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.

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Not Always "Code 4"

My feet are wet. We've been down here in Pumphouse Wash for hours. Most of the time, we've struggled along the edges of the frozen pools, maneuvering over snow-covered boulders and brush, sometimes post-holing up to our hips. Occasionally, we cross over the ice if the going looks easier on the other side or if something "over there" warrants a closer look. I've broken through the ice several times, submerging one boot or the other, but even Gor-Tex doesn't help when water gets in over the top. At least I'm dressed for the conditions, though. We're told the man we're looking for, a 38 year-old husband and father of two named Stephan, is not.

Tonight, four of us are following a set of tracks we know for sure belong to our subject. We know this because his car is parked just off the road above, and we could see his prints heading away from the vehicle. We also know they're his prints because one of the four of us who are down in the wash is Stephan's best friend, searching with us whether we like it or not, and apparently he's familiar with the shoes Stephan is wearing. They're like trail-runners—not the best choice of footwear for a walk in the snow.

Why don't we want Stephan's friend with us? Well, in part, because his adrenaline—his urgency to find Stephan—is making him move too fast, so we're going too fast trying to catch up with him. An important lesson we're taught in Basic SAR training is to take our time. For one thing, moving too quickly may cause one of us to get hurt, and if a SAR member is injured, the search is suspended to deal with that immediate situation. That, of course, takes up precious time, which can make a crucial difference to the lost and possibly injured victim. Also, if we're rushing, we may miss or obscure vital clues. Right now, we're afraid that, in his haste, Stephan's friend might walk over tracks or perhaps even pass by Stephan himself, who may not be able to respond. I think, by this time, we're all silently worried.

Stephan's wife was the one who knew something was wrong, when it got dark and he hadn't returned from what was supposed to be a short afternoon hike beginning at about noon. Being a long-time local resident and avid hiker, he's familiar with Pumphouse Wash, which is pretty close to the road in this area, so we're thinking he may be hurt. Maybe Stephan went as far as the waterfall, now frozen I'd guess, and fell. Maybe he broke his leg. We're told he's in good physical condition and has even taken wilderness survival classes, but today Stephan left his backpack in his car. Perhaps he thought, since it was sunny and he wasn't going all that far, he wouldn't need any gear or extra layers of clothing.

But now, the once-sunny and relatively mild winter day has become a clear and extremely cold night. The snow is glittering in the moonlight and it's beautiful down in the wash, surrounded by ponderosa pine under a star-filled sky, but that's just a fleeting thought as I concentrate on the search and try to ignore my own growing discomfort.

After descending into the wash via a small drainage, Stephan chose to walk on the ice, where there is enough of a dusting of snow to make his prints fairly easy to spot with our flashlights. While my two SAR companions and Stephan's friend follow the prints, however, I scan the slopes on either side, just in case Stephan tried to climb back up at some point. I'm afraid that if we're all looking in the same direction, we might miss something.

Tonight, we have several groups of SAR volunteers spread out in the area, while Sergeant D is at Incident Command back up at the road. When we arrived at approximately 9 p.m. at the site where Stephan left his car, his friend was already there. It seems he, along with his wife and Stephan's wife, had gone out earlier in the evening to have a look on their own, but they followed the prints only a short distance before calling the sheriff's office.

Once we arrived, Sergeant D gave us our instructions, and three of us—myself and two very experienced volunteers—began following the prints with Stephan's friend following us. When we reached the point where Stephan had turned and headed into the side drainage, we asked his friend to return to the road to talk to the deputy. Knowing Stephan so well and having hiked with him many times, he might be able to share more information that would aid in the search—it's where he could be of the most help, my teammates explained. He reluctantly agreed.

Maybe an hour and a half later, however, Stephan's friend came bushwhacking down into the wash again, having slipped away from Incident Command, and intercepted the three of us. This time, though, we call out and tell the friend to stop and wait for us. I stare at the ground, embarrassed, as one of my teammates gives him a polite but stern talking-to, then explains why we do things the way we do. After some objection, he agrees to cooperate and do things "our way."

