Lost in a Snow Storm: Part II

“I leave my friend Bob Bray behind to face whatever fate the dark, cold and stormy night has in store for him.”

In my last blog (see below), I described how Bob Bray, Hunt Warner, Phil Dunlop and I were hunting deer in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and got caught in a snowstorm. With sunset less than an hour away, Hunt, Phil and I realized that Bob had disappeared.  We set out to find him. Thirty minutes later I came across his tracks.

I sent Phil back to the jeep to flag down a vehicle to inform the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department that Bob was lost. Hunt returned to the jeep trail we had been using in case Bob walked out. He would fire his rifle to let me know. It was my job to track Bob down.

Following the tracks was not easy. They would be clear for a few yards and then disappear under the snow. It was continuing to fall and beginning to drift, whipped on by a strong wind.

Each time I lost the tracks I would work forward in a zigzag pattern until I found them again. It didn’t help that Bob was tending to wander or that I was tired from a full day of tramping over mountains. Dusk was rapidly approaching when I came across another set of tracks that crossed the trail I was following. They were fresher… and they were Bob’s! I yelled but the only answer I received was the silence of the snow filled woods.

Bob was beginning to follow the classic lost-person pattern of hiking in circles.

I wanted to go on, needed to go on, but knew that the decision was wrong. Dark had arrived to reduce an already limited visibility to near zero. I was tired, close to exhaustion, and cold. Hypothermia was a real threat. Ever so reluctantly I turned around and begin to make my way back toward Hunt, leaving Bob behind to face whatever fate the dark and snow and cold had in store for him.

The realization of just how tired I was hit me when I came to a low fence and couldn’t persuade my leg to step over. I reached down, grabbed my pants and gave the reluctant leg a boost.

Hunt was waiting where we agreed and I filled him in on my findings as we made way back to the jeep through the ever-deepening snow. Phil had more luck. The vehicle he flagged down had a CB Radio and the driver was able to contact the Sheriff’s office. A team with snowmobiles would be at our jeep at first light, prepared for a full search and rescue operation.

Bob, who was manager of Placerville’s newspaper, The Mountain Democrat, was well known and liked in the community. We knew we would have lots of support in our search.

There wasn’t anything else we could do. We were too tired to set up the tent so we climbed in the jeep, grabbed a bite to eat, downed a beer and prepared for a long night.

Hunt got the front seat, it was his jeep; Phil and I shared the back. It was beyond uncomfortable and even exhaustion couldn’t drive me to sleep. Somewhere around two I finally managed to doze off only to be awakened at 5:30 by Hunt’s cussing about how cold it was. Our doors had frozen shut during the night and had to be kicked open.

We soon had our Coleman lantern blasting out light and our Coleman stove cooking up a mass of bacon, eggs and potatoes. We were expecting a long day and knew we would need whatever energy the food could supply. The storm had passed, leaving an absolutely clear sky filled with a million twinkling stars.

The Sheriff’s team arrived just as the sun was climbing above the Crystal Range, exactly on time. Introductions were made, snowmobiles unloaded and we filled the team in on our efforts of the previous day.

The deputy sheriff in charge asked me to climb onto the back of his snowmobile and take them to the point where I had left Bob’s tracks the night before. It was to be my first ever snowmobile ride; except it didn’t happen.

Just as the search team was firing up their engines, a wraith-like figure wearing a plastic poncho came slowly hiking up the hill toward the jeep. He looked like a bad guy out of an early Clint Eastwood western.

As soon as the sun provided a hint of dawn, Bob had managed to orient himself and start walking back toward the jeep. Yes he was freezing and yes he was starving, but he was alive. We knew just how alive he was when he demanded his share of breakfast. As we cooked up another mass of bacon and eggs, Bob told us his story.

He had become disoriented after coming out of the thicket where I found his tracks and headed off in the direction he thought would take him back to the jeep. It didn’t. He fired his rifle several times to get our attention but the sound of shots is fairly common in the forest during hunting season. We just assumed a deer hunter got lucky.

Bob continued wandering and eventually came across his own tracks. That was when he seriously began to worry. Knowing he was lost and knowing night was coming on, he gathered wood for a fire. The wood was wet and refused to start burning. Bob’s lighter ran out of fuel but he still had a match left. He took his lighter apart, placing the innards under the wet wood and used his last match to light it.

The good news was that the fire started. The bad news was that the wind and snow put it out almost immediately. It was some time during this process that I had fired my rifle and Bob had used his last shot to respond. Out of options, he dug out a packrat’s nest to provide shelter and prepared for the longest night in his life. He survived in lodging that made Hunt’s ancient jeep seem like a five-star hotel.

“I even fell asleep once or twice,” Bob managed to get out around a mouthful of eggs.

Of course the Mountain Democrat ran a major story on Bob and he had to take considerable ribbing in Placerville over the next several months. It was a small price to pay considering the alternatives. That Christmas Bob received several compasses for gifts.

It was years before he had tolerance for any temperature below 70.

This blog completes a series of posts I have written in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up I want to address the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in light of the student movement of the 60s sparked by the “Free Speech” confrontation at UC Berkeley where I was a student.

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