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Family Faces Test of Survival
Manteca ambulance paramedic Troy Hawkins of Oakdale stands at the rear of his emergency rig following the recent dramatic weekend rescue of his brother, who suffered a broken pelvis in a snowmobile rollover in Sonora Pass. - photo by Glenn Kahl/The Leader

An Oakdale resident and Manteca District Ambulance paramedic, 30-year-old Troy Hawkins, had a premonition — one he acted on — that likely saved the life of his 34-year-old brother from a snowmobile accident and a freezing death in deep snow.

Hawkins had planned to go snowmobiling with his brother Travis — formerly of Oakdale — and his brother’s family about 10 days ago and spend the weekend together in a cabin at the Dardanelles area of the Sonora Pass. Working as a paramedic in Manteca and a firefighter in the Bay Area, though, he had gone without rest answering call after call.

Being sleep deprived, Troy said he was feeling the effects and believed he was probably coming down with the flu as well. He said he had made the decision that he was going to forget the family trip, opting to go home and sleep.

“But, I just had a feeling that I needed to go – I needed to be there for my brother,” he said.

Trying to shrug off his physical ills, Troy did get some rest before he headed for the Dardanelles, where he would meet his brother’s family for the trip up the winding stretch of Highway 108 referred to as the Golden Staircase.

Travis Hawkins had taken on the snowmobiling sport first with his younger brother later following his lead, buying a snowmobile of his own. While they own a cabin in the pass, they had rented one from the resort with more amenities that would actually fit their needs better for this trip.

Travis had taken his family including wife Janelle, son Aiden, 6, and daughter Leila, 3, into the mountains before Troy arrived. Troy noted that he was approaching from the California side and his brother, with his wife and kids, was coming from the Nevada side near the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.

Troy got to the resort’s cabin and it was about another 10 miles to where he expected to find Travis snowmobiling his way. He remembers telling Dardanelles Resort owner Chuck Fleischer that he was going to get on his snowmobile and try to find his brother. Fleischer would later be the first to join in the search for the brother who became lost in the snow.

Troy said he hadn’t snowmobiled over the pass before and this was only his second time riding the machine.

“I got through some rough terrain to the bottom of this hill just below the Golden Staircase with a cliff and one area that is pretty steep. When I got to the bottom of that, he (Travis) drove down and he was fine,” Troy said.

He recalled his brother was towing a sled that was heaped with his camping gear. Travis dropped off the sled, saying he was going back up to bring the rest of his family down through what he described as “a real bad section.” Young Leila would ride with Janelle on her snowmobile and Aiden, Troy’s six-year-old nephew, was to be riding with Travis.

“He never came back after I waited about 10 minutes,” Troy said. “I started going up the hill, because I didn’t know what was taking him so long. As I went up the side of the cliff, Janelle was coming down with her daughter shouting that Travis had rolled his snowmobile over the side.”

The Manteca paramedic said he looked down the hill, and saw his brother about 30 yards below, lying next to the snowmobile that was on its side. Travis was calling out that he thought his leg was broken.

One Troy got down the slope and stood at his brother’s side, he realized he would be unable to move the machine to use it to get his brother back up the 45-degree grade of the hill. Another problem the brothers faced was the weather that was closing in and it was starting to get dark. They agreed it was most important to get Travis’ wife and the children back to the resort before the weather worsened.

“We only had so much time to get back,” Troy remembered. “He got on his phone and called some of his buddies to come and help and I think he also called Search and Rescue. We decided it would be best if I got the kids out of there first and (then) I come back and get him.”

Troy said he helped his brother get into two sleeping bags despite a broken pelvis and gave him the water from his pack. He then started heading down the hill with nephew Aiden on the back of his snowmobile and Janelle and Leila riding ahead as the weather was closing in — getting stuck once on the way in deep powder. He finally told Janelle to go ahead of him and to go as far as she could go as he attempted to free his ride.

“I got unburied and took off going as fast as I could to catch up with her and it (the weather) got a little better after we got to the top of the mountain and back down past Kennedy Meadows where Chuck from the store had his SnowCat. He said he was going to head up to see if he could help,” Troy said.

When they got back to the resort, Troy dropped his sister-in-law, niece and nephew off and he started heading back up toward his brother’s location.

The firefighter said it was dark and the blizzard just came in full bore at that point.

“It was windy — a whiteout — and my goggles were freezing over. I couldn’t see anything. My tracks were already covered because it was snowing so hard. I could see the street posts and I was following those, but it would get so deep that they would disappear. I kind of knew where I was going, but I couldn’t see and I was going through some bad area.”

He said he caught up with Chuck where his SnowCat had broken down halfway up the mountain.

Troy said the conditions were “pretty bad” but he knew he couldn’t leave his brother out there to freeze. He said he came up to the bottom of the hill where his brother had earlier dropped off the sled, recognizing he was in about the right place where he had last seen his brother.

He drove his snowmobile up the adjacent cliff and located his brother, nearly covered with snow, saying he was just about ready to set his machine’s gas tank on fire to keep warm.

Troy said his brother didn’t think he was coming back for him, because of the length of time he had been gone and he actually thought he was going to freeze to death. A detachment of Marines and a Search and Rescue team put in motion from the Nevada side had been called off because the weather was so bad, he added.

“I told Travis, ‘we need to get you out of here. Either I drag you up the hill – he was screaming on and off with the pain – or we crawl.’ I stomped out a wake (in the snow) and helped him crawl up the hill and put him on the back of the snowmobile,” Troy explained.

They traveled through the tough weather conditions, keeping the snowmobile’s speed down in an effort to not aggravate the injuries, and finally arrived at the resort. A Search and Rescue team was able to pick up Travis at the Dardanelles Resort, taking him another 10 miles down the hill where he was transferred to a waiting ambulance and to a hospital for treatment.

So what was to be a relaxing family weekend for Troy became one of survival … and he is happy to report his brother is back at home in Reno with his family, on the mend and getting around on crutches as his injuries heal.