The search is on... Two snowshoers are lost in the Kaiser wilderness. Their food and water is running short and the skies are growing dark. Sergeant Joe Smith is in charge of coordinating search efforts as deputies and volunteers prepare to span out over an area covering about twenty square miles.
This time it's just practice. The lost hikers are actually Fresno County Search and Rescue members themselves and no ones life is on the line. But when time itself is your number one enemy, practice can mean the difference between life and death.
From the air, the challenges of a mountain search and rescue operation are clear to see. Miles of rugged terrain covered by deep snow make narrowing the search area a priority. And down on the ground, Jim Easley is trying to do just that. "We are looking for a white, 99 F-250," said Easley.
Easley is one of the Jeep drivers assigned to check around Huntington Lake, an area searchers think the victims may have parked.
Through the trees, Jim spots a pickup matching the description. The location is called in and a sheriff's deputy looks around for any potential clues.
Meanwhile, eight teams of mountaineers are sent out, with each one assigned a possible route the hikers may have taken. A 1600 foot incline awaits Sheriff's Deputy David Rippe and volunteer Martin Wendell. A steep challenge as afternoon sunlight gives way to an evening chill. Conditions grew worse as Rippe and Wendell neared the summit of Potter Pass. They know the lost hikers are near because they found candy bar rappers and fresh tracks.
The decision is made to send up two fresh teams to push through the night with the hope they can catch up with the lost hikers who likely stopped to make camp.
"We have two sets of snow shoe tracks leading down from Potter Pass," said Sgt. Smith.
Teams that returned for the night re-deploy while the two teams that spent the night in the field continue to push on. The decision to push through the night pays off and the lost hikers are found.
Deputy Scott Weishaar and volunteer Kyle Nemeth are both uninjured, but admittedly tired after being on the run for over two days. "It was pretty cold up there and pretty windy," said Nemeth. As it turns out, the two men were remarkably close to searchers the first night, making camp at Upper Twin Lake, about two hours from the teams at the top of Potter Pass. "Staying on the trail with snow was very difficult, we would walk off-trail and luckily for us, we had GPS and knew how to use it," said deputy Weishaar.
GPS is a luxury truly lost hikers may not have, and when combined with the elements and lack of cold weather equipment, it's a life-threatening situation. It's the kind of situation everyone involved in this training exercise is trying to prevent. "If we can locate the victim alive and well, it's the greatest feeling in the world. And I think that if my loved one was out there I would want someone working on there behalf," said Deputy Rippe.
What these teams do is difficult and dangerous, and the vast majority of the work done by the nearly 200 members of Fresno Search and Rescue is done form free, but they have all seen the pay off... one life at a time.