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.

James Canyon Rescue

Imagine hiking into a quiet canyon on a beautiful spring day. Where the canyon becomes a narrow slot and the creek bed falls off dramatically into a deep, narrow pool, you set up your canvas and paints on a ledge above the water. What a perfect spot on a perfect day.

But then one bad step changes everything. You slide then fall 50 feet or more into that deep pool, where the shaded water is very cold. That fall results in a fractured femur and ankle and possibly a broken pelvis. It's 2:00 in the afternoon, but no one is anywhere near, no one can hear you call, and the walls of slickrock surrounding the pool are sheer and impossible to free-climb even if you weren't injured. So, cold and in pain, you wait. And wait and wait for hours.

Luckily, you manage to float to the edge of the deep pool, where there's just enough of a toe-hold to keep you from sinking. Nightfall finally comes. You know your family knows where you've gone, thank God, and they'll eventually come looking for you. And, sure enough, in the middle of the night after three hours of searching for you, your father finds you and runs for help.

And that's when our Search and Rescue team, members of Highland Fire Department, Guardian Medical and DPS become involved in the effort to save the 20 year-old victim who's fallen into James Canyon. It's a rugged area without a trail, and a carry-out of this 270-pound young man will take hours, not to mention be a dangerous undertaking for both the victim and the rescuers. But, first, the rescuers have to figure out how to get him up, out of the cold water and onto the ledge above.

The first call-out tonight was for technical team members of our SAR unit. About an hour later, another page came through, this time for additional ground-pounders to assist with the rescue, at which time I responded to the SAR building and then, along with three others, to the staging area at James Canyon. While the three other volunteers leave the scene to retrieve drinks and food, I stay behind with the deputy and listen to the radio traffic between the rescuers in the canyon below, DPS and incident command. At about 2am, after a very technical maneuver requiring some sort of pulley system, the victim is out of the water. He is severely hypothermic, and paramedics begin trying to warm him and stabilize his injuries. I listen to all of this on the radio and piece together the bits of communication into a mental picture of what's going on down there.

Then I hear that they need IV bags and other supplies, meaning that someone needs to hike down from my location. The other three ground-pounders haven't returned yet, so I get my chance to help. After my pack is loaded with the medical supplies and I'm given instructions on how to find my way to the rescuers and victim, I start out on my own. Though generally afraid of the woods at night, adreneline keeps most of my nerves at bay. The route is marked fairly well with glow sticks and flagging tape, though the tape is sometimes difficult to find after they'd run out of glow sticks to lead the way. Twice I have to double-back and search for the proper route, while carefully watching my step and climbing over blowdowns and boulders. After about 40 minutes, I see the light of the rescuers' fire and make my way to where the victim is lying, strapped to a backboard, wrapped in sleeping bags and blankets, and surrounded by at least 15 men including several SAR members. I hand off the medical supplies and find myself a spot around the fire.

A decision has been made by Incident Command, with much discussion between DPS, the technical rescue team and the deputy in charge. A short-haul will be attempted at first light instead of trying to carry the victim out of the canyon. The injured young man, thoroughly doped up on IV pain medication, moaned in pain nonetheless when he was carefully moved closer to the fire. I can only imagine how painful a long, rugged carry-out would be. There'd be absolutely no way to be gentle on this kind of terrain, not to mention how difficult it is to carry such a big guy on a level trail. But, by the same token, the young man's size and extra body fat were probably the only things that kept him alive in that cold water for all of those hours. A smaller person would surely have succumed to hypothermia long before the rescue.

I watch the victim periodically as I and the others wait for daylight and the helicopter to return. A short haul can't be performed by just any helicopter pilot, but, luckily, a pilot trained to do short hauls is available, and a deputy on scene here in the canyon is certified to be on the end of the rope with the victim. I've seen this maneuver on video but never up close and personal.

At about 5:30 am, we hear the helicopter approaching and quickly secure all of the gear strewn about the area. It's already very cold in the canyon, but the wind created by the helicopter makes it downright frigid. I feel like I'm in the middle of a hurricane in the Arctic, as the Bowman bag is lowered. At least rescuers are able to shield themselves and take some cover from the wind; the victim is stuck out there, strapped down flat on his back. Then the helicopter moves away, so the victim, backboard and all, can be packaged up and he and the deputy can be readied for the short haul. Once everything is in order, the helicopter is summoned back and the rest of us move away again.

It's kind of scary, yet exciting, to watch. The helicopter, at one point, is directly over my head. As the deputy gives the signal that he's ready, he and the victim are lifted, spinning, out of the canyon, the deputy slightly clipping a tree on the way up. And I watch them whisked off, high in the sky, to the waiting ambulance. It seems very anticlimactic, watching the helicopter return for the cargo net full of gear, then retracing our steps the staging area. We now have somewhat of a trail to follow part of the way, since firefighters with chainsaws worked through the night to clear a path, just in case a carry-out had become necessary. Thank goodness it wasn't!

But, wow, what a rescue. That's one lucky young man. Lucky that his family knew where he'd gone and had planned to look for him if he didn't return by dark. Lucky that he was able to find a foothold on the edge of the pool, which probably prevented him from drowning. Lucky he didn't sustain even more serious injuries from the fall or lose consciousness (which would surely have meant drowning), and lucky that he didn't have to suffer through an extremely difficult and dangerous carry-out. My role in the rescue was minimal by comparison, but I'm glad to have been a part of it and thrilled to have witnessed a life being saved.