Friday, March 31
It was a quarter to 7 p.m. and Todd Beaty and his two friends, his landlords on a 16-acre property in Arnold, decided they should sit down and dive into the big rib dinner that had been steaming up the bungalow, sitting for nearly two hours, untouched. Who knew why the other dinner guests hadn’t phoned. Maybe they never made it up from Santa Cruz or maybe they were up in the Wetmore family cabin in Blue Lake Springs. The trio knew that the slopes at Bear Valley had already closed for the night, and a storm was moving in. Sven Wetmore and his 13-year-old son, Justin, couldn’t still be up on the mountain.
“Hey! Where are you? We’re going to eat.” Todd left the message on Sven’s cell phone. In all the years he’d known him - 21 to be exact - Sven had always been punctual. Sven took to hanging around Todd’s older brother back in Pleasanton in 1985. A girlfriend introduced them, and soon he was part of the family. When Todd was a hunting guide on Catalina Island, Sven spent every weekend out with him, hunting and diving. Now that Sven was a realtor in nearby Santa Cruz, he made it a point to come up to ski or hunt three or four times a year, and he always stopped by for dinner.
The minute they sat down at the table, Todd’s pager went off.
As a volunteer member of the Calaveras Search and Rescue team, he and the other 34 members are on call 24/7 to help pluck people from swift waters, or track down Alzheimer’s patients and such. Whoever’s in the area or not at work responds (Todd’s a glazer at a glass company by day) and the Calaveras Sheriff’s Dispatch office in San Andreas coordinates the effort.
“And when I got the call that a 42-year-old male was missing in Bear Valley, a big lump got in my throat, and I went, ‘it just can’t be Sven.’”
More information trickled in. A 13-year-old boy had been snowboarding; his father was skiing. They were supposed to meet at the bottom of Tigger’s Run, at the Hibernation Chair lift, around noon. The boy made it back, and by 5 p.m. ski patrol had done an end-of-the-day sweep, and made announcements over the PA system but Sven Wetmore was nowhere to be found. The Alpine County Sheriff’s Department and Alpine County’s Search and Rescue team were called in just as the mountain gave way to “white out” conditions. Snow fell in heavy clumps; 30 pounds of it clung to the rescuers’ snowshoes, and their snowmobiles’ headlights bounced straight up into the air.
“At some point, we could be standing right next to the guy and never see him,” Alpine Sheriff’s Department officer Jeff Sanford, part of the snowmobile team, later recalled. “We’d have to run him over and even then we couldn’t see him.”
It had become so dangerous that by 10 p.m. the snowmobiles were sent back.
It was probably 6:30 p.m. or 7 that same night when Sven Wetmore ate the second bite of his granola bar - his dinner - and finally settled into his snow cave. He was familiar with blizzard conditions like these, having grown up in Salt Lake City and worked at Snowbird and Solitude ski resorts. But it was a February issue of Field and Stream magazine, not his ski experience, that was on his mind after six hours of being lost on Bear Valley Mountain.
The magazine detailed what to do in eight or nine life-threatening situations. As an avid outdoorsman and reader, Sven kept it right next to the toilet. The magazine’s first advice echoed something his friend, Todd, always said: don’t panic when you’re in danger. It also said if you blanket a snow cave with pine needles, you can maintain a warm environment even in below freezing weather. Using his hands, he dug a seven-foot deep hole, barely wide enough for his shoulders, into the face of a cliff, and lined it with live green branches and needles from nearby trees to keep from lying on the raw ground.
“I kept saying to myself ‘I’ve got to get back, my son was waiting for me. I can’t be that far off, no way.’” Sven later recalled.
But the storm had turned him around and into a completely different canyon than he had skied that afternoon.
“I was cruising along, enjoying the good snow, having fun. And my first concern set in when the conditions of the snow had changed from powder to heavier snow. The lower you go, the heavier snow gets. So I started pushing right and I skied up across a creek. I’d never seen that in Bear Valley before.”
He took off his skis and started hiking in snow that came up as high as his waist, an effort that left him drenched in sweat.
“I remembered how Todd always says ‘A-B-C: Anything But Cotton.’ And I had on too much cotton.” His turtleneck and T-shirt retained too much moisture.
