Cross country skiing has always been part of the fabric of winter recreation in El Dorado County.
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The most famous cross country skier from our area was Jon Torsteinson-Rue, a Norwegian who grew up in the Telemark region of Norway. He emigrated to America and changed his name to John A. Thompson. We know him as Snowshoe Thompson.
He lived in Placerville for a while and in January of 1856 he strapped on his handmade ski-shaped snowshoes called ski-skates, and headed over the mountain passes for Genoa, Nev., with the United States mail. He made two to four trips a month for 20 years and inspired many to take up what we now call cross country skiing.
The use of snowshoes and cross country skis is a staple of outdoor recreation from late fall into early spring. The gear has changed dramatically as has the number of people who enjoy the sport.
The increase in popularity of backcountry recreation meant a corresponding increase in the number of people who needed help. Heading to the mountains in winter can be an exhilarating experience. It can also turn into a frigid, life-threatening ordeal.
In 1982 a group of 13 cross country skiers established the El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol. Most of the original members still live here. David Bakke, Carol Bonser, Dave Buel, Roger Chappell, Karen Kessler, Nancy O’Brien, Mike Peart, Rich Platt, Ron Parker, Mark Stanley, Robin Stanley, Rudy Stauffer and John Van Sant all volunteered.
The group included teachers, PG&E and U.S. Forest Service employees, business owners, ski center operators and backcountry enthusiasts who all worked with the U.S. Forest Service.
When SMUD completed the big hydro projects in the Crystal Basin area of the Eldorado National Forest it needed to keep the road open to Loon Lake in the winter. Part of the license to operate the projects mandated that SMUD provide recreational opportunities. Winter recreation in the Crystal Basin, along with all the campgrounds, were part of that mandate.
It became possible to drive to Loon Lake in the dead of winter. SMUD plowed the road, people used it and the area attracted backcountry skiers. But winter travelers had problems, sometimes getting stuck on the road or in the woods when storms blew in. SMUD turned to the U.S. Forest Service for help, triggering the need for the El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol.
Platt worked for the Forest Service and in 1981 he was tasked with checking out the winter recreation opportunities in the Loon Lake area and keeping in touch with SMUD. Notices went up announcing a meeting to form the patrol. Around 30 people attended and the group took off.
The original group turned to Stauffer, a friend of Bonser, for help in training the volunteers. Bonser owned The Back Country Traveler store in Pollock Pines.
Stauffer trained the volunteers in winter survival skills. Born in Switzerland, he came to the U.S. after serving in the Swiss Mountain Corps during World War II. He established a ski touring center in Yosemite and worked all his life in the ski industry. He was an expert in backcountry travel and safety, and instrumental in guiding the group through the early years.
The volunteers spent winter months marking and maintaining trails in the Crystal Basin Recreation Area, concentrating around Loon Lake, 42 Mile Tract near Strawberry and other trails.
The El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol then began teaching others how to navigate safely in the backcountry. The volunteers continued to patrol, mark and maintain trails in the Eldorado National Forest. They were regularly called on at all hours in all kinds of weather to search for lost or injured backcountry travelers.
The business of finding and aiding lost or injured backcountry skiers and snowshoers was very serious. The calls to load up and head out were never convenient. Generally, by the time someone was listed overdue from an outing, it was dark, cold and often stormy. Safety was the mantra of the search teams. Nobody went alone.
All equipment was checked and re-checked. Everyone was capable of spending the night in the woods regardless of the conditions, building snow caves and temporary shelters when necessary, not only for the searchers but for the people they found.
Snow caves don’t earn stars on the luxury circuit but they keep a person reasonably comfy and alive. To become a ski patrol member, a volunteer has to spend a winter night in the forest, in the snow without a sleeping bag. The only gear allowed is what the patrollers carry in their backpacks.
In 1986 Robb’s Hut opened for backcountry skiers. The El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol maintains the hut, which is about 3 miles from the road. In 1987 the Loon Lake Chalet opened. The patrol took the lead in managing the Chalet and later took on the Van Vleck Bunk House, 6 miles off the road, along with the emergency shelter half way to the Bunk House.
The El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol is an officially sponsored volunteer group with the U.S. Forest Service, the first responders in the Eldorado National Forest. Members are often seen in the forest during the winter maintaining trails and looking after the safety of back country travelers.
The patrol has rescued many people over the years. In winter the patrol averages around two calls a month. One call involved six people and three dogs who were stranded at the top of Horse Tail Falls. Patrol members headed up Mt. Ralston Trail off U.S. Highway 50, skied over to Lake of the Woods and to the top of the falls.
In good weather this is a long and difficult hike. It was dark, cold and snowy with white-out conditions on Mt. Ralston. The patrol found the stranded hikers, provided appropriate shelter and food for everyone and spent the night. The next day everyone along with the dogs were airlifted out of danger and survived the ordeal.
The ski patrol was called to locate and help a snowshoer who dislocated her hip on the way to the Van Vleck Bunk House. She and her companions took shelter from the very cold and snowy night in the emergency hut half way to the Bunk House.
The patrol started out very early the next morning in a snow storm, provided care for the injured woman and helped with the helicopter evacuation of the group. Without the emergency shelter and the efforts of the patrol, the outcome could have been very different.
Some backcountry travelers don’t survive. Perhaps one of the most heart-wrenching experiences for the patrol happened in 2004.
Peart, one of the founding members, didn’t show up at a patrol orientation class at Kirkwood. The next day Monte and Julie Hendricks, ski patrol members and longtime friends, went to Wrights Lake to check on him. After reaching his cabin, they called Platt and a full-scale search was launched.
Three days later Peart was found and taken to the hospital. He had suffered a massive stroke and did not survive. He was a very experienced hiker and skier and a great resource for the backcountry community. His loss is still keenly felt.
Becoming a member of the ski patrol takes two years of study and work. Each member must pass map, compass and navigation classes, winter survival classes and avalanche awareness courses, and qualify as a first responder. They must be able to ski a marked course in a specified period of time loaded with gear.
All personal gear is purchased by the individual members. There are meetings to attend and everyone must remain current in all the required skills. The patrol stays close but doesn’t help when a prospective member spends a winter night in the forest without a sleeping bag. In real situations in any conditions, patrol members are on their own.
The bigger pieces of equipment are purchased with fundraisers and donations. None of the gear, personal or group, is inexpensive.
The El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol spends its own time and money to help insure the safety of backcountry travelers in winter. The members make a point of skiing the backcountry at the same time as others. Their main mission is to educate the general public on how to stay safe while out in the snow. When the ski patrol is called, something has gone wrong. Prevention is preferable to trauma and rescue.
The patrol covers a very wide area in the Eldorado National Forest, from the Echo Summit area to in and around Carson Pass and the Crystal Basin. Visit the Website at ednsp.org for more information about the many programs offered.
Should you run into one of the volunteers while enjoying your snowy day in the mountains, smile, be nice, pay attention. They may be the very people who find you and keep you warm and safe should things go wrong.