Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sonora Pass - September 2015 - Part One

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"Do you think we can get ourselves assigned to the Marines?" I asked my buddy. "I want to ski with the Marines."

We were high on the slopes of Squaw Valley. A resort skier did not rejoin his family at the end of the day. A Sierra blizzard came in. We were searching for him. A break in the storm came. The Incident Commander pulled out all the stops, calling all resources in to find this guy, even the United States Marine Corps. I first heard it over Command Net on my radio. The Marines were coming.

Clouds and storm still shrouded the high ridges. There was an opening below. We heard them first, a heavy drone of huge engines getting louder and louder as they approached. Then we saw them, two Chinook helicopters flying up the Truckee River canyon, just above the water, coming in below the clouds, far below us. We watched them set down in a landing zone set up in the resort parking lot. The Marines had landed, a detachment from the USMC Mountain Warfare Training Center on the east side of Sonora Pass.

"You don't want to ski with them," my buddy firmly stated. It surprised me.

"Why not?" I asked.

"They can't ski."

"What do you mean?" I was shocked.

"Don't get me wrong," my team mate explained. "The officers and instructors are incredible,  top notch. But these are mostly young men who are rotated in for winter training. Most of them have never been in snow before and yesterday got handed the first set of skis they have ever seen. They fall down a lot. They are young and strong and follow orders. I expect they'll be sent over on the back side and hold a perimeter of the search area, watch for any tracks that cross it."

Listening in on radio traffic, I monitored what the Marines were doing. Their military jargon stood out against the Clear Text that was drilled into us for radio communication. My buddy was right. The Marine expedition headed around the back side.

"Why would you want to ski with the Marines?" my buddy asked.

"Because of my father-in-law," I explained. "He made five major invasion landings in the Pacific in World War Two. I don't know how he survived. He never talked about it when the Lady was a kid. When he retired he started attending 2nd Battalion reunions. The stories are coming out. He and Mom flew to Saipan to take part in the 60th anniversary of the battle. When we get an early morning call from him it's his booming voice, 'Another glorious day to serve the Corps!'"

"Once a Marine, always a Marine," my buddy acknowledged.

"Yup," I said. "If I could get a picture of me with the Marines, with skis, maybe in front of the Chinooks, my relationship with the father-in-law would be sealed. Semper Fi.  I'd have it made."

The subject of our search spent two nights in a raging blizzard. He did everything right. Disoriented in the storm and realizing he didn't know where he was skiing, he stopped. He dug out a hollow in the snow under a tree. Sheltered by the boughs, he did exercises to build up body heat. When the storm abated he stomped out a trench in the snow to march back and forth to keep the body moving. That's how the CHP helicopter spotted him later in the afternoon when the winds calmed enough to let little helicopters fly. He saved himself. He only needed to be found.

Our assignment over, we skied down the mountain and signed out from the incident at the Command Post. I waited by the Chinooks and monitored the Marines radio traffic. They would be a while getting out. We had to go. I didn't get the picture.

This search incident was several years ago and only one of  many winter interactions with the Marines at Pickel Meadows. Whenever we are in the area, the memories and stories come to the surface; always with an anchor point, the father and father-in-law, now a ninety year old man, always a Marine.

The first part of this adventure was in mid August and began with an email from our friend Ted. He and Mrs. Ted had the upcoming weekend free. How about us?

The rendezvous spot for Friday evening was an old standby, Monitor Pass. We live closer and arrived first.  A Sierra Wave lined the eastern edge of the crest.

Across from camp was a knob of volcanic rock overgrown with Sierra Juniper.

The Lady insisted we climb up and explore as we waited for our friends.

Still no Teds. There was a rocky point between us and camp. The Lady now insisted we climb to the top, the only appropriate place for us to be when the Teds arrived.

The Sierra Wave took on color as night came.

"How long we going to give them?" I asked, perched on top in the cold wind.
"Another five minutes and then we can warm up."
I noticed she never once looked at her watch. 

"It's too dark. They won't be able to see us up here." I said from my perch. The Lady was standing, waving. I was mistaken. Their truck stopped. Ted was half out the window, waving back. We were camping.

We walked in the morning and waited for the sun's light to move across the land.

I suggested we explore a new spot in the Sonora Pass area I had recently heard about. We found a lovely high mountain valley that included a remarkable dispersed campsite.

Access was through the Mountain Warfare Training Center. The sign read 100% identity check ahead. "Travel straight down this road," the MP directed. "Do not stop. Both sides of the road are federal property through the base. Sir, you need to know we do have Marines on the mountain today."

My plan was to fly fish for trout. This area is homewater for the native Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. Most streams are closed to fishing. One had just opened this year for a short catch & release, artificial fly, single barbless hook only, season. I went to work. Ted accompanied me. Mrs. Ted found a wonderful spot near camp, along the creek, and relaxed with her book. The Lady said, "I'm going up there," and pointed to the highest point we could see.

Fishing was extremely difficult. The water was low and crystal clear. The trout instantly reacted to any movement or disturbance. The wind added to the fun. Although Ted is so much fun to have around, I missed the Lady. Ted doesn't instantly climb trees and free my snagged fly when the need repeatedly arises like she does.

Marines were on the mountain today with air support. Two Bell 412's continuously flew over the area. I wondered if they'd spot the Lady, alone, now standing on the tallest rock she could find, up on the highpoint. "I'd swoop down and pick her up if I was in one of those helicopters," I told Ted.
"Let's hope they don't see her as an enemy combatant." Ted worried.
"Ted, she knows how to handle Marines."

I caught a couple trout. The Lady joined us in the meadow. It was impossible to cast with the wind and short distance and tight quarters. There was one nice trout lying just under a bush. We were on our hands and knees, low, looking through the stream bank grass. I floated my grasshopper fly downstream. It sat right in front of the trout. Ted took pictures. "Take it, take it..........." the Lady whispered over and over. I gave the fly the smallest twitch. Nothing. We stayed low. The trout did not move. I finally gave up and gave the fly a tug to retrieve it. The trout hit it hard and was gone. Ted and the Lady demanded to know why I was not playing and releasing that beautiful fish. I sheepishly explained about a fly downstream from the rod and a trout facing upstream and how, more often than not, the fly just comes straight out of the trout's mouth without hooking. I illustrated the concept several more times.

It was fun and a wonderful day. Ted started catching grasshoppers and tossed them to greedy trout who eagerly gobbled them up. Ted was as happy as a kid.

We parted ways with the Teds Sunday morning. They headed back to Monitor Pass and Heenan Reservoir to check on the bald eagle nest. We were going for the hike. The Lady wanted to see what was up canyon. It was a cross country excursion. 

Just below the crest the classic Sierra granite is topped with volcanic lava.

As we neared the top, the two Marine helicopters returned and flew over us. They waved to the Lady.

We returned to the truck and took the long way home. On National Forest land, the Marines operate under a strict special use permit for all their training operations.

I love this old sign and all the irony, including prey that can shoot back.

Our adventure continues over Labor Day Weekend in Part Two. Please Click Here.

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