As we now continue the search at the proper pace, at times losing the tracks then soon picking them up again, we listen to occasional radio communications. The other field teams are searching either side of the wash from above. Ranger, the DPS helicopter, is overhead, sometimes flying directly over our position, briefly illuminating the area like midday. In those moments, I look anywhere and everywhere I can, hoping to spot something I'd missed in the dark. Our shouts into the night are not returned.

Eventually, the tracks we're following seem to stop and shuffle, as if Stephan was looking around, trying to make a decision. The most experienced among us is very helpful, explaining what information he's learning from the prints and what additional clues he's seeing—things my inexperienced eyes don't pick up on until they're pointed out to me. As we go along, however, I'm finding that I'm seeing more, understanding more. It's like reading a story in those prints and other clues.

And now we see something else: some of Stephan's footprints are pointing in the opposite direction from the way we've come. Did he take just a few steps back and then turn around again? We aren't sure. We keep following the tracks in our original direction until, finally, we know for certain Stephan had turned around.

At that point, we find something more: his digital camera lying on the ice. His friend is now very excited. Agitated almost. "That's his! That's Stephan's camera!" he exclaims. He tries to turn it on to see what pictures Stephan may have taken and if perhaps they'd give us any more clues, but the camera battery is dead, frozen, or both.

We now see that Stephan's prints keep going in the opposite direction, often right alongside his first set of tracks. Why hadn't we noticed that earlier? Was it because we were going too fast? That second set of prints leads all the way back to where he initially came down into the wash, but the tracks don't turn uphill into the side drainage. Instead, they pass by that point and head further up the wash.

How come we hadn't spotted that—that the footprints went in both directions—when we first got down here? Perhaps because it made more sense that Stephan had gone down the wash, toward the waterfall. We've been told there's a large pool below the waterfall that Stephan may have wanted to check out, maybe to take his kids skating on it when the ice is thick enough.

We keep following in Stephan's footsteps another difficult quarter-mile or so. And now it appears he's begun to fall, causing large chunks of ice to crack under the weight of his body. His prints are zigzagging, no longer going in a more direct line. That's not a good sign—his coordination seems to be failing. A sure sign of hypothermia.

Each time we lose Stephan's track then discover another print, one of us says, "I've got him!" In fact, I think that's what we've been saying all night. Why we've said it that way, I have no idea. But, walking behind my companions, I'm so used to hearing, "I've got him!" that I assume, this time, my teammate is seeing yet another footprint. 

But when I take a few more steps, then move to the side to look, my heart stops. "Oh my God!" is what comes out of my mouth, in a voice that doesn't sound like my own. This time, it really is him.

We all know Stephan is dead, lying there on his back, his arms bent at the elbows as if he just sunk to his knees and lay down on the ice. Frozen. I can't take my eyes off of him. I'm shocked though not surprised, if that makes any sense. Stephan's friend is standing over him, silent, as my teammate feels for a pulse. He tries again, this time for more than a minute. Just to be sure.

Several hours later at about 7 a.m., following the recovery of Stephan's body, we're back at the Sheriff's office, sitting in a circle, waiting to get this mandatory debriefing over with. It's a counseling session, basically, with three specialists who haven't arrived yet. But we're all exhausted and just want to go home. And I think we all agree: It isn't the sight of death that bothers us—it's that the mission ended this way. That a young, healthy, experienced hiker who knew the area and was so close to his vehicle—so close to warmth and safety—who could have worked up a sweat in no time if he'd only just headed back uphill toward his car, apparently died of hypothermia.

We're now told he probably died even before we were called out to search. When we first found Stephan, I remember immediately thinking of his wife, how we had glanced at one another as I'd walked past her as we began the search. I wonder what she was thinking. But I'm too tired to talk about any of it right now.