Around 3 p.m. he made a fire. He happened to have a lighter on him, for his cigars, and set the needles of a dead tree on fire to get the attention of anyone in the area. The flames leapt from one branch to the next. “Burn baby burn!” he thought to himself, just as the whole bottom half of the fire seemed to melt off, and slip into the tree well where it was snuffed out. Sven took stock of the weather: high winds, heavy snow, fog with low-lying clouds. White out conditions were creeping in. There was maybe an hour of daylight to go and temperatures were heading down to the teens. He couldn’t see any of the surrounding mountains.
“That was my first realization that I wasn’t going home that night.”
Sven hiked to the top of a ridge, crossed his skis and planted them in the snow to form an X, and headed down to a grove of trees that would protect him from the weather. That’s where he dug a cave big enough to fit his 6-foot frame, with walls reinforced with branches. He went in head first, and made sure his feet weren’t sticking outside.
“Because I live in Santa Cruz and I’d look stupid with four toes and flip flops.”
When he got in his shelter that night, he focused on his two kids, and on Todd.
“I just knew Todd was working to find me.”
Saturday, April 1
Calaveras Search and Rescue was far down the list of first responders. They were scheduled to get a briefing at 6 a.m. more than 12 hours after Sven had been reported missing.
After Todd got word that it was Sven up there on the mountain, he spent the whole night, sleepless, loading his Ford up with survival gear n fire starters, emergency blankets, flash lights, avalanche beacons, radios. He met up with other county members and made the nearly two-hour trip from Arnold to Bear Valley at 15 mph in snow so thick you couldn’t see a car length ahead.
Todd talked with Sven’s son, Justin, who was holding up remarkably. Todd was the one getting emotional.
“I’d been on searches before, but not for anyone I had known so well.” Word got around and some people suggested that maybe the junior Search and Rescue member should sit this one out.
“But I really couldn’t sit there and do nothing. I’d feel worse just sitting around,” he said. “It was just emotionally and physically exhausting, but something inside me said I had to go. I was kind of standing around, waiting for an order. I could’ve stayed behind as reserve and backup. Then James Bishop, the team leader, asked me to go on his search team.”
Sven had been in below freezing temperatures overnight, and there was a 50-50 chance of his survival. That morning search dogs and air support from the California Highway Patrol and a U.S. Air Force outfit in Nevada joined the ground teams from the California Office of Emergency Services. It had become the biggest search of the season. The last team to be deployed, Calaveras Search and Rescue, was sent out at 9 a.m. to the only area noone else had been assigned to, south of the ski resort.
A snow cat took Ted Fahlen, James Bishop and Todd Beaty to a ridgeline that had been searched only by air teams. They hiked through three feet of snow for almost an hour. Around 11:30 a.m. Todd asked to take a break to eat something.
“I was feeling physically ill, like I was going to throw up. We were sitting down for five minutes and we heard a faint whistle. We thought it was a bird. Then we heard a faint ‘help’ just south of our position.” There was a lot of helicopter noise and maybe the voices from nearby Bear Valley Village had carried over to them. So James boogied down the ridge to investigate, telling his team he’d radio back if it was Sven.
“Someone comes around the ridge in bright hunter gear and I thought it was Todd,” Sven said. “You can imagine my overwhelming jubilation, I was so exhausted I couldn’t even sit up to hug him. Then James leaned forward to me and (held up) his radio and told me to say ‘I’m sorry I missed dinner.’”
After 24 hours in the snow, Sven had only minor injuries, and a huge debt of gratitude to all the emergency responders and people at Bear Valley who coordinated the effort, and attended to his worried family.
Everyone agrees that making a shelter was critical to Sven’s survival. Staying put when you’re lost, even on a summer trail, is also important.
“We have a saying. If you get lost, hug a tree.” Todd said. “Because if you keep moving you’re harder to find.” Bright clothing is also helpful. Sven spent most of the morning watching helicopters fly 500 feet overhead, but they couldn’t see him. Also, it’s good to keep a daypack with food, water (Sven ate snow), compass, a radio or phone, and a lighter like Sven had. REI even sells tiny flares the size of a pen.
Todd said it was just coincidence that he was on the team that discovered Sven. Sooner or later someone would’ve looked in that area. “Why did we find him? The grace of God, I think.”
Calaveras Search and Rescue will give Lifetime Service Honors to James Bishop at its 25th anniversary event at Independence Hall in White Pines on Friday, May 12. A potluck starts at 6 p.m. Sven Wetmore said that’s one dinner he’s not going to miss.
“I can’t wait to come back and say thank you.”
Contact Keli Dailey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Calaveras County Search and Rescue for information on their 25th anniversary event, or on how to volunteer, at 728-0222.