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.

Carrying a Man off Mt. Humphreys

Two days later, my arms are still sore, but in a good way. I feel like I did something and actually helped, compared to the rescue on Mt. Humphreys a couple of months ago (about which I now realize I didn't write a blog entry). During that earlier rescue, involving a man from Mississippi who'd broken his ankle when he stepped over a log and landed wrong, I was tentative and only put my hands on the litter a few times. Granted, it was a more difficult evacuation along a somewhat treacherous and snowy route, but I felt more like a bystander than a useful part of the team.

This time around, we were called to evacuate a hiker in his early 50s, who'd experienced shortness of breath and chest tightness while descending from the 12,633-foot summit. We were told that the man--Andrew--has a stint in his heart but is accustomed to climbing Camelback Mountain in the Phoenix area quite often and has also climbed Mt. Humphreys since the stint was put in. So this wasn't something new for him.

When I arrived at the trailhead, having responded directly to the mountain rather than the SAR building, a small team including at least one of our volunteers and a medic was already on the trail. Their goal was to locate Andrew and ascertain his condition. Meanwhile, another team, including two more SAR members and additional medical personnel, were loading gear into a vehicle, preparing to drive up a ski area service road and then switchbacks on one of the slopes to try to get the equipment closer to the subject.

By having access to that locked service road, Search and Rescue is able to bypass part of the Humphreys Trail and, therefore, save crucial time and energy. It also allows us to evacuate a subject more quickly. When I got to the staging area, however, Andrew's exact location on the trail was still undetermined.

As I waited with our coordinator and team captain, as well as the Battalion Chief for Guardian Medical, in the parking lot at the lodge, another contingent of our SAR team soon arrived. They brought with them our new Polaris Ranger UTV, which I learned to drive at the SAR conference in Heber earlier this year. Sergeant D pointed at me and said, "Deb is the certified driver." Yay, I was gonna get to drive the "little car" on it's maiden mission! (Okay, I thought to myself, the gas is on the right, brake on the left. I can do this.)

So up the service road I went, with my cohort, Liz, squished in the middle next to me and, Scott, a very experienced member of our team, next to her. Behind us was the rest of our crew in a SAR vehicle. I was directed to stop on the service road rather than continue up the switchbacks on the ski run, so the UTV drive was easy, without any of the steep side-tilt that makes me a wee bit nervous. Phew.

From where we parked, our group continued on foot, straight up the mountain with a break-apart, titanium litter with the wheel attached, to intersect the trail. As we huffed and puffed and sweat, the initial team found Andrew, and the second team that had driven up the ski slope also made their way to that location. Our group arrived at the trail several hundred feet below the subject, so we continued huffing and puffing, taking turns pushing and pulling the litter. If it was this tough without a patient in it, I couldn't wait to see how difficult this was going to get. At least we'd be going down, I thought.

But I soon found that going down didn't seem to make much difference. If anything, it was more difficult. But at least we had a lot of people to help, so we all were able to switch out and change sides (and, therefore, arms) as often as needed. I was happy to find that our subject was alert and generally in good spirits, though he'd needed significant assistance standing up and getting over to the litter. During the carry-out, the medics continuously monitored his blood pressure and pulse, and a portable machine printed out what looked like an EKG. Apparently, the oxygen the medics were giving Andrew was helping. The only things that seemed to be bothering him during the evacuation were a sore back due to insufficient padding on the litter and concern about how much the helicopter ride to the hospital was going to cost. (No one seemed sure about the answer, given that it was a Guardian, not a DPS, helicopter that was en route to the mountain. Someone replied, "I think it's the same cost as an ambulance ride.")

I do want to mention how great it was to see that another hiker, who'd happened along when Andrew was in distress, had stopped and stayed with him. I don't know this young man's name, but he not only assisted with the carry-out and carried Andrew's backpack, but he told Andrew he'd drive his vehicle to the hospital and meet him there. Andrew had come to Mt. Humphrey's alone, but he left with a friend. What a great guy.

Anyhow, to our relief, we finished the evacuation before dark. When we emerged from the trees onto the service road where the UTV was parked, our patient, still on the litter, was loaded onto the back of the vehicle. Next to him was a rear-facing seat for a medic. And I was again the driver.

Though my companion in the front asked me if the UTV could go any faster, I drove fairly slow, easing over the biggest bumps. Granted, Andrew had been rolled over lots of bumps during the carry, but no need to jostle him any more than necessary, I figured. Besides, I knew from the traffic coming over the radio in my chest harness that the Guardian helicopter had not yet arrived at the landing zone (LZ). So there was no need to rush.

As we got closer to the LZ on the lower part of the Hart Prairie ski run--just a grassy field filled with prairie dog holes until the first winter snow--I heard that the helicopter was a minute out. What good timing, I thought. I could hear it approaching as I came to a stop in the parking lot at the edge of the field. I wanted to let them land, then wait for instruction before driving any closer. But then I heard the pilot say she was going to circle for a while, to burn off fuel. I don't know much about helicopters, but I do know they're sensitive to weight, air temperature and altitude, so I guess the pilot felt it was best to reduce the weight given other conditions.

As it turns out, Andrew probably could have gotten to the hospital faster in the ambulance that was parked right next to us than he eventually did in the helicopter. But the medics felt he was stable, and Andrew himself seemed rather content. In fact, he was chatting with people coming off the trail, who walked over to see what was going on. So there was Andrew, flat on his back, strapped to the litter which was strapped to the UTV, with several people standing around talking. Sergeant D even got his interview with Andrew done while we watched the helicopter make huge circles in the air.

About twenty minutes after we arrived near the LZ, the helicopter landed, and we carried Andrew over to it. The helicopter has a litter platform that angles out for loading. When you put the patient on there and then push the thing back in, his feet are right next to the pilot.

Moments later, the helicopter lifted off as I returned to the UTV. I managed to drive it onto the trailer--another first for me; phew again--and then Search & Rescue and Guardian personnel had a debriefing before everyone went their separate ways.

All in all, the evacuation went very well. Good communication, good team work. And, this time, I definitely felt like part of the team.