The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 16: A Winter Storm Warning, part 2

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

An early snow storm stranded four fair-weather hikers. How did they stay safe? Listen next, to part two of A Winter Storm Warning, on the WildeBeat.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number sixteen.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends]

STEVE: We know that weather in the mountains can change quickly. Last time, we heard from Mike Bargetto. In October two thousand four, Mike, his father, his uncle, and his cousin, set out on a clear day for a casual three-day backpacking trip.

A major, early snow storm trapped them in the John Muir Wilderness. Unable to hike out, they had to come up with ways to stay warm and dry, and to conserve their supplies instead.

After hearing about the storm on the news, Mike's family called to report them as missing.

Lieutenant Phil Caporale is in charge of search and rescue for the Fresno County Sheriff's Department. [0:38.0]

PHIL CAPORALE: I got the initial call on a Sunday night. I guess it was about twelve-thirty in the morning. I got up there probably about four thirty in the morning, and there was already six to eight inches of snow on the ground, and it was coming down very hard. So I knew we were going to have problems with this particular search. Six of my deputies went out on the trail from Courtwright to Rae Lake. [0:41.4]

STEVE: The snow continued falling without a break. On Monday night, the storm intensified. [0:05]

MIKE BARGETTO: We would have to go out about every hour and a half and clear snow from around the tent with our pots and pans to keep the weight of the walls of the tent. You do that six/seven/eight times a day, you start getting really cold, you start bringing in water every time you come in, and you're also building a berm off on the side, and that keeps getting higher and higher and higher. And eventually that doesn't want to stay, and it keeps falling back on the tent.

Tuesday morning we woke up, and my Uncle Frank, he was great — he was the guy who who would come up with all of the new ideas. Whether it's that we ration the food, or start a fire, or whatever he came up with. He sent my cousin and myself out to the tree grove right next to the tent, where there was very little snow, and he told us to start a fire. And so we were grabbing little, tiny pine needles and sticks and trying to start something. We had a little something once or twice, but it would go out. The fuel just wasn't dry enough. [0:55.2]

STEVE: That night, the rescue team was getting close. [0:03]

PHIL CAPORALE: They got to Flemming Lake, which is a third to a half a mile below Rae, and by the time they got to Flemming it was three feet deep. At that point you can't see any trail or markers, everything is by GPS and compass. I had no communication with them. Once they left base camp, I never spoke to them again until they got back. [0:23.3]

STEVE: Mike heard the rescue team trying to signal them. [0:05]

MIKE BARGETTO: They got out their guns and they fired two or three shots trying to let us know they were there. So when they were doing that, we thought we heard a couple of things of thunder. Just in case it was somebody, we stuck out heads out of the tent, and just started screaming like crazy. At that same time, they heard animal noises. So they put their guns back in, and they packed up and they left. [0:23.1]

STEVE: The rescuers were enduring harsher conditions than Mike's party. They snowshoed to a more sheltered location and spent the night in emergency snow caves. [0:11]

MIKE BARGETTO: Tuesday night was the wind storm. I just remember we were laying there in the tent, and the wind would come, and we'd be in a dead sleep, and our arms would go straight up and grab the pole next to us, and just hold the tent down, and wait for the gust to go by. And we were just doing that in our sleep for about five or six hours. We really started praying right then a lot, just knowing that if the tent did break apart and shred apart, that would be it for us. And about ten minutes later, the wind storm lifted above the tent, and you could still hear the winds come, and it was like a freight train coming through. That's how loud it was coming through the trees, but it did not hit or move our tent at all.

PHIL CAPORALE: The plan all along was, in conjunction with the ground search to do an arial search, so we never got a break in the weather until Wednesday night.

MIKE BARGETTO: A hole broke in the clouds, and we could see a couple stars, and we were so happy to see this since we hadn't seen anything since Sunday night. An hour later the clouds were just gone, and you could see the moon, you could see the stars, it was a beautiful night. Right when the clouds broke the temperatures plummeted, and it got down to zero degrees. And you could imagine four guys inside a five-by-five tent; we were constantly hitting the walls and sheets of ice would just fall on us. What we did was we took our sleeping bags and we joined them into two — kept us a lot warmer. But we were staying positive that whole night. I think that's what kept us going. Because we kept telling ourselves Thursday, if the skies were so clear, they were going to come. ...they were going to come.

PHIL CAPORALE: I put two teams together on a military helicopter, and the plan was to fly up to Rae Lake, and deploy both those teams, and have them search the three lakes that are in proximity to Rae.

MIKE BARGETTO: So Thursday morning, nine o'clock comes around, nine-thirty, ten o'clock, ten-thirty, eleven; still nothing. So we started taking our sleeping bags out, and flipping them inside out and draping them over the tent and trees to try to dry them out in case this wasn't the day they were going to rescue us. Eleven forty-two came around, and a chopper from the west just flew straight up, right above this mountain range.

PHIL CAPORALE: And once we got up to the top, we saw that they were in fact at Rae Lake.

MIKE BARGETTO: And it flew over us, and it was the most amazing feeling that the four of us had ever been through. And we just started screaming, yelling, jumping. We all started just bawling/crying, and the helicopter came over us, did a few loops around us making sure that we knew they saw us.

PHIL CAPORALE: So I dropped the teams in and told them to package up the four people, get all their gear, get them fed, and whatever else they needed.

MIKE BARGETTO: Just a whole bunch of sherrif deputies came hiking over. They were great! They came and they gave us dry clothes, they gave us food, and we were there for about a half an hour. And then we took off for the landing zone.


PHIL CAPORALE: They did a lot of things right in terms of once they realized they were in trouble they did the thing that saved their life and that was to stay put. They were not equipped to make that journey, either with clothing, food, shelter, or otherwise. So they stuck with their plan, which they left in the vehicle and with their family, and ultimately I believe that's what saved their lives. [0:35.3]

STEVE: Other wilderness visitors were caught in this storm. A lot of them had to be rescued, but some had the skill and equipment to hike out on their own. Lieutenant Caporale says to check the weather forecasts ahead of time, and prepare for the worst.

Even if you never plan to snow camp, it's good to learn about it in case you ever need the skills. Take a full set of warm clothes for every member of your party. Synthetic fabrics, such as polyester, are best in wet situations. Cotton has no insulation value when it's wet.

You need a water repellant shelter, but good ventilation is what will actually keep you dry inside. Learn how to choose sheltered campsites with good drainage.

But most important is to let someone know where you're going, and stick to your plan. Here's what Mike is going to do. [0:49]

MIKE BARGETTO: I'm going to prepare for the worst, and we could be out there longer than we expect. What I'm not going to do is go through life worrying that the worst is going to happen all the time, but you just need to be somewhat prepared. You need to pack a couple of days of food extra, you need to pack warm clothes in case it does get cold, and you just need to tell everyone in your group what could happen. I don't think the trip made me stronger as a person. I think it showed and revealed how strong we all be in situations like this. [0:39.8]

STEVE: You can find links to help you prepare for unexpected severe weather, to learn more about winter camping skills, and for press reports about Mike and his party's rescue, on our web site. [0:12]

[Closing Music: 0:10 and under]

Next time - we'll try to lighten up.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to ensure future editions of The WildeBeat. Send your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number sixteen. Thank you for listening.

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