‘It just snuck up on us:’ Family tells of surviving Sierra storm
COURTRIGHT RESERVOIR, Calif. – An experienced backpacker, Frank Horath knew to check the weather forecast before leaving on an overnight hike with family members to an alpine lake in the Sierra National Forest.
It called for clear weather in the mountains through the weekend, with a storm moving in Monday. They would be home well before then, he thought.
As Horath, his brother-in-law and their sons huddled in their camp Saturday night at nearly 9,900 feet on the shore of Rae Lake, it became clear the forecast had been wrong. The weather had turned, bringing the storm early – and it was worse than they ever imagined.
They awoke Sunday morning to six inches of fresh snow. Watching it fall constantly, they knew they were trapped.
“It just snuck up on us,” Horath said after he and the others were rescued last week. “We thought it might have been a local thunderstorm, but it was much more than that.”
By the time the storm let up Wednesday night, it had dumped four feet of snow at the Sierra’s highest elevations and whipped the mountains with 50 mph wind gusts. It also stranded groups of backpackers and rock climbers from Yosemite National Park south to Mount Whitney, setting in motion a series of dramatic high-elevation rescues that didn’t succeed until the storm broke.
“We worked and we worked and we never seemed to get anywhere,” said Joel Wahlenmaier, 44, a member of a Fresno County sheriff’s search-and-rescue team that was turned back in its attempt to reach the backpackers at Rae Lake. “It just felt like it was never going to end. It just always seemed to get worse.”
By Thursday, clear weather allowed rescuers to reach all the hikers stranded in the mountain range. Park rangers and rescuers credited their survival with their decision to remain in their tents until the storm broke.
Two rock climbers ascending the 3,087-foot granite face of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan weren’t so lucky. They were caught without proper clothing and died of exposure.
The first heavy storms usually come to the Sierra in mid-November.
By Thanksgiving of a typical year, ski lifts are running and the state highways that slice through the Sierra passes between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, all above 8,000 feet, are closed.
October has brought snow storms before to the 400-mile-long range, including the infamous one of 1846 that trapped the Donner Party west of Reno until spring, forcing the surviving members of the pioneer wagon train to resort to cannibalism.
But the intensity and duration of last weekend’s storm was a surprise, catching many off-guard.
“It’s not unusual to have a good, solid storm the first or second week of November,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of snow surveys for the state Department of Water Resources. “But something this early, that’s relatively rare.”
The trip Horath had planned began Friday right on schedule. The 45-year-old financial adviser drove with his 16-year-old son, Dominic, his brother-in-law, 47-year-old Paul Bargetto, and Bargetto’s 20-year-old son Michael from their home in coastal Santa Cruz County toward Fresno.
They headed northeast through the Sierra foothills before turning off the main highway for a 30-mile drive into the heavily wooded backcountry. They finally parked at a trailhead at Courtright Reservoir, a picturesque lake surrounded by granite cliffs and prized by local anglers for its summertime stocks of rainbow, brook and brown trout.
It was warm and dry when they set out on the 13-mile trail to Rae Lake, finishing the 1,600-foot climb late Saturday.
Expecting clear weather, they packed lightly. They had more shorts than pants, some had only lightweight hiking shoes and none brought gloves.
There were only two pair of wool socks among them. The socks would double as mittens once the storm hit and it became clear they were stranded.
They knew they lacked the proper gear to make it back down the mountain to their Ford Explorer. Staying put was the only option. Horath said thoughts soon turned to how they could survive for a week or more.
“We knew that this was going to be about planning for a worst-case scenario,” he said.
They were forced into one tent after the other began leaking and zipped their sleeping bags together for warmth. Even then, it was a struggle to stay warm and dry.
The snow, heavy with moisture, built up around the tent and provided a wind break. But the wall of snow also presented a potentially deadly problem: They were constantly at work trying to scrape a buffer outside the tent to keep the snow out.
“Even then, the sleeping bags would get moist and your feet would be freezing,” Dominic said. “And then you couldn’t really go outside because you’d bring in more water, and to be wet up there just means to die.”
