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Lessons learned from the latest lost Christmas tree hunters

Dad, kids rescued after getting lost on Christmas tree hunt
Family missing for three days used twigs to write 'Help' in snow
Associated Press
Published on: 12/19/07

Paradise, Calif. — A father and three children who vanished on a Christmas tree-cutting trip in the Northern California mountains were found alive Wednesday after huddling in a culvert for warmth during three days of heavy snow.

A California Highway Patrol helicopter crew spotted Frederick Dominguez waving his arms atop a small bridge and landed nearby, sinking into 2 feet of snow, flight officer David White said. White said the crew found the family on their last pass over the area as snow from another storm, even bigger than the first, started to fall heavily.

Hours later, after he had been checked at a hospital, Dominguez described three harrowing nights in the wild as he tried to keep his children from panicking and succumbing to the numbing cold.

"You just want your kids to be safe and you're just praying, 'God, keep my kids alive,'" he told reporters gathered at Feather River Hospital in Paradise.

The rescue came as their family and friends were starting to lose hope, with another storm moving in and beginning to dump yet more snow in the foothill region about 100 miles north of Sacramento.

"Our hearts are all full right now," said Cory Stahl, who closed his pest control business so his employees could help look for Dominguez, an employee. "It's a very merry Christmas now."

The helicopter ferried the family to safety in two trips; Alexis, 15, and Joshua, 12, were taken out of the woods first. Dominguez, 38, smiled at cheering family and friends as he and 18-year-old Christopher emerged from the helicopter a short time later.

"I'm just amazed how well they did," Lisa Sams said after seeing her children and ex-husband for the first time since they were rescued. "It was like butterflies in my stomach, like if you were going to go on a very first date."

Dominguez, seated in a wheelchair at the hospital and wiggling his toes beneath thick socks, described days and nights split between despair and a hunger to survive.

He admitted he was terrified they would not make it out, but remained strong for his children as he turned to his faith. His youngest, Joshua, needed constant reassurance.

"I said, 'Son, I would tell you what I bought you for Christmas if I thought we weren't going to make it,'" Dominguez recalled. "My kids were relying on me, and I'm scared, but you can't tell them you're scared."

As they searched for a tree Sunday, they got turned around in the woods and ended up on the wrong road. The first night, they used their saw to cut tree branches and create a crude shelter. They awoke to 8 inches of snow and began trying to get back to their truck.

"I just remember walking and walking and thinking, 'We're not going to make it.' I remember being really, really scared," Alexis told CNN Wednesday night.

They eventually wandered into a culvert that allowed a creek to flow beneath a dirt road and stayed there until their rescue Wednesday. It was a miserable place -- dark, cramped, wet and cold -- but provided just enough shelter.

One night it rained, sending snow melt shooting through the tunnel. At one point, Alexis lost a shoe and slept a night with her foot exposed. Dominguez ripped his sweat shirt and tied the shreds around her foot, rubbing it to keep it warm.

Outside, they used twigs and branches to create an SOS -- "Help."

The family used humor and songs from their church to lift their spirits.

The break in the search came mid-afternoon Wednesday when a state highway patrol helicopter spotted the father atop a small bridge and landed nearby, sinking into 2 feet of snow. Dominguez said he ran across rocks and snow in his bare feet when Alexis heard the helicopter.

Christopher told CNN they were all trying to keep their frozen feet warm when they heard the helicopter and told their father, shouting, "Helicopter, helicopter."

"We were all just happy, happy to be rescued," Christopher said.

All four were checked for dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite, treating physician Kurt Bower said. They were released later in the day.

"I'm surprised how good they are," he said. "There's a miracle from God in there somewhere."

The family's ordeal took place about 100 miles north of Sacramento. Dominguez's pickup truck was found Monday night parked along a mountain road some 25 miles northeast of Chico, near the hamlet of Inskip.

The skies were clear when the family entered the woods Sunday and for hours afterward. The first storm wave didn't hit until Monday.

Because Dominguez had custody of his children at the time, his ex-wife did not know they were missing until she discovered that her youngest child failed to show up at school Monday. Authorities were alerted at 8 p.m. Monday and immediately began a search.

They quickly found the pickup -- a bare spot beneath it, indicating little snow when the trek began -- but at least 8 inches of snow was covering the ground, hurting efforts to track them.

More than a foot of snow had fallen in the mountains since the family disappeared, covering any tracks leading from the truck. The heavily wooded and canyon-crossed area contained drifts as high as 7 feet.

The rescue teams had been racing time and the elements to find the four, as a powerful storm carrying even more snow was headed into the region. The search effort expanded with a break in the weather Wednesday morning, and the helicopter was able to join the search around midday after low-lying clouds lifted.

