Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue is a group of dedicated local folks who for more than 40 years have been heading out into blizzards to rescue lost people. In that time, they have rescued hundreds of individuals via backcountry ski, snowmobile, and snowcat. In 2019, the organization was awarded a grant from the Truckee Tahoe Airport District for a new snowcat and hauler to replace an existing machine that was hanging on by a thread. The new state-of-the-art cat allows transportation of up to eight people in the backcountry.

“This equipment is a necessity for our mission,” Joanna Wright, longtime TNSAR team member and board secretary, said. “However, because of this generous donation we had to work through another sizable issue: It did not fit into our team garage.” Costs of expanding the garage, which is in Tahoe City, to house this equipment could have exceeded $300,000. Instead, it cost almost nothing because the North Tahoe community stepped up with donations and the team members volunteered to do much of the construction work.

RIDERS ON THE STORM: Snowcats used in backcountry rescue operations are similar to those used in grooming ski mountains, but with an extra cab added onto the back enabling rescuers to tend to patients.

“Everything from the plans, coverage issues, permits, lumber, concrete, roof, doors, plumbing, drywall, electric, and paint was donated,” Wright said. Several dozen businesses and individuals contributed materials, money, and labor to the project. Building the garage took longer than two years and was completed in 2020. 

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TNSAR board member Calvin Mitchell was one of the folks spearheading the construction. “It was easy to put it together,” he said. “It seemed like everybody we asked to help was willing to support.”

While Tahoe’s businesses are always generous with donations to nonprofits, this was not just a $100 check or a raffle prize; this was providing all of the supplies needed for a good-sized construction project. As anyone who has recently built anything knows, lumber, garage doors, paint, and everything else needed for a construction project are not cheap. But the companies gave what was needed. 

Truckee Tahoe Lumber donated approximately $12,000 worth of lumber for the project. 

“We felt like search and rescue does a lot for our communities,” said lumber company CEO Andrew Cross. “And we loved to help. We love to give back to the community we serve.” He said the project felt especially good to be a part of because many of the TNSAR team members are contractors that he knows, and they were going to be volunteering their time to put it together. 

Truckee Overhead Door provided a large garage door for the project. “We avidly use the backcountry and love what search and rescue has done and what they are all about. We hope the day doesn’t come that we need them, but we are proud to support them,” said Nicholas App, operations manager for Truckee Overhead Door. 

While all these local companies got involved to support an organization they believe in, they also did it because of the strong local connections they have with members of the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue team. App and Cross were both raised in the Tahoe/Truckee area and have known many of the search members for years. It gets back to the power of small-town community connections and the principle of what goes around comes around. 

The result of all this volunteer action is that the new snowcat is safely ensconced in the new garage and ready for action. Snowcats are primarily used to evacuate lost people and rescuers once they have been found by the team’s top-notch backcountry skiing and snowmobile members. 

“We get called out in the middle of storms, and helicopters are not flying,” Wright explained. “Getting a guy out of the backcountry can take a long time since carrying people is very difficult.” Carrying people out via a litter — a hard-framed stretcher-like carrying device — is a dangerous, lengthy, and challenging task. Getting them out more quickly — especially in a snowstorm — is what makes a snowcat key. And it not only can carry out those being rescued, but the exhausted searchers, as well. 

FUNDS DRIVE: In 2019, Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue was awarded a grant from the Truckee Tahoe Airport District, enabling the group to replace an old, ailing snowcat with a new machine.

Longtime TNSAR member Ray O’Brien is one of the main drivers of the new snowcat. “The big difference is that the new snowcat has more power, it’s wider, and floats on snow better,” he said. “It also has a blade that lets you cut your own road and cut down berms.” This is sometimes necessary just to get off the road and onto the snow in the middle of the winter in places like Donner Summit. A snowcat is essentially just like a grooming machine but with an extra cab added onto the back allowing patients to be worked on while the machine is on its way back to civilization. 

So now, through the generosity of a lot of local businesses and community agencies as well as the labor of Tahoe Nordic members with paint brushes and hammers, rescues will run more smoothly and warmly, and lives will be saved. 

Author

  • Tim Hauserman

    Tim Hauserman wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 4th edition of which was published last summer. He also wrote “Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children” and "Gertrude's Tahoe Adventures in Time." In the winter he runs the Strider Glider program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. He has lived in Tahoe City since he was a little tyke and continues to be amazed with the beauty of Lake Tahoe. His former English teachers, on the other hand, are probably amazed that he became a writer. Contact Tim at writeonrex@yahoo.com

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