Said Michael, an emergency medical technician: “I’ve never been so cold in my life.”
They rationed their food: five peanuts each for breakfast, a bit of oatmeal for lunch, a scoop of peanut butter for dinner.
But even as they took actions to save their lives, there were times of panic. One night, snow was falling faster than they could keep it away from the tent.
“It was just coming down very rapidly and at the same time the wind just started blowing at gusts of, I don’t know,” Horath said. “I was afraid the tent was going to break, and that would probably have been it at that point.”
Part of a large, close-knit family, they lifted each other’s spirits with humor and faith. The two fathers, however, had their moments of doubt.
Paul Bargetto, who operates a winery with his twin brother, Peter, said his thoughts returned home once it was clear the four were in trouble.
“I had a daughter in school, I have a wife that loves me, a family that loves me,” Bargetto said. “They have to deal with me and my son not being here. And the guilt. I felt bad because I felt like I put them through that.”
Horath began speaking to his son about the possibility of not making it out alive when Michael Bargetto told him to stop.
“We knew whatever was going to happen we were going to be together,” Michael Bargetto said. “Yes, there were some pretty hard times. But we took it one day at a time and we knew that we were going to be all right.”
What they did not know was whether a rescue attempt had even begun.
Trapped since Sunday, they heard or saw no sign of a search. Horath worried that perhaps their wilderness permit didn’t get filed correctly or the detailed route map he had left at home hadn’t been seen.
Was anyone looking for them? Did they know where to go? In some ways, those uncertainties weighed more heavily on them than the storm.
“It was a real feeling of loneliness,” Horath said.
By this time, their plight and that of the other stranded backpackers and climbers was national news. About a dozen family members and friends drove to the nearest town, Shaver Lake, and set up camp in a friend’s cabin, praying and keeping in touch with the search team.
Rescue crews had plowed their way to Courtright Reservoir shortly after getting the missing persons report from the family late Sunday, and by Monday morning were struggling to reach Rae Lake.
About a foot of snow covered the parking lot when they started. It would get much worse as they climbed higher along the trail, strenuous even in clear weather.
The snow came down constantly, the wind gusts creating whiteout conditions. By Tuesday, a team of six rescuers with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department was trudging through snow four-feet deep, the drifts reaching mid-thigh even though they wore snowshoes. Unable to see more than a few yards ahead, they could hear moisture-laden, wind-whipped trees snapping around them.
After a shelter they fashioned with tarps was blown apart Tuesday evening, they pressed on for another six hours into the darkness. Progressing just a mile, they decided to carve cramped snow caves and settle in for the night.
“Totally unimaginable,” said Deputy Robert McEwen, 39, who said the storm was the worst he had encountered during his five years on the rescue team.
He and other members of the team spoke to a reporter at Courtright Reservoir after returning from the trail but before the family was rescued. They described a storm that was frightening in its intensity.
“You start out trying to find these people. Then you get dropped into the mix and start worrying about your own survival. It’s so cold out there,” said Deputy Jared McCormick, 31, who was on his first winter rescue mission.
Despite the storm’s ferocity, the team made it within a mile of Rae Lake. They had to abandon the climb and return to the base camp at Courtright when their resupply team couldn’t get through.
“It’s disappointing that you get turned back like that,” McEwen said. “But the conditions were just kicking our butt.”
Meanwhile, the family and friends staying at Shaver Lake had found a local minister to help them pray on Wednesday night. What they asked for was simple: clear weather on Thursday.
When the stranded backpackers awoke to a brilliantly cloudless morning, they knew they would be coming off the mountain soon.
A few hours later, Paul Bargetto heard the “thump thump thump” of a helicopter and then saw the twin rotors of a military Chinook rise over a ridgeline of 10,000-foot peaks.
“We waved, they acknowledged us, and we hugged each other like you would not believe,” he said.
Later, sitting safely inside a restaurant and speaking to reporters, he remarked on the high country’s beauty and said the four would be back some day “for another adventure.”
He paused before finishing his thought: “Maybe not in October.”