Dominguez moved to the foothill town of Paradise about a year ago from Los Angeles to be closer to his children, who live with Sams. His co-workers said he is devoted to his children and takes them to church every Sunday, as he did this past weekend before heading out to look for a tree.

Dominguez joked Wednesday night that next Christmas, he'll buy a plastic tree.


What can be learned from this recent event?
The primary purpose of these TraditionalMountaineering experience reports (and the American Alpine Club's fifty eight Annual Report's of Accidents in North American Mountaineering) is to aid in the prevention of accidents.

1. "Dominguez and his children were reported missing Monday night by Dominguez's former wife and the children's mother, Lisa Sams, according to police in Paradise, California." We assume no Responsible Person was told where they were going, what they planned to do and when they planned to return. No one made sure that Responsible Person understood that they were relied upon to call 911 at a certain time if the backcountry traveler had not returned. They were first reported missing 24 hours after they might have planned to return. Failure to follow the most Basic Responsibility.

2. Family members were clothed in (cotton sox), cotton denim pants and sweatshirts and heavy coats. This can be seen from internet video of the rescued family members being conducted from the rescue helicopter. No one in the family appears to have been wearing or carrying a hat or gloves. Cotton material absorbs 70 times its weight in water.  Wet cotton clothing in still air conducts heat away from the body 20 to 25 times faster than dry air. Add a bit of breeze and evaporative cooling of the wet cotton clothing occurs. When cotton sox and light shoes become soaked from the wet snow, feet literally freeze and suffer damage from frost bight. Warming can be extremely painful. Polypropylene or pile clothing, wool sox and appropriate foot gear, hats and gloves do not adsorb water in their fibers and help prevent freezing toes and fingers. At least one in the family has had to be re-admitted to the hospital to try to prevent permanent freezing damage.

Question: They carried an axe. There was very little snow actually on the ground. The snow fall started late the first night. Only six to eight inches reportedly fell during the entire three days. Could they not start a fire? Failure to follow Responsibility Two which mandates each person carry elements of the Ten Essential Systems.

3. Mountain climbers can mark their way back at critical points (say, the summit exit ridge,) with colored tape or piled stones. My guess is the family tried to take a short-cut down-hill to their truck and did not try to follow their four sets of tracks back up the hill to the truck. Taking a short cut back to the truck can be OK if you know where you are on a map and know where your truck is parked and can plot a compass bearing or have a GPS Waypoint back to the right road and to the truck. The road they found was not the right road and they walked up and down this road looking for their truck.

This father did not have map or compass and failed to follow their obvious tracks up hill back to their truck. His family became exhausted and hypothermic before he stopped Sunday and Monday nights trying to find his way. Failure to follow Responsibility Three.

4. Did this family have a $30 FRS radio?  Apparently not. (Cell phones do not connect in this rural area.) Just walking to the top of a hill or simply broadcasting FRS to the widest possible circle might have helped Searchers. Searchers monitor FRS channels. Responsibility Four.

Folks always give the same reason for their bad condition when they are found: "We did not plan to become lost".

Follow the Four Basic Responsibilities of the backcountry traveler:
1. Tell a Responsible Person where you are going, where they plan to park, when they will be back and to make sure that person understands that they are relied upon to call 911 at a certain time if the backcountry traveler has not returned.
2. Wear clothing appropriate to the forecast weather and each person must carry elements of the Ten Essential Systems.
3. Always Stay Found with map, compass and GPS so that you know where you are on your map and can see what is located nearby.
4. Carry a cell phone and/or citizens band radio.

Do not try to find your way until you are exhausted and/or wet. Wait for rescuers sent by your Responsible Person.
People have survived for weeks in the relative safety of their stranded vehicle stocked with the simple Ten Essential Systems.
--Webmeister Speik


A suggested minimum standard news advisory for all backcountry travelers

"We would like to take this opportunity to ask our visitors to the backcountry of Oregon to plan for the unexpected.  Each person should dress for the forecast weather and take minimum extra clothing protection from a drop in temperature and possible rain or snow storm or an unexpected cold wet night out, insulation from the wet ground or snow, high carbohydrate snacks, two quarts of water or Gatorade, a map and compass and optional inexpensive GPS and the skills to use them, and a charged cell phone and inexpensive walkie-talkie radios. Carry the traditional personal "Ten Essentials Systems" in a day pack sized for the season and the forecast weather.

