It was a Tahoe trip like so many – a brief reprieve from the stress of campus with our fellow co-op members. But nothing could have prepared us for what was to come.
Snowshoeing was the choice, our destination Fallen Leaf Lake. It was in the 40s in the midday sun, so we stripped off layers to leave in the car – our first mistake. The four of us, all women, gleefully began what was supposed to be a 12-mile trek around the lake. “We can make it around for sure,” one said. “Yeah, this lake is tiny,” agreed another – our second mistake. We took our time, exploring, making snow angels, sunbathing.
After passing some deserted cabins, we reached the end of the footprints we had been following through the snow. But we kept going – our third mistake. After struggling across a difficult ravine, we congratulated ourselves. One of us added: “I hope it isn’t like this the rest of the way.” But returning through the precarious ravine seemed out of the question, and we assured ourselves that we were through the worst part – our fourth mistake.
For the next two hours, the slopes got steeper and icier, the sun lower and lower in the sky. We picked up the pace.
Soon the treacherous terrain became unmanageable. “We can’t do this,” we all realized. If one of us slipped into the lake, we would instantly be in a life-or-death situation. And it began to dawn on us: we already were.
“We need to call someone and tell them where we are – no one knows.” That was <@CEIt>really<@$p> our first mistake. One of our cellphones had a single bar of service; we used it to call our friends back at the ski lodge – and 911. “West side of the lake,” we screamed into the phone, unsure if anyone could hear us. “Extremely cold. Worried. Need a boat!”
Knowing that nighttime temperatures would quickly drop into the teens or single digits, we built a snow cave, insulated it with our backpacks and huddled inside. And we began what would become the longest wait of our lives.
With the sun now down, the water magnified the lights of houses across the lake, making them seem tantalizingly near. We screamed “HELP!” We whistled SOS: short, short, short – long, long, long – short, short, short. Both echoed eerily. We beamed our small flashlight, hoping someone might see it. It had been two hours since we’d called 911, and we were getting colder and colder.
Then a helicopter with a spotlight appeared over the ridge diagonally across the lake. “They must be looking for us!” we screamed. But after two hours of searching, the copter disappeared back over the trees. The four of us were shivering violently, our phones were dead, and one of us was delirious. We knew we couldn’t survive the night like this.
Then we saw a line of glowing dots, like Christmas lights, moving along the road across the lake: car headlights. They must be for us – no group that large would drive such an isolated road on a Saturday night after 10. Another hour of silence passed. Finally two bright lights appeared in the woods on the opposite ridge, then disappeared.
We huddled together even tighter. An hour went by, and suddenly we realized the lights were now on our side of the lake – but on the other side of the impassable ridge. “Over here!” we screamed. Forty-five more minutes passed, and then there it was – the hallelujah for which we had waited nine and a half hours. “BOAT!” We wept as the glowing vessel pulled up on the icy shore and released the first of our saviors – a German shepherd scout, followed by the search and rescue team that had volunteered to spend their Saturday night saving our lives.
We could barely stand, so we crawled along the shore to the boat. By the time we reached the car its clock said 12:38 a.m.
If your full-to-the-brim minds take nothing else from this article, please hear this: Learn from our mistakes. I am no stranger to the outdoors – I’ve backpacked across Switzerland, biked across the United States twice, been in the backcountry countless times, gone on a weekend solo. I’m a certified NOLS wilderness first responder – and I still made an embarrassing number of rookie mistakes. All I needed was to think, but I didn’t.
Take care of yourself – get enough sleep so you don’t make poor judgment calls. If you love someone, tell them so like it’s your job. I lost my phone, a toenail or two, a pair of ski poles (sorry, Stanford Outdoor Gear), and a heaping slice of the pie that is my pride – but it was a small price to pay for my life.
Note: The volunteers who saved us are part of Search and Rescue Tahoe (www.searchandrescuetahoe.org.); all donations go to gear and supplies.
Katie Kramon ’15