Beating the Odds - Life Saved During Severe Winter Storm at Yosemite National Park

Winter can be beautiful in Yosemite, but a major storm can create challenges as well. Photo by mwexler2 via Creative Commons and flickr.

A mid-March storm that buried Yosemite National Park and the surrounding area under heavy snow brought beauty and welcome moisture for the approaching summer, but it also created plenty of headaches for stranded travelers and residents alike. For one visitor marooned in the mountains this imperfect storm became a matter of life and death.

The storm began on the night of Friday, March 18th and continued into the following week, dropping heavy snow throughout the region. A terse news release from the park on Monday, March 21 described a bleak situation for anyone hoping to travel in or out of the area:

"As of 10:30 a.m. March 21, all roads leading into Yosemite National Park are temporarily closed due to snow, ice, mudslides, fallen trees and downed power lines. In the last 24 hours, a winter storm has dropped over 3.5 feet of snow throughout the park in areas including Yosemite Valley, Wawona, and Crane Flat. Approximately 9 inches has fallen in El Portal."

"Highways 41 (Wawona Road), 120 (Big Oak Flat Road), and 140 (El Portal Road) into Yosemite National Park are closed at this time due to snowy and icy conditions. Additionally, Caltrans has temporarily closed Highway 140 outside of the park boundary between El Portal and Mid Pines due to mud slides, rockfall, downed power lines, and fallen trees. The Badger Pass Road and the Hetch Hetchy Road are also closed at this time. There is currently a winter storm warning in effect."

Among those stranded by the late-winter blast were residents and visitors in the park's Wawona District, in the southern end of Yosemite, and the small nearby community of Fish Camp. Highway 41, the only road leading into the park’s South Entrance, was closed and impassible due to power line and tree failures outside of the park.

At about 11 a.m. on Monday, what had become an inconvenient situation at best suddenly became a crisis at Fish Camp: A 911 call to park dispatch from the Tenaya Lodge reported that a 61-year-old man was experiencing chest pain.

County emergency responders could not get to the hotel, so ranger/paramedic Heidi Schlichting responded from Wawona. She reached the man about 15 minutes later, along with a Cal Fire paramedic from Fish Camp, Mark Spencer. An assessment of the patient revealed that he had a history of heart problems and his symptoms indicated he was likely having another cardiac emergency.

This was clearly a case where it was important to get the man to a hospital as quickly as possible, and the only viable option seemed to be an air evacuation. A California Highway Patrol helicopter flew to the area, but was unable to find an adequate landing zone due to the terrain and inclement weather.

Plan B was far from appealing, but lacking other options, Schlichting and Spencer began transporting the patient in Schlichting's patrol car, hoping to be able to connect with a ground ambulance.

What followed was an example of endurance and dedication by personnel from several agencies. A park report provided just a glimpse of what took place:

"Pushing through over two feet of snow and maneuvering around stuck motorists, Schlichting drove until she encountered a tree across the road. Using hand and chain saws to clear trees and debris, she slowly made her way down the road, while still maintaining patient care, which included administration of emergency cardiac medications. She was assisted by NPS forestry tech Brian Mattos and NPS fire personnel Taro Pusina and Eric Neiswanger, whose sawyer expertise was invaluable in clearing approximately fifteen trees in very difficult conditions."

It took about an hour-and-a-half for the party to travel approximately two miles.

Even without the added urgency created by the patient's condition such an effort would be grueling, but after pushing ahead for about two miles the group encountered yet another obstacle: power lines down across the road made it impossible to continue their evacuation by vehicle.

The group was advised that a PG&E utilities crew was trying to reach the area to clear the lines, but recognizing the urgency of the situation, the rescuers began devising a plan to extricate the patient over the snow. A Madera County Search and Rescue snow cat arrived on the opposite side of the downed lines and assisted with transporting the man to a waiting ambulance.

That trip to the ambulance took an additional four hours.

The man was then transported by ambulance to Oakhurst and flown to St. Agnes Hospital in Fresno, where he subsequently underwent triple bypass surgery.

A park spokesperson noted, "Without the efforts and coordination between the involved agencies, including the NPS, Cal Fire, Sierra National Forest, Mariposa County, Madera County, California Highway Patrol, and CAL Trans, the man would likely not have survived. Dispatchers Ansley Rothell and Nancy Bissmeyer played a key role in maintaining communications and coordinating efforts of all involved personnel."

Kudos to all involved in this effort.