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Sierra rescue team with Olympic skier readies for new season

TRUCKEE — The cell phone on the nightstand blares out from the dark.

It’s a familiar ringtone to one of the members of the all-volunteer Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue. And at 12:30 a.m., it’s a melody that means only one thing — someone’s lost and needs help.

As calls continue to go out across the Lake Tahoe region, snowcat operators, snowmobile drivers and expert skiers awake, sometimes including former Olympian Daron Rahlves.

Soon, the group has gathered at a designated meeting area high in the Sierra, and are going over maps and likely locations lost skiers might have ended up.

Placer County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. David Lade is organizing the rescue effort, but little is known about the location of a pair of skiers, only that they never rendezvoused with friends after spending the day backcountry skiing.

The team is eager to set out in the storm, but Lade, who’s worked with Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue for the past eight years, reins them in. Plans must be laid out, T’s crossed, and I’s dotted. Liability for the efforts falls on the sheriff’s office.

“That’s sometimes the only hard part to get relayed, because these guys, as soon as they get the call, they want to go,” Lade said.

Once plans for searching the area are set, the team heads into the blizzard, trudging through waist deep snow on skis in hope of finding the lost skiers.

As the minutes wear on, the team becomes anxious. They continue to holler out the two men’s names, but as the storm bears down the chances of a rescue turning into a recovery begin to increase.

Just as a group is ready to turn back to search another area, a raspy voice calls from a short distance away. A shot of excitement pulses through the small group of volunteers, and they quickly set off in the direction of the voice and another rescue.

“It’s a great feeling because you know no one else is going to go look for these people,” said Joanna Wright, who’s volunteered for nine years. “We’re all they have. It’s why we do it.”

While the organization boasts an elite team of rescuers, the group accepts volunteers to fill a variety of other positions to support searches.

Before being promoted and being allowed to go on searches, members must first complete several different trainings, which vary from terrain familiarization to first aid, avalanche safety, and backcountry navigation.

Members at the A Team level, the organization’s top skiers and snowmobilers, are the only volunteers allowed to go on night searches.

In the case of Wright, who was a good skier but had little other backcountry experience, the process of reaching the A Team was a lengthy one.

“It took me years to make the team. It’s not something where you just show up and you’re on the team right away, unless you’re Daron Rahlves,” joked Wright.

“I never owned a GPS. A map and compass — had no idea what that was, but I went to the first meeting and everyone was so awesome,” Wright said.

An Olympic alpine and freestyle skier, Rahlves joined the team last season, viewing the organization as a way to give back.

“Being home more, and raising my kids here, I want to help out the community,” Rahlves said. “I just want to be able to help, and if I get in trouble myself out there I know the right people to call. The training and what you learn being with this group — you become a better person.”

The formation of Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue dates back to 1976, when 12-year-old Lance Sevison and a friend got lost off the backside of the Northstar ski area on the edge of Truckee, California.

At the time, there wasn’t any organized search and rescue team. Instead, the boy’s father, Larry Sevison, found a group of fellow skiers and went out into the blizzard in search of the youngsters. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t reach Lance in time.

“There was not an organized group,” Sevison said during a 2008 interview with the Sierra Sun. “It took a ‘kind of rag-tag group’ of skiers that was able to bring the boys out.”

His death would lead his father to help spearhead an effort to make sure the tragedy never repeated itself. Soon after a handful of volunteers would meet up, forming Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue.

Four and a half decades later, volunteers from Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue, based in the Truckee-North Lake Tahoe area, have located more than 650 people and have completed nearly 400 searches.

The organization’s rescue efforts range from basic operations like finding lost skiers who’ve gone out of bounds at the area’s local resorts — most of whom end up being funneled into locations familiar to the team — to sitting with grieving loved ones while on a mission to recover a body. For those rare instances, the organization helps to provide its members with opportunities for grief management.

Today, Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue boasts a roster of more than 80 skiers, nearly 40 members of its snowmobile team, and several others who fill roles as general members.

So far this year, team members say it’s been relatively quiet. The responses have included one to help find lost backpackers last month on the Pacific Coast Trail and another at the end of October when a van became snowed in atop Barker Pass.

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