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.

My first mission

I'm sound asleep when my pager goes off. This is the first time I've heard the little gadget do its thing since it was given to me when I completed Basic SAR training, and I literally fall out of bed. Man, that's loud! At least, it seems loud when it's pitch dark and I'm in the middle of a dream. 

My heart is pounding. I get up off the floor and fumble for the light, then dig through the pile of clothes and shoes to find the source of the beeping. In the pocket of my jeans, I locate the pager, now chirping intermittent reminders, as if to say, "Um ... sorry I woke you up, lady, but ... I have a mission for you." By this time, my husband is stirring. He shields his eyes from the bright light and groans.

"My beeper beeped!" I announce with an inappropriately big grin. Woo-hoo! Now I'm fully awake.

As my husband pulls the quilt over his head, I dig through my bag, looking for the paperwork that came with the beeper. The code is 200. I find the instructions and see that 200 is a search. 300 would be a rescue with a known location. 400 is for a body recovery, 500 a call-out for the mounted unit (the horseback riders), 600 an evidence search, 700 is a disaster response (hope I never see that code pop up), 888 is stand by, 900 is for an administrative message, and 10-22 means, 

"Never mind, go back to bed"—mission cancelled. I call the number to listen to our SAR Coordinator's message (Sergeant "D" is a Sheriff's deputy and the one paid member of our team) and find out what's happening: two lost hikers on Mt. Humphreys, without food and water and not dressed for the conditions. They called 9-1-1 on their own cellphone, often the only item in the modern-day version of the wilderness survival kit. When it works in the wilderness, that is.

Following Sergeant D's message, I leave a reply: I will be responding to the Search & Rescue building. Then I trip over myself, trying to get dressed and collect my gear as quickly as possible. This will certainly take some practice.

I drive across town, concentrating on not exceeding the speed limit ... too much. We were told in training that we are not allowed to try to wiggle out of a speeding ticket by telling the police officer that we're SAR volunteers on our way to a mission. That would be grounds for getting kicked off the team. It's frustrating to go so SLOW, but I finally get to "The 105" building, where the Sheriff's SAR vehicles and equipment are stored. Two other volunteers are already there, going about the business of loading gear and getting ready to head to the mountain. 

I feel a little at odds, so I look for the sign-in sheet, record my name and the time I arrived, get myself a radio (which I don't know how to use yet), a radio harness (how do you put this thing on?) and re-organize my backpack until the guys are ready to roll. It's just going to be the three of us, I guess, about to climb Mt. Humphreys, Arizona's highest peak at 12,633 feet. I've been up there several times, but never at night.

By the time we get to the mountain, I've managed to put on the radio harness, contorting myself in the backseat before realizing that undoing the clips first helps quite a bit. I even figured out how to turn the radio on, though what to do after that will have to wait.

Being with SAR, we don't have to start out from the trailhead near the ski lodge. Instead, we open a locked gate to an unpaved service road—if you can call that undulating, rutted and very rocky thing a road—and slowly make our way higher up the mountain at an increasingly steep grade, bottoming out a time or two. 

When we can go no further in the vehicle, we step out into noticeably colder air here at around 10,000 feet compared to back in town at 7,000 feet. Scanning the mountain, a dark mass against a star-filled sky, we see a small glow to the northwest, just below the saddle. We've been told the lost hikers were able to start a fire to keep warm. Well, that must be them! And up we go.

Thing is, we aren't walking up a trail. No, the guys want to take the more direct and much steeper route and head straight for the glow. We struggle our way up a grassy ski run for a while (no snow yet), my calves burning and heart racing in the thinner air, then veer off onto a talus and brush-covered slope. With each step, I slide at least a half-step back, sending rocks tumbling towards my companions. Taking short bursts of quick steps seems to work better than going slow but requires a lot of effort, so I keep pausing to catch my breath. And with each pause, I begin to slide again. At this angle, we can no longer see the fire glow above, so we start calling out into the quiet darkness and blowing our whistles. Eventually, we hear a faint reply in the distance. Gee, they're way up there.

At about 1am, I hear giggling nearby. Well, at least they're not crying. Another longer burst of quick steps and I'm gasping hello to a young couple, huddled around their campfire. Actually, the first thing I say is, "Hi, I have to pee." (I figure I'll keep things lighthearted ... not to mention that it's true.)

My SAR companions arrive moments later, and once we're sure everyone is okay, I take a few horizontal steps into the darkness, brace my feet against a firmly-anchored bush and get some well-earned relief. Being a female on a SAR mission has its drawbacks.

Anyhow, it turns out that the hikers—out-of-towners who'd started up the mountain at 2pm, not carrying any lights or warmer clothing, and not realizing how much more difficult it is to hike at altitude—had lost the trail in the dark on their way back from the summit. After wandering around for as much as another hour, they'd decided to stay put and call for help. They're now more than a little embarrassed when we inform them they're only about ten feet away from the Humphreys Trail, which we intersect just above their current location.

We put out the fire (at least they'd had a lighter), burying it in the dirt so as not to waste any of our drinking water, which we have to share with the very thirsty couple, and then proceed down the trail. It would be too treacherous to go down the way we just came up and put not only us volunteers but the lost-and-now-found hikers at risk of injury. The trail is the longer but safer way to descend.

As the sun begins to rise over Flagstaff, we arrive at the ski lodge where we hand the rescue-ees over to the Deputy. Ugh, now we have to hike back up about 1,000 vertical feet to retrieve our SAR vehicle.

Ten hours after signing in at "the 105," I sign out and head home, where my husband is just waking up.