By David Fenimore

It was February 29, 1976, and the biggest storm of the season was sweeping the Sierra. That day, 12-year-old Lance Sevison and his buddy Mike Kelly were skiing at Northstar. Sometime in the afternoon, they decided to cross the ski area boundary and look for fresh powder on the backside of Mt. Pluto. Witnesses reported that they had only one pair of skis between them, each boy skiing on a single ski.

By the time the lifts shut down for the day, they hadn’t returned.

DOUG READ, a TNSAR founding member, ascends a snow bank on skinny skis while training in 1975.

Doug Read, a close family friend, had taken Lance out on cross-country ski tours and admired the boy’s adventurous spirit. When his telephone rang with the news that the boys were missing, Read and a hastily gathered group of friends threw skis and packs into pickups and fought their way through the whiteout to Northstar. They geared up, hitched a ride to the summit, and set off into the wet and windy darkness.

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Those were the days before smartphones, GoreTex, or GPS, when cross-country skis were made of wood with Lignostone edges and three-pin bindings. Nordic skiers used bamboo poles and wore woolen knickers, leather boots, and 60/40 parkas, which tended to soak the wearer in wet snow or rain. They carried no radios, headlamps, or avalanche beacons. None of them had ever organized a search, and few had participated in one.

“The first search I’d been on was a year or two before that,” Read remembers. “I was a ski instructor at Clair Tappan Lodge on Donner Summit. A guy and his girlfriend going to the Peter Grubb Hut got lost in a storm and spent the night out. She didn’t make it. I went out with some people, found the girl’s body, and figured out a way to bring her back to the highway.”

That night at Northstar, flashlights in hand, Read and friends searched the south-facing slopes of Mt. Pluto. Nowadays much of the area is adjacent to a network of groomed runs served by chairlifts, but in the mid-1970s it was terra incognita to all but a few locals. They telemarked down between towering red firs to the logging road known as the Fiberboard Freeway, kicking and gliding as far as Watson Lake.

“We were totally disorganized, skiing along and poking our poles into every single tree well where they might be sleeping,” said Read, still a North Tahoe resident nearly 50 years later. “We had no idea how to look for a track.”

They straggled back the next morning. Read curled up on a bench for a few hours of rest, then went out again. Standing by were deputies from the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, which was responsible for search and rescue operations but lacked resources for searching in deep snow.

“By the second day I was getting pretty discouraged,” Read recalls. “All of a sudden, we heard that a Norwegian guy from the West Shore, Ottvar Helgeson, had found the kids on the Truckee side, by Lookout Mountain. One of them was dead. It was Lance. Pretty devastating.”

DEATH AND BIRTH: Larry Sevison stands in front of the memorial on Mt. Pluto in 2008 commemorating his son Lance, who died while skiing off the backside of Northstar in 1976. The search for Lance and his friend marked the birth of Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue.

A TNSAR is born

With skier visits increasing and new trails and lifts being built every year, it was only a matter of time before more folks got lost.

“That summer, a bunch of us Nordic skiers got together and said, ‘hey, we gotta get organized.’ Because we didn’t know what we were doing, how to search or anything, we didn’t have any kind of game plan,” Read recalls.

Founding members included avalanche expert Norm Wilson; Skip Reedy, who started Tahoe Cross-Country the previous year; Alpine Meadows manager Bernie Kingery, who would later perish in the 1982 avalanche at the ski area; Dr. Charlie Kellermyer of the Truckee Tahoe Medical Group; and a handful of professional ski patrollers who had been rescuing inbounds skiers for years. Among them were other local folks — teachers and electricians and writers and carpenters and cooks — whose common denominator was community spirit and a love of winter recreation. They had no budget, no team equipment, and no headquarters.

Lance’s father, Larry Sevison, a North Shore building contractor, was at the first meeting as well. He owned a snowcat and had used it to ferry the searchers looking for his son. A few years later, Sevison would be elected to the Placer County Board of Supervisors, and his political connections proved critical not only in procuring support for the fledgling team, but also in bridging the cultural gap between deputy sheriffs and backcountry skiers.

According to Sevison, conservative Placer County officials were initially uncomfortable working with volunteers they saw as rag-tag, untrained, and undisciplined. “We had some difficulty building faith in our team,” he said. As his old friend Read points out, “most Nordic skiers at the time were long-haired, pot-smoking, bearded hippies.”

Beards, bongs, and all, the newly formed team went into action the very next season. The first noteworthy search took place in December 1977, when Bay Area resident Eric Schine was reported missing from the resort now known as Palisades Tahoe. As Read tells it, when the sheriff’s office received the report, they initially did not contact the team.

“The sheriff eventually came to respect their abilities,” recalls Sevison. “He told the deputies, ‘go with them and be the official spokesperson, and if there’s a body to be claimed, you do your job, but don’t try to tell them what to do.’”

The skier was eventually found in the Five Lakes Creek area by the Foresthill Safety Club with help from the nascent search and rescue team, who learned some important lessons from the search.

“We found the best place to drop into Five Lakes Creek,” Read said. “After a few years, we wouldn’t even screw around looking for the track out of the ski area, we’d just ski down to the creek, because everybody got funneled into that.

Newspapers and TV stations circulated the first of many stories with titles like Quick Rescue Action Saves Skier, Search and Rescue Team Deserves Thanks, Tahoe Nordic to the Rescue, and so forth. And every new season saw more searches, almost all of them successful and some highly dramatic, involving epic storm conditions, challenging terrain, and entire families lost in the wilderness.

Nearly 50 years later, with over 100 members, Tahoe Nordic Search & Rescue fields three snowcats, two trucks with trailers, and lockers full of the latest gear, all stored in its Tahoe City garage. Monthly meetings and trainings take place throughout the season, along with winter survival workshops at local elementary schools. Proceeds from the Great Ski Race, plus grants and donations, keep the team solvent and functional.

Despite occasional pressure from the county to organize as a uniformed auxiliary of the sheriff’s department, TNSAR remains a civilian, all-volunteer, nonprofit community effort. As of this writing, it has conducted 424 searches and rescued 704 lost skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, snowshoers, and hikers. Don’t be too surprised if, by the time you’re reading this, those numbers have ticked up a bit.

~ Former Truckee/Tahoe resident David Fenimore was an active TNSAR member from 1980 till 2000-ish. He thanks Doug, Larry, and other veteran team members for sharing their oral histories. To learn more about Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue, go to tahoenordicsar.org; for the Great Ski Race on March 3, visit thegreatskirace.com.

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