A Pacific Crest Trail backpacker became seriously ill this weekend and was rescued by a helicopter crew near Ebbetts Pass in Alpine County, and the same crew rescued a rock climber who fell at Donner Summit and a man who survived getting swept down the snowmelt-swollen Yuba River.

In addition, a man last seen Friday in the Merced River near Briceburg was still missing as of Monday.

Ronnie Ray Cole, 19, of Mariposa, went to the Merced at Briceburg, about 16 miles downstream from El Portal and the Highway 140 to Yosemite National Park, on Friday with two female friends, Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office staff said.

They went to the area known as Cable Beach, where Cole jumped into the water wearing blue jeans and black shoes. Witnesses said he surfaced and he was swimming toward the river’s edge when they lost sight of him. Cole was reported missing at 3:45 p.m. Friday.

Personnel with the sheriff’s search-and-rescue and swiftwater rescue teams, California Highway Patrol Air Support Division and the Bureau of Land Management searched until sundown but did not find Cole. The search resumed early Saturday.

PCT backpacker

Meanwhile farther north near Highway 4 and Ebbetts Pass in Alpine County, backpacker Padraig Coleman, 20, of Midlothian, Virginia, became extremely ill, needed medical care and activated his SPOT satellite messenger, an emergency global positioning system, at 5 a.m. Saturday to call for help.

Crew assigned to California Highway Patrol Helicopter 24 with Valley Division Air Operations got called in at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, said CHP Officer David E. White, a public information officer and flight officer/paramedic with Valley Division Air Operations.

Thanks to precise GPS coordinates from Coleman’s device, the helicopter crew flew directly to Coleman and his campsite on the Pacific Crest Trail in 50 minutes, White said. Due to terrain and trees, they landed a mile away and walked to meet Coleman and a friend.

They walked him back to the helicopter, gave him medical care and flew him to South Lake Tahoe Airport. White said a ground ambulance crew took Coleman to Barton Hospital in South Lake Tahoe.

Staff with CHP described Coleman as “a highly experienced long distance hiker” who completed the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail last year and the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail the year before. He said he’s carried the SPOT device three years and never used it until Saturday.

Fallen climber

Then at 11 a.m. Saturday, the same helicopter crew got a call to help Truckee Fire Department personnel with a climber who fell while rappelling off a cliff at Donner Summit, White said. The 68-year-old man, a resident of Davis, fell 50 feet while trying to descend the cliff with climbing rope and hardware.

The man, whose name was not released, sustained “very serious injuries and needed to be flown to a trauma center quickly,” White said.

Working with Truckee Fire personnel on the cliff, the helicopter crew lowered a bag for the man to be placed in for hoist up into the airship. They then flew the injured climber to a parking lot at Donner Ski Ranch and transferred him to CareFlight Air Ambulance. CareFlight flew the victim to Renown Medical Center in Reno.

Man in river

Then at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, the same helicopter crew got called to help Cal Fire dispatch personnel in Grass Valley with a man who got swept downriver from Emerald Pools on the South Fork Yuba River, near Emigrant Gap just north of Interstate 80.

They flew from Donner Summit to Emerald Pools and started searching from the air. The South Fork Yuba was filled with “extremely swift water,” White said. Thirty minutes into the search, they spotted a man, later identified as Kalani Tuiono, 25, of Reno, Nevada.

He was on a small rock in the middle of the river, just above a 40-foot to 50-foot waterfall, White said. CHP video from the mission shows Tuiono perched on the rock with a waterfall roaring downstream.

The CHP helicopter crew recruited a Truckee Fire paramedic to help with the hoist rescue. Fireman Dave Fichter got lowered with a rescue basket to the rock, Fitcher helped Tuiono into the basket and they successfully plucked Tuiono to safety.

Once on the ground, Tuiono told the rescue crew he was at Emerald Pools and got swept down whitewater about a mile, went over small waterfalls, rocks, and got submerged several times. White said Tuiono was extremely fortunate to find the lone rock in the middle of the river before the 40-foot to 50-foot drop at the next waterfall.

“Remarkably, he only suffered minor scratches and abrasions,” White said. “A unbelieveable outcome to a very dangerous situation.”

Up to this point, the pilot on all three Saturday missions was CHP Officer Monte Emery, anthe flight officer/paramedic was CHP Officer Matt Calcutt.

Meanwhile, Tuiono’s girlfriend was searching for him, trying to descend canyon walls looking for her boyfriend and fearing the worst. She got stranded on a ledge in very steep terrain, rescuers were unable to hike her out, and the same CHP helicopter, with a different crew, returned for another hoist rescue a couple hours later.

“Both are extremely fortunate to have survived in these very dangerous times on the river with the continuing snow melt and fast moving waters,” White said.

Back on the Merced River near Briceburg, personnel with Mariposa County sheriff’s search-and-rescue and BLM rangers used kayaks and rafts to search Saturday for Cole, the missing swimmer.

Mariposa County boating safety staff also helped search downstream in the Bagby area of Lake McClure, the reservoir that impounds the Merced, near Highway 49. Searchers also used a drone to check calm areas of water from Cable Rock to the gate at the end of River Road.

Contact was also made with the commercial rafting companies on the Merced. During the Saturday search about 20 commercial rafts floated the area of the river where Cole went missing.

On Sunday, a man trying to search for Cole on his own was reported missing, Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office staff said. Jason Kienzle, 35, of Mariposa, was last seen about 10 a.m. Saturday. Another CHP helicopter crew found Kienzle at 1 p.m. Sunday and he refused help. A sheriff’s sergeant was flown in to check on him and gave him bottled water and food.

The search for Cole continued Monday with fewer staff, resources and equipment.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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