Lessons Learned

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By Sylvia Milligan

Northern California


This past winter, my brother and his girlfriend came to town to go snowmobiling with us.  They had just purchased new snowmobiles and wanted to try them out before a big family trip to Sunriver, planned for the three day Martin Luther King weekend.


We drove to Mineral, CA, unloaded and played in the snow until about 2:40 p.m. At that point we headed back, going about 25 mph. During the day the girlfriend made the statement a number of times about how she did not feel comfortable on this new sled, how it sure was different from the one she had ridden the winter before and how different it rode.


On our way out from Turner Mountain, we were on the groomed trail, my husband first, girlfriend second, myself and my brother bringing up the rear. About eight miles from town we rounded a corner and I watched the girlfriend leave the road, pop through a ditch and up a hill. About 10 feet up the hill her right front ski tapped a huge tree, throwing her off. She struck the tree full length and dropped to the ground, not moving.


Being right behind her I saw the whole incident, jumped off my sled and stood there in the road waving my arms and screaming at my brother who was right behind me. He jumped off his sled and ran to her while I rode ahead to stop my husband. When I returned to the accident site I asked my brother if she was all right. He yelled, "No, call 911."


I took off down the road, trying to find a place where I could get reception to make the call. I stopped in three different places where I had full power but I could not get the call to go through. I tried calling land lines, friends, etc., but nothing would go through. Finally, in desperation I rode to the saddle just at the base of Turner Mountain. There I was able to reach 911. We had some confusion as to where I was located and where we needed help. The guy did not know the area and I tried to explain to him our location. He finally said they were sending help.


I rode back to the accident site and found my husband and brother bending over the girlfriend. I waited there for several minutes and then decided I would ride out to the road and meet anyone coming in.


When I got to the first summit I took out my phone and saw that I had a message. I called and found out it was the emergency operator so I called 911 again to be told they could not find us and needed more information. They then said they were having trouble locating emergency equipment to get to us but they would have someone in the community of Mineral in minutes. I then rode into Mineral to wait for someone.


In a matter of minutes all sorts of emergency vehicles arrived but only two snowmobiles, which were unloaded immediately. They realized they only had one helmet so we had to wait for another one before leaving. They had a tin sled with no padding and no way to hook it to the sled. However, because one of the guys was an EMT we decided to go to the scene to see if he could help and he also had a GPS and radio to connect with rescue help.


We rode back to the site and one of the guys was able to reach the emergency helicopter, which, by this time, had to return to Chester to refuel. The guys on the scene were then advised that a snowcat was being sent in to be available if the helicopter could not land near enough. I again rode out to meet them and brought them back in. There was no snowcat but two rescue quads with tracks towing a better gurney. By the time we got back this second time a CHP chopper had just landed about a block down the road. This landing was spectacular as there was only about two feet of clearance for the blades.


It was just getting dark at this point. The girlfriend had been lying there freezing in the snow since 2:40 p.m. We had heaped coats and an emergency space blanket on her but she is so thin she was freezing along with being in tremendous pain. Within 15 minutes they had her stabilized on a gurney and loaded on the chopper. Taking off, they advised us they were going to Redding as everything south of there was fogged in.


We rode back out and drove quickly to Mercy Hospital. When we got there we were told she had a broken back and was bleeding internally. It just happened a specialist, who we knew, was already at the hospital and the girlfriend had been given a spinal so she was comfortable. She was later fitted with a full body cast that she had to wear for 12 weeks.  She will be monitored closely and if she does not heal with the cast they will then operate.


I now want to tell you what I learned through this ordeal:


Not only did I panic because my mind was going 1,000 miles a second thinking of the recent death at Butte Meadows but also that my brother had just two years before lost his young wife and now possibly his girlfriend.


I also had a hard time explaining where we were so they could get help out to us. I knew the landmarks but the names I knew were ones those of us familiar with the area used. They do not show up on maps. I said Pear Lake and they thought I said Bear Lake. They flew around the east side of the mountain looking for us until they had to go back and refuel.


Suggestions I have for being prepared if you ever get into this situation:


1. Working with our local FS LEO and rescue unit to make sure they have on their maps all the names the locals call the different locations.

2. Know the phone numbers (in my cell) of the local rescue and where the rescue sled is located.

3. ALWAYS carry a GPS (and know how to use it) as that would have saved two hours of time in locating us. Carry a flare.

4. Carry a safety kit like CNSA recommends. Check out CNSA.net website for further information.

5. Make sure you have air ambulance because if your loved one is in this much pain you want them out as quickly as possible and not on a gurney behind a snowmobile.

6. If you are riding with a novice and they say the sled is riding weird, check it out.


Emergency Situations


All snowmobiles are advised to be prepared for an emergency situation at all times.  Informing someone of your intended journey and the time you expect to return is good insurance for your safety. If while riding a snowmobile on a trail, an accident is encountered or if the snowmobile breaks down and cannot be fixed, you are involved in an emergency situation.


If confronted with an emergency situation, three things to remember are: 1) stay calm; 2) stay dry; and 3) stay warm. Panic and exhaustion can lead to needless chances that can result in injury or death. Plan actions and do not attempt to walk through extremely deep snow as is could take two to three days to cover the area traveled by a snowmobile in 20 or 30 minutes.


Suggested Extra Equipment


Space blanket, candy bars, water proof matches, flashlight, extra spark plugs, first aid kit, snow shoes, extra gloves, socks, extra drive belt, pocket knife, extra starter rope, tool kit, shovel, axe or saw, flares, metal cup or kettle, tarp or plastic sheet.




There are several steps which will make a survival situation easier. It is imperative to remember that the best tool of survival is your brain. Be sure to use this tool in a survival situation. The following steps will help save a life-possibly yours.


Do not panic.

Plan a course of action.

Stay together.

Conserve energy and warmth.

Make an adequate shelter.

Build a fire.

Melt clean snow for water.

Signal for help.


In closing, I strongly suggest you join a snowmobile club or help start one. Read, understand and follow the information in the Operator's Manual and on all decals found on the snowmobile. Enroll in a certified snowmobile safety course and first aid class. Be a responsible snowmobiler. Enjoy snowmobiling and remember, safety first.

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