The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 67: Reprise: A Winter Storm Warning

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

They set out on a casual autumn backpack trip. So how did it become test of their survival skills? This week on The WildeBeat, a reprise of A Winter Storm Warning.

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

This is program number sixty seven, a reprise of programs fifteen and sixteen.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: In mid-October of two thousand four, a group two fathers and their teenaged sons, set out on a three-day, two-night backpacking trip. They went into the John Muir Wilderness, near Fresno, California. Mike Bargetto was one of the sons.

MIKE BARGETTO: It was a nice time of the year to go hiking. You didn't have the June and July heat, mosquitoes weren't around; it was starting to cool off; everything was fairly dry and warm. Blue skies -- not a cloud in the sky -- it was great, beautiful, probably mid-seventies.

STEVE: They brought the kind of equipment and supplies that most summer backpackers would take. They brought two tents. One was a backpacking tent from a well-known manufacturer, and the other was a twenty-five dollar tent from a discount sporting goods chain. They were a little light on warm clothes, but they did bring twenty degree sleeping bags. They brought a couple of extra days of food and fuel.

MIKE BARGETTO: The second day was probably the hardest part because that's when it got the steepest. You're hiking on straight granite, the sun's beating down on you. We just wanted to get there as soon as possible because we knew we only had that afternoon to spend there; the next day we were coming back.

STEVE: They almost stopped at a lake that was lower than their intended destination at Rae Lake. But one of them took a quick day hike and saw Rae Lake, and convinced the rest that it was a better camp site. They set-up their camp in the late afternoon.

MIKE BARGETTO: We had mac and cheese that night for dinner. I remember right after that we saw some clouds coming through the sky. And it was getting dark. It was just some faint clouds floating by. They were going pretty fast. We didn't really think much of it. We knew a storm was coming in on Tuesday, but we were fine with that because we were going to be out Sunday afternoon. We put the fire out and we went to sleep, and I got woken up by my dad around midnight or one o'clock in the morning, and he said "It's raining pretty hard outside." So we opened the door, and we look out, and there was nothing but white. We went to sleep, and everything was green, brown and blue, and we woke up and everything was just white -- flurries everywhere -- it wasn't snowing too hard, but it was definitely coming down. So we woke my uncle and my cousin up in the tent about ten feet away, and they checked it out, and we wanted to hike out then, just because it wasn't too bad. There was only two or three inches on the ground. It wouldn't have really made sense. It wouldn't have been safe. So we tried to get more sleep and we just woke up as soon as there was light, at like 6:00 in the morning. At that point there were a couple more inches on the ground -- four or five inches. That's when we had to start thinking on strategies and tactics on what we were going to do to stay safe. So, uh, my uncle, dad, and myself -- we went on a little hike without our packs, just to see how far we could go without losing the trail. And we got right before Fleming Lake, and that's where the trail ended. So we hiked back up the hill; made it to Rae Lake, and just decided at that point, that was gonna be our home until someone came and got us, or until the snow melted.

STEVE: The wet snow continued to pile up. In the afternoon, Mike's uncle and cousin realized that inside their tent, they were lying in two inches of water.

MIKE BARGETTO: We had decided that it would've been best if they'd come into our tent. That way we could all stay dry and keep each other warm. So, next thing you know, there's four of us in the three-person, $25 tent.

STEVE: That evening, news of the storm was on local T.V. Mike's family heard about the storm on the news, and called to report their missing loved ones. Lieutenant Phil Caporale is in charge of search and rescue for the Fresno County Sheriff's Department.

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.

STEVE: The snow kept falling. On Monday night, the storm intensified.

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 off 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 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.

STEVE: That night, the rescue team was getting close.

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.

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 conditions were harsh and risky for the rescue team. They had to dig emergency snow caves for the night.

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 probably 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.

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 sheriff's 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. Because I truly believe, has they tried to come back down they would have perished. They were not equipped to make that journey, either with clothing, food, shelter, or otherwise. So they wise to stay put, and 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.

MIKE BARGETTO: 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.

STEVE: We'd like to hear about your experiences with unexpected weather, and your tips on making the best of those situations. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find information about being prepared for severe weather, a bonus audio clip of Lieutenant Phil Caporale's final analysis, and an extended version of this edition, on our web site.

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Next time -- fleece replacements.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

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

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