Visitors are reminded to tell a Responsible Person where they are going, where they plan to park, when they will be back and to make sure that person understands that they are relied upon to call 911 at a certain time if the backcountry traveler has not returned. If you become lost or stranded, mark your location and stay still or move around your marked location to stay warm. Do not try to find your way until you are exhausted, or worse yet - wet. Wait for rescuers.



"To provide information and instruction about world-wide basic to advanced alpine mountain climbing safety skills and gear, on and off trail hiking, scrambling and light and fast Leave No Trace backpacking techniques based on the foundation of an appreciation for the Stewardship of the Land, all illustrated through photographs and accounts of actual shared mountaineering adventures."

TraditionalMountaineering is founded on the premise that "He who knows naught, knows not that he knows naught", that exploring the hills and summitting peaks have dangers that are hidden to the un-informed and that these inherent risks can be in part, identified and mitigated by mentoring: information, training, wonderful gear, and knowledge gained through the experiences of others.

The value of TraditionalMountaineering to our Friends and Subscribers is the selectivity of the information we provide, and its relevance to introducing folks to informed hiking on the trail, exploring off the trail, mountain travel and Leave-no-Trace light-weight bivy and backpacking, technical travel over steep snow, rock and ice, technical glacier travel and a little technical rock climbing on the way to the summit. Whatever your capabilities and interests, there is a place for everyone in traditional alpine mountaineering.




Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can, only in part, be mitigated

Read more . . .
Why is the GSM digital cell phone best for backcountry travel and mountaineering?
How do GSM mobile phones assist mountaineering and backcountry rescues?
FREE Clinic on Real Survival Strategies and Staying Found with Map, Compass and GPS together
What do you carry in your winter day and summit pack?
Why are "snowcaves" dangerous?
Why are "Space Blankets" dangerous?
Why are "Emergency Kits" dangerous?
How can you avoid Hypothermia?
Final Report to the American Alpine Club on the loss of three climbers on Mount Hood in December 2006
Missing climbers on Mount Hood, one dies of exposure, two believed killed in fall
Missing California family found, dad dies from exposure and hypothermia
Missing man survives two weeks trapped in snow-covered car
Missing snowmobile riders found, Roger Rouse dies from hypothermia
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Mount Hood - The Episcopal School Tragedy
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How can you learn the skills of snow camping?   Prospectus

Lost and Found
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 Your Essential Light Day Pack
What are the new Ten Essential Systems?
What does experience tell us about Light and Fast climbing?
What is the best traditional alpine mountaineering summit pack?
What is Light and Fast alpine climbing?
What do you carry in your day pack?      Photos?    
What do you carry in your winter day pack?       Photos?    
What should I know about "space blankets"?
Where can I get a personal and a group first aid kit?      Photos?

 Carboration and Hydration
Is running the Western States 100 part of "traditional mountaineering"?
What's wrong with GORP?    Answers to the quiz!
Why do I need to count carbohydrate calories?
What should I know about having a big freeze-dried dinner?
What about carbo-ration and fluid replacement during traditional alpine climbing?   4 pages in pdf  
What should I eat before a day of alpine climbing?

  About Alpine Mountaineering:
  The Sport of Alpine Mountaineering
  Climbing Together
  Following the Leader
  The Mountaineers' Rope
  Basic Responsibilities       Cuatro Responsabiliades Basicas de Quienes Salen al Campo
  The Ten Essentials         Los Diez Sistemas Esenciales

  Our Leader's Guidelines:
  Our Volunteer Leader Guidelines
  Sign-in Agreements, Waivers and Prospectus     This pdf form will need to be signed by you at the trail head
  Sample Prospectus    Make sure every leader tells you what the group is going to do; print a copy for your "responsible person"
  Participant Information Form    This pdf form can be printed and mailed or handed to the Leader if requested or required
  Emergency and Incident Report Form    Copy and print this form. Carry two copies with your Essentials 
  Participant and Group First Aid Kit   
Print this form. Make up your own first aid essentials (kits) 

  About our World Wide Website:

  Map, Compass and GPS
Map, compass and GPS navigation training Noodle in The Badlands
BLM guidelines for Geocaching on public lands
Geocaching on Federal Forest Lands
OpEd - Geocaching should not be banned in the Badlands
Winter hiking in The Badlands WSA just east of Bend
Searching for the perfect gift
Geocaching: What's the cache?
Geocaching into the Canyon of the Deschutes
Can you catch the geocache?
Z21 covers Geocaching
Tour The Badlands with ONDA 
The art of not getting lost
Geocaching: the thrill of the hunt!
GPS in the news
A GPS and other outdoor gadgets make prized gifts
Wanna play?  Maps show you the way
Cooking the "navigation noodle"