Tales from the Front Line

The Search for Augusto

Monterey County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue

June 28, 2021

It was late in the afternoon on April 5 with the sun setting behind the nearby peaks creating dark shadows across the snow and boulder fields. At 7100 feet in elevation Augusto felt comfortable in the high-altitude Sierra Mountain setting having spent most of his 85 years in the thin air of the Peruvian Andes. Perhaps, as his family speculated, Augusto was longing for home and time alone to gather his thoughts and reconnect with familiar surroundings. Vacationing at a rented a cabin in the National Forest adjacent to Huntington Lake, the family had experienced several days exploring the area. On this cold but sunny afternoon Augusto ventured out alone, a decision the family would later regret.

As darkness approached and temperatures dropping into the 30’s Augusto had not returned. The family frantically searched the area adjacent to the cabin, calling out his name and seeking clues from other visitors in the area. With panic setting in calls were made to the local authorities Police and Fire. The search was on. The family avowed to his toughness and knowledge of mountainous terrain and felt confident that he could manage the night. 

Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Kern Counties all responded with SAR teams assembling in evening and into the morning of April 6th at a Command Post location next to Huntington Lake. The National Guard and OES also providing personnel and logistical assistance. Assets were airborne making low altitude passes over the heavily wooded terrain assisting ground crews covering area trails and roads. Day turned to night with the search limited by poor visibility and challenging conditions. Another day, another night. Tracks found and lost. Four days and nights into the search the SAR teams were showing signs of fatigue and likely frustration. The Command then made the decision to reach out for additional assistance, calling for Mutual Aid from Monterey County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue.

It was a mere coincidence that the Monterey team was assembling and ready to depart for a high Sierra training deployment. Equipment packed and ready to move, the 12-person team diverted south in a relatively high-speed manner in two SAR vehicles, arriving in time for the 7 am briefing at Huntington Lake. 

Following a meeting with Augusto’s family, the Monterey County team were divided into two groups and assigned to specific grids for a ground search. One 6-person team (Team A) being shuttled by the Fresno County Sheriff’s helicopter to a higher elevation search area, Team B travelling by SAR vehicle to an adjacent search grid. 

Deployed teams fanned out on foot with individuals 30-50 feet apart maintaining radio contact while covering steep and heavily forested areas. Team A dealing with steep rock sections and deep snow. The quiet high-altitude air being interrupted with calls of “Augusto”. Other experienced teams had searched for 4 days and nights we knew it would be a miracle that we would hear a response.

Less than 90 minutes into our search a steady and familiar voice came over the radio. Our SAR lead Monterey County deputy Casey Condon reported. “Command- Team B requesting a 10-36. (Information to be transmitted that would be sensitive if family members or other civilians were nearby)… Subject found. No ABC’s.” (NO airway, breathing, circulation). Our search had ended. 

As Team A re-assembled to return to a helicopter pick up at our high-altitude location our thoughts turned to the finality of the extended search concluding just below us. At that very moment a large Bald Eagle flew up out the valley making a wide turn before disappearing high above. Perhaps this was the Andean spirt of Augusto found and now released to soar. 

Back at the Command Post location the Monterey County Sheriffs team re-assembled providing a de-brief to the local Command leaders. Equipment packed away, nourishment taken with small talk and quiet thoughts the norm. No high fives or celebration. The mood somber. Team discussions on the continuation of our training the next day. 

Tonight rest. Tomorrow more work and training to enhance our skills, build on our focus of safety and resilience. For today a mission accomplished. We were fortunate to return Augusto to his grieving family. He would not have to spend another night alone in the California Sierra’s. 

Scot Smythe SAR#47