who was lost in 1986.


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