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.

October 14, 2008

A Mock Search ... And Then Some

It's like following a horse race. Team 1 gives their coordinates to Sergeant D over the radio, and I, listening in, plot those coordinates on my map. Then Team 2 gives their location, then Team 3. Team 2 is in the lead! They're gaining on us! Not that we're moving, of course.

What the heck am I talking about, you ask? Well, I'm sitting near the edge of an alpine meadow, a couple hundred yards above the Kachina Trail. Joe is here, too, reading his thick, computer-programming textbook. I suggested he bring something to read, because I knew we'd be out here a while. We're "lost," you see. Oh, and I have a leg injury, though I'm not really sure which part of which leg is injured. I'll come up with that once we're found.

Sergeant D left an envelope for me at the SAR building yesterday, with "Confidential information for Deb Lauman" written on it, sealed with yellow evidence tape. It felt so official. In the envelope was a copy of the briefing the new unit members and their experienced instructor-members would be given for today's simulated mission. Sergeant D also gave me coordinates for the place where Joe and I should wait ... and wait ... and wait.

The two of us arrived at the trailhead at noon today for our head start and hiked 2.7 miles to this location, following the digital compass on my 9 year-old Magellan GPS. We positioned ourselves a bit farther from the trail than the coordinates indicated, far enough that passers-by wouldn't notice us but close enough that we could keep an eye out for Search & Rescue. If they walk by but don't call out or blow a whistle, we're not gonna yell. Heh-heh.

It's a beautiful yet chilly day up here at close to 10,000 feet, and now, at 4:30pm, I feel the air getting colder. Joe and I move a bit further into the meadow, to escape the growing shadows creeping our way and soak up what's left of the sunlight.

We're just about midway along the Kachina Trail. One group of searchers started from the western end, where Joe and I parked. Another group began at the Weatherford trailhead on Schultz Pass road, requiring more than a mile of additional hiking to get to the junction at the eastern end of the Kachina Trail. Those two groups are working towards one another, while the third group, who drove in on a Forest Service road, are hiking north, up an old two-track towards the trail. They should intersect the Kachina Trail not far to the west of our location. It'll be interesting to see (or hear rather) which way they turn once they get there. And there's now been a fourth team designated, made up of two unit members who parted with one of the original teams and are now heading back to Incident Command, because one of them is experiencing some "mountain sickness."

We also know from radio communications that there are two search dogs in the field. But I guess their noses don't know what they're sniffing for, because they have no scent article of mine or Joe's. Must be the dogs in training I heard about, belonging to a couple who are new to the unit.

I hear my watch beep: 5pm. And soon I think I hear a distant call. It's faint, but who else besides SAR would be yelling out here? Joe and I listen closely. Yep, that must be them. We let them get closer, until we can clearly hear them calling Joe's name. I give Joe the nod, and he yells back.

And then ... silence. A long silence. Joe and I look at each other, puzzled. (We later find out that when Joe called back the first time, the teams, which by then were all within earshot as they closed in on our position and one another at roughly the same time, froze. I could just imagine them all standing there, holding their breath, listening as hard as they could. I would have had a giggle-fit watching that.) Joe and I stayed mute too. Ha!

Finally, someone on one of the teams breaks the silence and gives another yell. Joe responds, and then--and I'm laughing as I write this--they all start yelling like mad and blowing whistles. Such excitement! Poor Joe, he has to keep calling back and calling back. "Hey!" "Over here!" "Hey!" Meanwhile, I'm just sitting here in the tall grass. I mean, I can't yell, my leg is broken. Yeah, definitely broken. Maybe even a nice, icky compound fracture.

Soon, we see Search & Rescue--two teams almost at the same time--emerge into the meadow below. They don't spot us right away, though Joe is now standing, waving his arms as he calls back. And now I hear, "There he is! Up there!" And the mass of people and two bounding, brown dogs start moving our way. Within about five minutes, I'm being licked and slobbered on (by the dogs, that is), and, as the third team catches up and joins the rest, Joe and I are soon surrounded by about twenty people. Gee, such great attention.

They ask me if I'm cold. No, I say. But Al--one of the experienced members along to provide guidance--looks at me sternly and says, "Oh, yes, you are."

Oh ... okay, I'm cold. Very cold. Yes, new members, the subject needs some of your spare clothing. Yeah, that's much better. Am I hungry or thirsty? I look at Al. Nooooo, not hungry or thirsty. I just ate and drank recently, thank you (which is true). And Al tells me I have a "fractured right ankle joint." Ouch! A dog just stepped on it. If this were for real, that woulda hurt.

