On a cloudy day in March of 1976, Larry Sevison dropped his 12-year-old son Lance off at Northstar ski area, just as myself and many other local parents have done for years.
Lance was an able skier and knew the mountain. He’d be skiing with his friend Mike Kelly, and his mom was working that day at Northstar, so Larry could feel safe dropping him off and taking a friend to the Reno airport.
Yet Lance did not come back down the mountain that afternoon at sweep.
In the ‘70s, there was no formal search and rescue team on the North Shore, no 9-1-1 system, and no agency to support the ski patrol if someone got lost. As the weather deteriorated and night fell, Sevison’s desperate phone calls cobbled together some friends and fellow Nordic skiers to begin a search, which would last two days and three nights.
A lift operator remembered the boys getting on his lift earlier in the day, but not returning. The search began from the top of that lift in blizzard conditions.
After the harrowing days of searching, as Sevison punished his little Spryte Snowcat up the sides of Mt. Pluto, he got a radio call that the boys had been found by Ottvar Helgeson and the skiers.
It wasn’t until he reached the scene that Sevison was told his son was dead.
“A lot of people came out that night, snow-shoeing and skiing for three days and two nights in terrible conditions to help us,” he told Moonshine Ink.
For Sevison, and for the family and friends who rushed to his family’s aid when tragedy struck, this may have been the end of a terrible story.
Yet, to the benefit of many a lost or injured person in California and Nevada, it was just the beginning of his journey to work against anyone feeling the same loss he felt.
Together with his friend Doug Read, Sevison decided that Lance would be the last skier that died as a result of a delay in search and rescue. They put together a team of like-minded Nordic skiers and formulated a communication plan. Enlisting the help of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office for dispatch, and the local hospital and fire districts for training and skilled volunteers, the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team (TNSAR) was born.
Forty-four years after the tragic incident that sparked its creation, TNSAR has come a long way and is a far cry from the informal group of friends and Nordic skiers that began the effort. The team has logged over 500 rescues to date. What remains unchanged is the passionate drive to help someone in need.
Today’s TNSAR is a volunteer force that responds to 9-1-1 calls through the Placer County Sheriff’s Office dispatch, with expert teams of Nordic skiers, snowmobilers, snowcat operators, and dispatch and communications.
Often in the dark of night or pre-dawn hours, this dedicated rescue squad is prepared to come to the aid of people lost or injured in Tahoe’s backcountry and ski areas, sometimes in life-threatening weather or mountain conditions.
Until recently, team members used their personal snowcats to effect rescues, just as Larry did in 1976. But in 2019, a Truckee Tahoe Airport grant provided a new, rescue-specific PistenBully 100 snowcat. The new machine replaced a well-used and oft-repaired 1989 snowcat donated by the Placer County Water Agency in 2005. Additionally, TNSAR members still use their personal snowmobiles to respond.
Recent years have seen the team expand its off-road capability during warm-weather months as today’s population explores the western wilderness in ever-increasing numbers. The work hasn’t been confined to mountain accidents: TNSAR volunteers have searched for lost children and missing suicidal persons; they have recovered remains and evidence after suicides; they’ve assisted airplane crash victims; and they have discovered victims whose deaths were of suspicious circumstances.
According to Ray O’Brien, a retired North Tahoe Fire District Captain/EMT and a TNSAR member for 23 years, technological advances, especially cell phones with built in GPS and location applications, have shortened the squad’s response times.
“Knowing even a general location before we start out is a huge advantage,” said O’Brien, who lends his expert snowmobile and snowcat operation skills to TNSAR. “In the old days, we’d need to interview people that may have known or seen where missing persons started out, confirm that, then guess which way a lost person might normally go in a given situation.”
Over the last 44 years, the team has developed encyclopedic knowledge of where skiers or lost hikers will go. Many outdoor enthusiasts are taught to walk or ski downhill, then follow streams to civilization. Unfortunately, in the Tahoe Basin this could mean hundreds of miles of walking in deep, wet snow on a trek that leads to a place such as Hell Hole reservoir, uninhabited during winter.
Bernie Mellor, a local builder and Team Nordic skier for over two decades, has been a volunteer with TNSAR for the last 25 years and recognizes that as much as these advances have made a difference, the gear isn’t everything. “The equipment gets better every year, but the team still goes out for the same reason,” he said. “We want to find the lost or hurt person and get them back safely as quick as we can, at any hour, in any weather.”
TNSAR has also been recognized for their Winter Aware program, an outdoor safety course taught by team members to local schools and groups. The program was inspired by the Hug-a-Tree education given to local elementary school kids after the death of local Scout Danny Olsen in 1978. In addition to precautions to stay safe outdoors, it teaches kids how to cope with emergencies and what to do in different scenarios if things go wrong.
My own kids are now 31 and 29 and have friends that used the training they learned from TNSAR’s Winter Aware program to save a life in an avalanche and to help injured fellow hikers.
TNSAR remains an all-volunteer team that exists and thrives solely through the support of the community. The group’s primary fundraiser is the Great Ski Race, one of the largest Nordic ski races in the west, which will be held March 1 in Tahoe City.
Their website, tnsar.com, has more information about the group’s history and rescue efforts as well as ways to volunteer or donate.
Main Image Caption: RESCUE TRAINING: TNSAR volunteers participated in training last year with a CHP H-20 helicopter. Photos by Brandnew Ray O’Brien