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Winter Survival

Winter Survival

1st Lt. Mark Silver, CAP
Public Affairs Officer, Reno Composite Squadron
Photos by 1st Lt. Mark Silver

It only seemed fitting that the original day scheduled for Winter Survival was canceled due to winter weather. It was the right thing to do. The lesson was to practice winter survival methods, not really having to depend on them that day. As Captain Bob Meurer tells us often in squadron meetings sometimes the best maneuver is a 180 turn and not go in the first place when the weather comes in to play. The backup date was the following day and all indications were a go the morning of the activity. Though the day had come to climb Mt. Rose above Reno, Nevada with a van full of eager cadets and senior members, there was ground work laid before this was to happen. Let’s step back and see how this was set up and who was running the show as this was not just any exercise, this was high adventure.

There are several reasons for teaching a course like winter survival as it relates to our geographical area. Reno sits at the eastern door of the Sierra Nevada crest with wide swings in temperature and sometimes surprising weather popping up. It does not have to be a calendar month of winter to have extreme weather kick in and put someone in a very precarious position caught in the elements and exposed to the brute force of nature. The Sierra’s are inviting to those that ski and hike in the open country meadows and steep slopes of several ski resorts in the area. Tourists frequently travel the roads over the passes and neglect to allow for changes in the elevation, temperature, and precipitation. For those that come unprepared to deal with changing weather or chose the wrong clothing for the trip it can become a life and death situation. Cars break down; planes have mechanical difficulties and are forced to land in remote places. People get lost. And then there are avalanches. These are the situations the instructors and mentors for the winter survival experience had in mind preparing the cadets and seniors making the trip.

Capt. David Blondfield, former Deputy Commander Cadets for Reno Composite Squadron (RCS), has led this excursion up into the snow many times. Capt. Blondfield is a Reno fireman, an Emergency Medical Technician, and a very experienced outdoorsman. Equally up to the task is Lt. Farley Justis of RCS who also is an accomplished outdoorsman and has also made the trek out for many of the winter survival classes. Rounding out the team was help from 2nd Lt. Dr. Dan Muff, again a very experienced winter seasoned outdoorsman. The Monday before the trip Capt. Blondfield held a class on the dangers of weather and exposure, discussed hypothermia, proper clothing layered to keep you dry and warm, types of shelters that can be made, how to start a fire, and the five “C’s” that you should have with you that better your chances if you find yourself in this type of situation (Cutting device, Combustion starter, Cordage, Container, and Cover). 

Lt. Justis said this about the cadet’s preparation: “Cadets present themselves in varied modes of preparation for Winter Survival. Rarely, a cadet shows up in street clothes and tennis shoes for this event, but I've seen it happen. In Winter Survival, cadets organize into teams and are challenged to learn and understand just how one sets out to survive a 24 hour period. Cadets are challenged to defeat conditions of cold and perhaps wetness all the while figuring out how best to work with what they have to make a potentially dire circumstance into one that is survivable.”

Capt. Blondfield and Lt. Justis stressed that you need to make priorities when you find yourself in winter situation. What do you need first, second, third to give you time? You cannot go much more than 3 minutes without air, 3 hours without shelter when exposed, 3 days without water, or 30 days without food. Making a shelter with what you have on you and your surroundings will be your best bet in your survival. Options were discussed such as a trench to get out of the wind, using sticks and branches for a roof, insulation from the cold snow by using leaves or pine needles. Digging into a snow bank to make shelter or using a tree and make a lean to. This is where the five “C’s” come in to make your job a bit easier. Once you have a way to keep yourself out of the elements, you can concentrate on the next step, making a fire. The instructors covered what you can use for ignition sources like flint and steel, and what might combust fast enough to get a fire started. Lt. Justis has a good thing to carry that is light weight, cores from toilet paper rolls filled with dryer lint….dry and combustible that you can keep in your backpack in Ziploc bags. Questions were asked and answered and the meeting was adjourned.

As if on cue, the weather reared up and dumped several feet of new snow the day before the trek into the meadows of Mt.  Rose. It was decided to fall back a day to Sunday March 4th,  2018. Capt. Blondfield had a prior commitment so Lt. Justis took the reins and with the help of 2nd Lt. Muff, Deputy Commander of Cadets 2nd Lt. Mark Donberger, and the Public Affairs Officer Lt. Mark Silver the expedition set off Sunday morning after inspections of the troops to make sure all had the proper gear, destination Mt. Rose Summit, 8,900 ft., the highest maintained pass in the Sierra’s that links Reno with Lake Tahoe. 2nd Lt. Muff was able to round up several more pairs of snow shoes for the 12 that could make the trip. We lost a few of the cadets unfortunately that planned on a Saturday trip and could not make the Sunday backup day.  We soon found out how much we needed the snow shoes on the roughly half mile hike back to the area of the exercise.

After the healthy hike through powdered snow the team gathered for Lt. Justis’s instructions and reminders from last Monday’s meeting. The cadets split into two groups and they set off to stake their claim for their shelters. One crew headed up the hill from base camp and found a snow ridge protected by tall pines. They decided soon after a walk around that they were going for a shelter dug into the snow. The second team hiked out to the meadow to the east then diverted to what appears to be a small roof line. It was a hiker’s kiosk that holds information of the area apparently for summer hikers because all you could see was the peak of the roof, indicating the snow was at least 6-7 ft. deep there. They decided to trench in front of the kiosk to use what shelter it could provide. We gained another member of the party when a cross country skier came through with his dog. The dog decided the cadets were much more fun to be around then following his master, so he hung out with us for a bit. He did complicate the dig in group process as he thought the digging looked fun and joined in. A modification to their original plan was in order after the canine intervention.

Lt. Justis used a group of pines as a base for his shelter, digging out 3-4 ft. deep and setting up his small backpack tent. He created a shelf to set up his small camp heater and proceeded to make some hot tea! 2nd Lt. Muff decided to go with a snow cave to demonstrate the effectiveness of that type shelter. Two and a half hours were allowed for construction of the shelters with time for lunch built in. Inspections by the seniors and both teams of the four sites were conducted pointing out the difficulties in creating their shelters, the materials used, and what they might have done different in hindsight. Both cadet teams were able to get a fire going. 2nd Lt. Muff demonstrated how difficult the flint and steel was using leaves and needles, and resorted to the paper core stuffed with lint method to find success.

Summarizing the cadets actions of the day, Lt. Justis said “Cadets learn how far their preparedness takes them. Some will pack a camp shovel. One will bring a folding tree-saw and another cadet will have a tarp. All appreciate by the end of the course, as individuals their preparedness is wanting. But, because it's a training course we organize to build shelters and see for ourselves how one can survive. And, at the end of the day cadets are enriched by the experience, have exampled themselves to complete several tasks, be organized in the execution of those tasks, and work to maintain a positive attitude as they perform in winter conditions.”

The tired crew cleaned up and collapsed the roofs of their shelters so an unaware passerby did not fall into them. Leaving no trace of our intrusion except disturbed snow, we trekked back out for the journey home. Lt. Justis, 2nd Lts. Muff and Donberger noted that they were impressed with the cadet’s preparation, selection of clothing, and great attitudes and work ethic. One last burst of energy by the cadets as they took the “hill” above the parking lot and slid back down several times to put a fun finish to the day. Lesson’s in hand now, the hope is that they never need this exercise but if they do, they can draw on the day we spent at Mt. Rose summit.

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