Stranded couple rescued near Donner Summit | SierraSun.com

Stranded couple rescued near Donner Summit

Robyn Moormeister
Sun News Service

The Nevada County Search and Rescue team battled white-out blizzard conditions for five hours Sunday night above Tahoe Donner to find a San Francisco couple lost in the storm.

“It was snowing to beat the band,” said Walt Jones, the Nevada County Sheriff Search and Rescue coordinator. “The winds were up to 50 to 75 miles per hour.”

Jessica Fewless, 30, and Jeffrey Patrick, 43, both of San Francisco, had camped through Saturday night’s snowfall off of Glacier Way in the upper reaches of Tahoe Donner and were headed back to their car Sunday when they became disoriented in the white-out and couldn’t find the vehicle, which was buried in several feet of snow.

They called 911 Sunday afternoon from an older cell phone without Global Positioning System.

Jones said all newer cell phones come equipped with GPS, which makes it much easier for 911 dispatchers to locate callers, but the older phone put rescuers at a disadvantage.

Fewless and Patrick were able to give their approximate location, Jones said.

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“We rallied up a team and got out there at about 4 p.m.,” Jones said. “We felt we knew where they were, but they weren’t there.”

Nevada County sheriff’s Deputy Ron Smith called the couple every half hour for five hours to narrow down their location as eight volunteers trudged through the storm and deep snow on backcountry skis and snowshoes.

Fewless and Patrick set up their tent under some power lines, which they used as a landmark for rescuers.

Smith and Truckee police Officer Russ Walsh found the couple well after nightfall, at approximately 9:30 p.m. when they spotted a red jacket the pair had tied to a power pole, Smith said.

They had a good tent, clothing and food, but did not have snowshoes, skis or a compass, he said.

“They did the right thing as far as survival,” Smith said. “Their downfall was they didn’t have any navigational equipment.”

Jones recommends checking weather reports before camping and carrying a cell phone with GPS. Most dispatch centers are equipped with the GPS-compatible technology, including the Truckee dispatch center.

“If you get lost, stay put and shelter yourself the best you can,” Jones said. “The further you walk, the harder it is for us to find you.”

There are currently 90 volunteer members of Nevada County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue, but Jones said he could always use more for incidents such as Sunday’s rescue.

Jones is holding a training session for volunteers May 5-7 at Camp Augusta in Nevada City, and volunteers who sign up before May 5 are welcome to attend the training.

For more information about volunteering with Nevada County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue, call Cpl. Walt Jones at 265-1713.

The Sierra Sun’s Jamie Bate contributed to this report.