New member Tom, an EMT, uses a Sam splint, bandannas and two thick sticks to secure my broken ankle, then I'm plopped into the litter and Ken gives a demo on patient packaging.

(Now, of course, I can't scribble on my notepad, so into past tense I go.)

Part of the group heaved me into the air, as others struggled to attach the wheel beneath the litter. After some technical difficulties, we started to roll ... and bounce ... and jolt. It's kinda funny, looking up at all those faces, listening to the jumble of communication amongst people not used to working together and not used to transporting a person in a litter. At the same time, I was rather comfy and could have taken a nap, actually, had I not gotten dumped out, forced to hike on my miraculously healed ankle after everyone had had a turn handling the litter.

By then, the sun had set, and we proceeded, single-file, to hike out, our headlamps glowing like a moving line of luminaries along the trail. We chatted as we went, older members and new ones getting to know one another. I heard some SAR stories being shared and everything was hunky-dory, until, boom! Down goes Laura, one of the new recruits. Uh-oh. This time, the ankle injury was real.

Now Tom, the EMT, wasn't pretending as he evaluated and splinted Laura's ankle. After a very brief, unsuccessful attempt at an assisted walk-out, we all got another patient-packaging demonstration. With a about a mile to go to vehicles, we all took turns on the litter, our real patient apologizing along the way. What an unfortunate way to begin a Search & Rescue career.

At midnight, I finally arrived home, about four hours later than I'd expected.
P.S. In my last entry, I'd mentioned how our pagers hadn't gone off in a while, so I was having a premonition things were about let loose. Well, twice in one day, on that same day, it did. Two injured hikers on two mountain trails. Twice a bunch of us, including a number of new members who just received their pagers, responded to the SAR building, anticipating long litter-carries. Twice the missions were 10-22'd, because Guardian medical personnel ended up going in and getting the victims before we arrived. Well, now the new folks know firsthand what "hurry up and go home" means. It happens.


Anonymous said...

Deb, nice write up. I thought you might like my Lesson Learned on AMS. Since I was the one that needed to be escorted back down the trail that day I figured I would share my lesson with you. Being at sea level for the last 40 years and up until the day of the mock search I had really no idea of what Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) was all about, mistake one. A few days later I decided to review what I had actually put into my backpack since I felt that I might have overloaded it, mistake two. Initially I felt I had done a good job of packing as outlined in our training. A little heavy (32#), but since I’m 6’-2” I figured it was due to the weight of my extra large sized clothing. But that weight was without the water so add a storage bladder (5#) and remembering the part about not depending on just the bladder as the soul water source I added 4 small bottles of water (2.5#). Still not too bad I figured. But of course as luck would have it our team got the steepest trail so after looking at the topo map I threw in another 3 liters (5.5#). It was after all looking to be hot work ahead of me. However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the last minute addition of nylon line (8-10#). In all, I had contrived to load myself down with 53-55 lbs of gear for my first excursion up to 9,200’, not a smart thing to do. Now here is where the AMS got-yah comes in. The body has to be able to oxygenate your blood supply while working. But at a higher elevation you get less oxygen to use so that makes the work just that much harder. Yes, a lighter pack (now down to 24#) and more realistic conditioning program have helped. Sometimes a large portion of Humble Pie is good for the soul. In 20-20 hindsight the biggest lessoned would have to be that when your teammates are hinting that something is wrong, you should really listen instead of doggedly continuing.

By the way symptoms of AMS (at least with me): Started with a headache that abated while at rest, but returned within 10 minutes of resuming the climb, next was a dry cough that I didn’t even notice, followed by trembling legs and a roaring headache that did not go away until about 15 minutes after beginning decent.


Deb Kingsbury said...

Hi, Paul!

Hey, you found me! My blog, that is. Thanks for stopping by and for a great post. I welcome your comments and feedback any time.

And as for your "Lesson Learned on AMS," hey, stuff happens to all of us. SAR is an incredible learning experience in so many ways, and after a year on the team now and quite a few missions during that time, I realize now more than ever how much I still have to learn.

I personally think the addition of a mock mission to the Basic SAR Academy was a really good idea. Yeah, it was a tough hike, especially for your group, and perhaps more difficult than some had expected, but I think that was a good thing. Better to have that experience before one's first real mission.

When I finished the SAR Academy last year and then responded to my first call-out soon afterwards, I was completely green. Didn't even know how to turn the radio on. So I'm glad you guys had some experience in the field before going out on a real mission. Sorry, though, that you ran into trouble, but I'm glad to see you've been back out since!

Looking forward to many missions with you in the future.