Mariposa & Yosemite

Search-and-rescue volunteers make all the difference

MARIPOSA -- On a gorgeous autumn weekend, when many folks would be enjoying the great outdoors, what possible reason would someone have for sitting inside a classroom, listening to lectures and watching dry DVD presentations?

For Mariposa's Search and Rescue volunteers, it's more than the thrill of the search -- it's dedication.

Bob Craig had risen early to drive from his home in Merced and arrive in Mariposa to teach the morning's first session.

With the team for eight years, Craig is an avid back-country hiker, climber and skier. "I tried serving with other organizations, but SAR is more in line with my interests."

On this particular weekend, the training sessions focused on winter skills and safety. No season is typical, as Search and Rescue attempts are often affected by the weather and the diversity in terrain. "We get called out a few times each winter -- typically to look for lost hikers," Craig explained.

"Every time we're called, there are unique aspects to the search," said Tim Rumfelt, a deputy with the Mariposa Sheriff's Department. He's been with SAR since 1996, and has been the SAR coordinator for six years. "In our county, there's dive rescue, swift water, ground and rope rescue. Everybody starts out in the academy, learning the basics; then they choose an area to specialize in." There are usually three overnight trainings a year, when team members go out "into the field"; there they use the rescue equipment to refine the skills they've learned in the classroom.

"I love what I do. This is the best assignment I've had," Rumfelt said.

Do the same dangers lost individuals find themselves facing, also pose a threat to SAR team members? Craig responded, "That's always a concern for SAR workers. There are safety issues, storm conditions, fog and cold, things like that. We don't go out in blizzards, of course." But, as he explained to the class, there are many things to take into consideration while out in the elements.

"One winter a guy died by falling into a fumarole (a vapor hole in or near a volcano) that was surrounded by snow. Another guy who went over to help him, also fell in," Craig said.

"For those going into the back country to ski or hike or whatever, you should always check with the Ranger's Station or get a permit, so others know where you're going. In the event of an avalanche, your time of survival is extremely limited under the snow," Craig said. "After 30 minutes buried, chances of survival drop sharply -- not only because of suffocation, but also from trauma, as the body hits against rocks and trees while tumbling down. And never go alone. Some of our best 'customers' are solo travelers."

Three pieces of equipment everyone should take with them are a beacon, a shovel (one designed to come apart for carrying in a pack), and a transceiver. Craig explained, "This transceiver can send and receive signals, and should always be worn close to the body -- strapped to hang around the neck or placed in a zippered pocket -- not in a back pack that could fall off. It doesn't make any sense for a guy to spend $10,000 to $15,000 dollars on a snow mobile, and not spend a few hundred dollars for safety gear."

Avalanches are the cause of over 100 deaths each winter, usually in January and February when the snow hasn't had time to become compacted.

"An avalanche can be comprised of loose snow on the side of a mountain or on the top of a roof. Or it could be a slab of ice and snow as small as this room or as large as a football field, carrying with it 5 to 50 tons of snow per square mile," Craig continued. "It's extremely helpful for SAR workers to know where the person was last seen when the avalanche occurred; it narrows the searching field."

Other instructors that morning were Miles Menetrey and David Thorpe, whom his friends call, "Thor-pe-do." Miles is the swift-water team leader, and has been with SAR since 2001. "I'm a general contractor by trade," Menetrey said. "I used to live in the Merced River canyon, so I'd see the teams at work; when I realized the need, I got involved and was swept away with it. It's very rewarding, and the camaraderie is great."

Thorpe joined SAR in 1995, and earned his nickname by being the dive team leader. Born and raised in Mariposa, this is his way of serving his community. "It helps me do the right thing," he said.

Ella-Rose Thorpe is David's 15-year-old daughter. She's been with SAR for close to two years. Did her dad twist her arm or did she want to join? "A little of both," she said, laughing. She and Warren Anderson found a 3-year-old boy who had wandered away from his home recently.

Anderson went on a home school field trip where a presentation about SAR was made. "That's when I got interested. It's fun, and it gives me experience I can use later in public safety."

Several other blurry-eyed young people also forfeited sleeping on a Saturday morning to sit in the classroom. Caleb Vogel, a 15-year-old team member, was enjoying the free coffee and doughnuts. "He's just here for the food," his dad joked. Eric Vogel and his wife, Kelly, have been with the team for close to 15 years. The Vogels' three older sons have also worked with SAR. "Many of our teens go into the military or law enforcement as adults," Eric said. "I knew Tim (Rumfelt) when he was 14 or 15, and now he's our coordinator."

Growing up on a ranch, and loving horses the way she does, Kelly has turned her efforts more to the Sheriff's Posse, and is now a sergeant. "We provide security patrol at the fair, or do ground patrol at events in town. The posse doesn't always get called out on a search. When a longer search is needed or the situation is more life-threatening we'll go out." She's proud of her boys and their involvement with SAR. "The kids who serve have an advantage later, by taking with them the skills and expertise they learned with the team," she said.

Generally, Search and Rescue volunteers are regular folks who have discovered a way to turn their love of the outdoors into a means of helping others. For anyone who's been lost in the back woods or at the bottom of a cliff, that's exactly where they're needed -- and appreciated.