Wendel (Raymond) Murdock paced back and forth through 3 feet of fresh snow saying to himself, “Pray to God, but row to shore.”
He was lost on Sunday, Jan. 6, on snowshoes atop Kingsbury Grade at Lake Tahoe. Wind gusts were in the 100s. The snow had done most of its damage but was still falling.
All through the night, Murdock, 80, waited, freezing and shivering, for someone to find him.
“It was cold as hell,” Murdock said.
The longtime South Shore dentist who now lives and practices in Gardnerville, Nevada, reached Douglas County Search and Rescue by calling 911 around 5 p.m., but heard no snowmobiles or helicopters — only wind.
He yelled on and off for help but the sound was swallowed in the bluster.
“I called for help and could pretend like it was all taken care of, but I had to do my part,” Murdock said while repeating his saying in his head. “I told myself that, ‘I could do this.’ But it got to a point where I thought, ‘Well, this could be it.'”
Murdock has spent the last 60 years skiing both on the mountain and lake, biking and enjoying everything Lake Tahoe offers.
He’s battling through a knee injury that is keeping him off the slopes this season.
But he was excited to hike in fresh snow and to try out a new GPS app on his phone.
Dressed in a heavy parka, jeans with a light shell over the bottom part, snowshoes and a knit hat, Murdock started on his adventure.
Every step he took was covered fast by fresh powder and wind gusts.
After a while he relied on his app to help him find his way back and that’s when things went wrong.
“I made a mistake thinking my GPS app was going to help me return, but it didn’t happen,” Murdock said. “I kept trying to figure it out and tried to get back to my path. Every way I tried to go, it seemed like I was getting further away.”
At 4:30 p.m. it started to get dark and his concern jumped another level so he called the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, but was told to call search and rescue by dialing 911.
“My phone at this point had only about 10 minutes left, but I got a hold of search and rescue, but nothing ever happened,” Murdock said.
At about 7 p.m. he considered trying to make his way out, but quickly dismissed the idea.
“With all I’ve learned over the years, I remembered to stand pat,” Murdock said. “I was in a little clearing so that I could be seen by a helicopter. I stood there freezing and shivering all night long.”
He listened. He called for help.
It got later and he said laying in the snow wasn’t an option, it made him much colder.
He made a 20-foot path in the snow where he walked back and forth trying to do his part, stay warm — and alive.
The only food he had during the night was “a pack of dog biscuits.”
“I started to eat them, but my mouth was so dry I couldn’t,” Murdock said. “It was like eating sawdust — and they weren’t that new either. I did eat some snow.”
He also remembered a story from years ago when one of his neighbors got lost in his own backyard during a big snowstorm. The neighbor was looking for his dog and ended up dying of hypothermia.
He didn’t want to go out like that.
The Douglas County Search and Rescue team launched a mission that lasted into the early morning hours near the Tahoe Rim Trail, according to a sheriff’s office press release.
The mission was suspended until 6 a.m. due to snow level being more than waist deep and avalanche danger.
At 6 a.m. the next morning, the conditions had not improved and they requested helicopter assistance from Washoe County Sheriff’s Office.
‘You did a great job of staying alive’
Hearing the helicopter was one of the sweetest sounds Murdock has ever heard.
At about 10 a.m., helicopter personnel located Murdock “waist-deep” in snow.
“I was just very happy to see the chopper,” Murdock said. “They passed directly over me two times and didn’t see me. Then I started to panic a little bit. I was frantically waving but they couldn’t see me. But they came from a different direction and they waved at me.”
The helicopter lowered and blew snow everywhere. Murdock covered his eyes and when he peaked through his fingers a few moments later he saw a guy standing about 10 feet in front of him.
“I went over and kissed him,” Murdock said. “He said, ‘Congratulations. You did a great job of staying alive.’”
Murdock was lifted into the helicopter and taken to Barton Memorial Hospital by ambulance. He was released the same day after suffering mild hypothermia.
“When I got out of the chopper, my legs were so sore and stiff,” Murdock said. “It was a lot of work standing all night.”
His wife Darlene and 9-year-old son Brice was at home when they finally heard the news he was safe.
“The sheriff’s office drove to our home, and you usually know what that means when they drive to your house, it’s usually not good,” Murdock said. “But they were panicked all night.”
Murdock felt so good Tuesday morning he went to work just like normal at the Washoe Tribal Health Center.
But the center already canceled his appointments and was not expecting to see him.
“They sent me home, which was probably a good thing,” Murdock said. “The doc at Barton advised I take it easy, that whether I know it or not there was a lot of emotional trauma.”
But that experience is not going to keep Murdock out of the mountains he loves.
“People keep telling me not to go back out there again,” he said, “and I can say for sure that that’s not going to happen.”
Bill Rozak is sports editor for the Tahoe Daily Tribune and a contributing editor to Tahoe Magazine.