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.

Out of Bounds

Ah, the lure of fresh powder. If you're a skier or snowboarder--which I'm not--you can probably relate. It must be so tempting to get out there and make the first tracks after another winter storm has passed. This year, we've had above-average snowfall in Flagstaff, and that's a very good thing for our local ski resort. Some years, Snowbowl can open for only days, or maybe weeks if they're lucky. The ski area doesn't manufacture snow, so their business is entirely dependent upon nature, which has been very cooperative lately. Where there's heavy snow in the mountains, however, there can also be danger.

Within the past few weeks, Search & Rescue has received a number of calls from out-of-bound snowboarders, who've ducked under the ropes at the ski area to enjoy the thrill of swooshing through pristine powder in the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. Trouble is, many of these same folks are not prepared, with no gear, food or water in case they get stuck or lost, no map, no avalanche beacon. Often all they carry is a cellphone, and, lucky for them, they can usually get a signal from that area. The calls are often similar--the skier or snowboarder, after getting off the chair lift and heading out of bounds, has gone down a gully which has pulled them far from the ski area and the road. Eventually, the slope decreases to the point where a board or skis just won't go any further in snow that is sometimes several feet deep. One particular caller was very nervous about the fracturing, unstable snow around him.

Going out of bounds is not illegal here, but a free permit good for one year and issued by the Coconino National Forest is required to do so. The permitting process is simply an opportunity for Forest Service personnel to speak to recreationists about the hazards of winter sport in the backcountry, to give them tips about what gear to carry and the additional risks involved when skiing or snowboarding away from the maintained trails, where avalanche danger is mitigated. If someone requests help while out of bounds and is found not to have a permit, the fine is $75. There is no charge, however, for the actual cost of rescue, which can easily be in the thousands of dollars.

This year, the call-outs for stranded out-of-bounders have, until tonight, been resolved when SAR volunteers or the Sheriff talked them back to the road. Using a DPS helicopter or the callers' descriptions of their surroundings, their locations have been determined. Then rescuers were able to guide them through the arduous process of slugging through the deep snow, sometimes pushing their boards ahead of them to cut a path while they followed on their knees, until they could be picked up somewhere along the seven-mile Snowbowl Road. And that was the case earlier today, when I and several other volunteers responded to the first of three calls. That initial call came at about 3pm, and, within an hour after we arrived at Snowbowl, the subjects emerged along the road. While waiting for the first two snowboarders, a second call came in, and that person was able to follow the tracks of other two and was picked up by Scott and me at the same spot.

But things weren't over for us. A fourth snowboarder by the name of Edward was reported missing, this time by friends, who hadn't seen their companion since shortly after going out of bounds at 10:30 this morning. The group had decided to snowboard in what's known as Third Gully. It was now about 5:30pm, and daylight was fading fast. We were told that Edward did not carry extra gear or a cellphone.

At midnight, we're still searching for Edward. There are now seven of us on snowshoes, split into three groups, and two guys in the thiacol, which runs on tracks like a tank. The snow is so deep that, when Scott and I were dropped off along a Forest Service road to head towards the bottom of Third Gully, the thiacol driver jumped out and ended up buried to his waist. The snowshoes certainly help, but at times I still sink a couple of feet, and the going is extremely slow. At one point, Scott thought we'd gone at least a mile, but I checked my GPS and had to give him the bad news: We'd gone only half a mile in the last hour! Now, after six hours of this, I'm beginning to run out of steam.

As we listen to radio traffic, we know that one of our teams is following some deep prints, which appear to be heading uphill along a snowboard track. Scott and I are crossing plenty of snowboard and ski tracks--going out of bounds seems to be a popular pastime these days--but the only prints we're seeing were made by a bobcat and the jackrabbit it was following.

I'm nervous tonight. It's a little eerie being out here in the still, quiet wilderness in the middle of the night, but that's not the issue. What's bothering me is that I'm afraid that, at any moment, we're going to come upon another frozen body. Just like the mission in Pumphouse Wash on January 20th. The temperature tonight must be below zero. It's so cold, my fingers go numb within seconds when I expose my hands to work my GPS. Though the young man we're looking for is dressed for snowboarding, this frigid air seems to go right through any amount of clothing when you stop moving. And he's been out here for more than fourteen hours now, so he must be really tired. If someone falls asleep in the cold, they can succumb to hypothermia and never wake up. I don't like these morbid thoughts running through my mind.

Then, at about 1am, a transmission comes over the radio, and I hold my breath. I can tell by the tone in Joel's voice when I hear him call Incident Command that he's excited. I hope it's the good kind of excited. And now he says, "We've made contact with Edward." There's a pause and then, "He's code four." Thank God!

Turns out that Edward had gotten bogged down in deep snow quite far down the mountain and didn't know where he was. So he turned around and somehow made it up to over 10,000 feet, trying to go all the way back to where he and his friends had gone beyond the ropes. That must have taken an incredible physical effort. Eventually, it had gotten dark and Edward, who by then had done some damage to his knee, was tired and cold. That's when the lighter in his pocket probably saved his life. He made a depression in the snow and began burning pine needles. Our team searching the mountain from the top down at a point directly above where the other team was following the deep prints uphill, smelled those burning needles and soon found our guy. We'd never expected to find him that high up.

It takes us another couple of hours for our teams, along with Edward, to snowshoe out of the wilderness area and another hour after that to load the thiacol and other gear. Edward is delivered to medics to be checked out, and the volunteers go on their way. The mission isn't over until we return to the SAR building, fill the gas tanks and put everything away, but at least this time we do so with a good feeling inside. This time, we saved a life instead of finding that one had already ended.