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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Woods Canyon Rescue

I had no time to get nervous. Art, our acting coordinator tonight in Sergeant D's absence, pointed at me and said, "You and Mike get your stuff together, and Ranger will take you in." For a second, my mouth dropped open—my first helicopter ride!—but I snapped it shut and went to get my gear in order.

Tonight's mission is a search for an overdue hiker in the Woods Canyon area near Sedona. This same now-31-year-old man was short-hauled six years ago by two of the volunteers on tonight's mission, both retired helicopter pilots. They tell us that the subject, Andrew, is missing part of his skull as a result of that past climbing accident. We're hoping he didn't fall sometime today and hit that vulnerable part of his head.

Andrew was supposed to have gone on a day hike, but night came and he hadn't returned. Soon after his girlfriend reported him missing, Andrew's vehicle was located here where SAR personnel have now convened to begin the search.

Tonight's search could have been a long one with so much area to cover. We first would have looked for tracks beginning from Andrew's vehicle and gone from there. But, luckily, Ranger, the DPS helicopter, was able to locate the victim. At first, the pilot radioed that he could see nothing but thick brush, but then Art suggested he fly along the rim. And, moments later, we heard the crew had spotted the subject down in the canyon. His condition, however, could not be determined, nor could the pilot or crew member tell if there would be a way to get to Andrew without technical skill and equipment. So, in the interest of time, Art has chosen me and Michael, an experienced canyoneer, to be flown in, closer to the rim, to see if we can determine Andrew's condition and a possible route to his location.

Next thing I know, I'm being led to the waiting helicopter by the crew member. He didn't have tell ME twice to stay low! I once saw an episode of ER, where a surgeon got his arm lopped off by a rotor, and it sure was graphic. So I'd have crawled on my belly if he'd let me. But all in one piece and with my pride intact, I'm loaded into the helicopter, my backpack handed in to me, and told to buckle up and put the headset on. That last instruction keeps me busy for most of the flight, and I never am able to get the thing snug on my head or the microphone in the proper position in front of my mouth.

It's an odd sensation, flying in a helicopter at night, not being able to see much of anything until we're close to the ground again and the spotlights illuminate the treetops. The flight is smooth, but just feet from the ground, we start to wobble as if the pilot has to fight to land. I'm not sure why that is, but we soon touch down, Mike and I shed our headsets and seat belts, grab our packs, and are physically whisked away from the chopper. The crew member quickly gives us directions on how to get to the rim above the victim's location, then Mike and I stay low until the noisy metal bird takes off and we can stand upright and put our packs on.

After being redirected a couple of times by Ranger, watching us from above, we find the correct two-track they'd been talking about—there are several in this area—and then find the stock tank and drainage the crew member had described. It's rough going, but we're soon on the rim of Woods Canyon, picking our way along through cactus and brush. It's a steep drop and not looking promising.

But just before we begin to call out, an excited voice comes from the darkness below. "Hey! Am I glad to see you!" Well, at least we know Andrew's alive. He's seen our lights, and we begin calling back and forth to get a fix on his location. We've overshot him and double back.

"Andrew, are you hurt?" Mike calls down.

"Well, I hit my head pretty hard! And it's bleeding."

Uh-oh. Not the head again.

"Have you lost much blood?" Mike asks.

"Well, yeah, a decent amount. I have a shirt wrapped around it."

Mike asks, "Can you walk?"

"Yeah, I can walk!"

Well, that's a plus. Mike tells Andrew to stay put, though, and we continue to look for a way down. Eventually, as I work the radio and communicate with Art back at Incident Command, Mike finds a spot where he thinks he can down-climb. He takes off his pack, and I illuminate the way as he gives it a try. I figure if Mike falls, at least I'll be in one piece up top and can call for more help.😏

But Mike makes it down the trickiest part, and from there it's not so bad, he says. I hear him calling back and forth to Andrew, and suddenly a head pops up from the brush below. Andrew has followed Mike's voice and come up to meet him. Then, with Mike carrying Andrew's pack, the two of them climb back to where I'm standing.

Yeah, Andrew is indeed pretty bloody. The t-shirt wrapped around his head is soaked through, and I see blood down the side of his face and on the back of his shirt. He looks and sounds alert, though, and despite a little wobbliness, which he claims is from fatigue, Andrew says he can walk with us. I stay close behind our subject as he follows Mike, ready to lower Andrew to the ground if he passes out. We make our way back toward the landing zone, so Ranger can pick him up.

Soon, however, we see headlights. SAR personnel have been able to drive out fairly close to the landing zone, as I've been monitoring on the radio, but they can't get all the way there; the going has gotten much too rough. And while I have the landing zone (LZ) coordinates on my GPS, and my gadget tells me the LZ is not in the same direction as the headlights, Mike thinks the lights and LZ are one and the same location. He politely vetoes my statement that the LZ is "over there" and wants to head directly for the lights, where we know for sure someone is waiting. If nothing else, he says, Andrew can be driven back to a waiting ambulance. As we move toward the vehicle, I hear Ranger on the radio, repeatedly saying we're going the wrong way, but I continue to follow Mike's lead nonetheless.

In the end, we get to the vehicle, which really isn't all that far from the LZ. Oly, one of the retired pilots, is there and, having more medical experience than the rest of us, quickly checks Andrew—more of a verbal check than physical—and then walks Andrew to the helicopter. Ranger will take Andrew directly to the hospital, while Mike and I drive out with Oly and another volunteer on the long, rough Forest Service road.

The night seems to have flown by and, thankfully, has ended well. I feel like I was more a part of the mission's outcome than ever before.