These are my stories as a volunteer member of the Sheriff's Search & Rescue team in Coconino County, Arizona. I'll share what it's like to go from a beginner with a lot to learn to an experienced and, hopefully, valuable member of the team, as well as the missions, trainings, and other activities along the way.
About Coconino County
About Coconino County
Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.
August 14, 2008
An All-Nighter on Kendrick Peak
I checked the clock: 11pm. Why were we being called out so late? Maybe the reporting party, one of the missing men's sons, kept thinking they'd show up at any moment and procrastinated. Oh well, no matter. Off I went.
When seven of us got to the mountain, a deputy was already climbing the 4.5-mile Kendrick Trail but had not had any voice contact with the subjects or found any clues. Another deputy filled us in on the details, as the reporting party sat cross-legged on the ground nearby, not looking particularly alarmed by the situation. We were told the men were in their early fifties and weighed about 260 and 280 pounds. (Yikes, I thought, I hope they'll be able to walk out on their own. A carry-out would be a doozy.) They had no lights, maybe one liter of water between them, were wearing t-shirts and had no extra layers of clothing. They did have cell phones but had left them in the car.
Our plan: Four of us would start up the trail, putting our tracking skills to use and calling periodically, until we reached the point where the subjects had last been seen by the son as he was descending. (The older men had turned around, having decided they weren't up for continuing to the summit. The son was much faster and had already gone to the top.) At that point, at about 8,800 feet, we'd split into two groups of two and go off-trail. Meanwhile, the others would drive Forest Service roads around the base of the mountain.
As we all set off to carry out our assignments, Kingman Ranger was searching from the air. The noise from the helicopter made it difficult to listen for any response to our calls. Every once in a while as we were hiking, one of us would stop suddenly and say, "Hey, I think I heard something." So we'd wait until the helicopter moved off, call again and listen. Nothing. (Though I had a hard time hearing anything but my own huffing and puffing. It wasn't easy keeping up with my speedy companions, who didn't seem winded at all.) We spent about an hour on the trail before coming to the point last seen.
Even with our headlamps and flashlights off, we could easily see the trail; the moon was bright and the sky clear. And much of the trail was lined with rocks. But we did check for prints where drainages or game trails may have confused the men in the dark and caused them to veer off, but we found no evidence anyone had gone off the trail.
At the point last seen, we stopped to take a drink and snack break while studying our topo map and discussing the next course of action, when we'd split into two and two. Meanwhile, we listened to radio traffic between Incident Command, Kingman Ranger and those driving Forest Service roads. The men in one of our vehicles had stopped to call out and listen and thought they'd heard something in the distance, up on the mountain. Ranger was in the process of flying over that area.
Soon, we heard that the lost men had been spotted, high on the mountain, one of them waving a white cloth as the helicopter passed over. They appeared to be uninjured. Somehow, our SAR teammates and the two men had heard one another from over a mile away. Amazing how the sound had carried. Ranger transmitted some lat-long coordinates, we converted those coordinates to UTM and plotted them on our map.
The decision was made that Ken and Joel would stay put and wait for the deputy to come back down the trail, then return with him to Incident Command, while Al and I would contour around the mountain and make our way towards the subjects. They certainly had gone a long way off the trail somehow, and Al and I would have to bushwhack at least a couple of miles. The coordinates taken from the air were only approximate, so we'd have to gain voice contact and hone in on their exact location.
Meanwhile, Val and Joe would leave their vehicle and head up the mountain as well. Eventually, the four of us would rendezvous with the stationery subjects and then escort them, hopefully under their own power, to the vehicle. We were all carrying extra drinks, snacks, headlamps and clothing to share with the men.
Initial voice contact with the subjects had been established at about 2:45am. It was close to dawn by the time Val and Joe reached the men, and Al and I arrived a short time later, a bit bruised and scratched from the effort. The going was tedious and slow, through thick stands of young aspen trees, piles of deadfall like oversized pickup-sticks, and large boulder fields.
But we were happy to find two uninjured, albeit exhausted and dehydrated, men, both in good spirits. Seeing there was a female in the mix, one of them gave me a humorous warning the moment I arrived, telling me he'd torn open the seat of his jeans, so I might want to avoid the sight if I was easily embarrassed. "Ah, that's okay," Val said. "Deb hangs out with us."
We were able to turn off our headlamps soon after we began picking our way down the mountain as the sun came up. And now the going was painfully slow. I fidgeted each time we'd stop to give the men a break. But they were good-natured and grateful, and we couldn't have hoped for nicer rescuees.
One of the men admitted to me they'd gone off-trail on purpose on their way down, cutting switchbacks in an attempt to make a beeline back to their car and shorten the distance. It was still daylight when they'd realized they were very lost, and matters only worsened when it got dark. Well, that plan certainly backfired big time.
When we finally reached the vehicle at about 8am, rescuers and rescued had the longest farewell session I've experienced so far, with the men telling us they're going to make a donation to our team. Very cool. Unexpected and unsolicited but very much appreciated, for sure.
When I signed out back at the SAR building around 9:45a.m., I had just enough time to drive across town to pick up my mom for a full day of errand-running (she doesn't drive anymore) and a pre-planned lunch. I met Steve at home at 5:00. We had some dinner and ... my pager just went off again! What timing.
Did I say how much I enjoy this stuff? Let's see what's goin' on now......
The Hiking Writer
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