These are my stories as a volunteer member of the Sheriff's Search & Rescue team in Coconino County, Arizona. I'll share what it's like to go from a beginner with a lot to learn to an experienced and, hopefully, valuable member of the team, as well as the missions, trainings, and other activities along the way.
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 23, 2008
I thought I'd be the last one to the SAR building, since I had to drop Steve off at home before driving across town. But only two of the eight volunteers responding were there when I arrived, and, as it turned out, we all had to stand by for a good hour anyway. Two tech team members were already on the mountain doing a hasty search, and, via radio communications, it sounded as though the rest of us might not be needed at all--just a couple of hikers without lights who'd lost the trail. However, a second potential SAR mission was unfolding at the same time.
And it was that second situation that the eight of us responded to, ending up an hour south in Sedona instead of ten minutes away on Mt. Elden. Two stranded mountain bikers had used a cellphone to call for help.
When we rendezvoused with the deputy waiting at Midgley Bridge, he called the subjects and asked them to turn on their headlamps, which we immediately spotted in the distance--little pinpoints of light against the dark backdrop of a mountain. Well, this didn't look like a big deal, really.
Victor, our team leader that night, who knows the area well, suggested the best course of action would be to hike from the other side of the ridge from Schenbly Hill Rd., up and over the saddle, and descend to the subjects, then bring them back the way we'd come. Steve and I had hiked that non-system, or what some call "social," trail, most of which is not on the map, a couple of years ago, and I recalled it being tough to locate in spots on the other side of the mountain, while fairly easy to follow on the side where the subjects were located. Obviously, though, the bikers had strayed from the trail quite a ways. But not recalling where to access the beginning of the trail on their side of the mountain, I didn't suggest an alternative to Victor's plan. By contrast, the access on Schnebly Hill Rd. is easy to locate, because the route begins with a short, out-and-back trail that is indicated on the map, and that trailhead has its own parking area. (Hope that makes sense.)
So the eight of us drove around to Schnebly Hill Road, which apparently hasn't seen any maintenance in years, and arrived at the trailhead about forty minutes later. It was a rough ride, and I'm surprised none of the three SAR vehicles ended up with at least one flat tire.
Before beginning the hike, Victor divided us into two teams, designating me as the leader of Team 1. My first time officially being named a leader. (I had to smile at that. How cool.) I'd communicate with Incident Command back at Midgely Bridge on 1-Baker, while designating another team member to keep her radio on the SAR frequency for communication between us and Team 2 when necessary. The other two members of Team 1 would keep their radios off for the time being, to preserve the batteries. Then the eight of us started up the trail together.
As we went along, we set out glow sticks in spots that were a bit confusing or might prove to be on the way back. At one point, we had to bushwhack around a stretch where the route would have taken us too close to a fall hazard. Erring on the side of caution as we're always supposed to do, we picked our way through some cactus, coming back to the trail in a safer spot to continue the traverse.
Soon we ascended an open slickrock face to a flat area not far from the saddle, and at that point our teams split up. My team would stay put while Team 2 went up and over. Team 1 would stand by in case backup was needed and eventually take over when the subjects were retrieved. They'd be handed off to us for the descent back to the vehicles. Perhaps that second part--the handoff--was merely to make my team feel more useful, but there really was no need for eight of us to continue to the subjects, especially because the going could get rough off-trail. So my group of four made ourselves comfortable and enjoyed a beautiful, still night, filled with moonlight and shooting stars.
While one of my teammates, new to the unit and rearing to go, was very fidgety and not happy about staying behind, I was quite content. I've learned over time that we all perform a function during a mission, even if we have to sit tight for a while. Sometimes waiting as back-up becomes vitally important. Even searching an area with low probability of finding a subject, or driving perimeter roads while other team members are searching high-probability areas, is crucial to a mission, even if it means just ruling out--or "clearing"--those places. Besides, after not having hiked this route for quite some time and my memory of the details being fuzzy, I felt the four team members who continued on were best skilled to deal with a potentially technical situation, especially with it being darker on the other side of the saddle despite the bright moon, given the shadow created by the mountain.
As it turned out, I'm glad I was on the team that stayed put. Monitoring radio communications between Team 2 and I.C., I could hear they were encountering some difficulty. When they left the trail to try to access the subjects, Team 2 soon found themselves in a tricky situation, with some significant fall hazards. And, in the meantime, the subjects had become moving targets, apparently now trying to self-rescue. Despite phone calls from the deputy and verbal communication between Team 2 and the subjects, shouting back and forth, the two men who'd called for help were not listening to those who were trying to help them.
At that point, Team 2 had gone far enough down the other side in rough terrain that backtracking would have been more difficult than continuing a descent towards Midgley Bridge ... with or without the subjects. The fidgeting member of my team kept asking me to call and see if he could go join Team 2, since he's from Sedona and felt he knew the area perhaps better than they did. When I refused to make that call, he asked why we shouldn't just go back to the vehicles then. But I felt we should stay where we were until Team 2 or Incident Command instructed us otherwise. We had radio communication, so they'd let us know.
At the same time, I didn't feel it necessary to interrupt Team 2 at that point, who were obviously busy with trying to negotiate hazardous terrain. So I had a wee bit of a tug of war, shall we say, with my one teammate, who, like every SAR member, will have to get used to taking some direction from those with more experience. I got instructions from Victor, and my new teammate would have to live with a few desicions from me. (So there.)
After listening to Team 2's increasingly frustrated transmissions for quite some time, Victor told IC they'd decided to hunker down and stay put till daylight, when it would be easier to see. They were still in voice contact with the subjects, who had by then split up. Meanwhile, my team was instructed to return to the vehicles on Schnebly Hill Rd. and drive back around to IC at Midgely Bridge, where we'd see what our next assignment would be, if any, for this mission. On the hike back to the vehicles, we collected the glow sticks we'd set out on the way up, after first confirming with Victor that his team wouldn't need them.
When we arrived at the bridge more than an hour later, nothing had changed. There was some talk about Team 1 hiking another trail in the area, to try to get close to the subjects from there, but we and the deputy decided that wasn't such a hot idea, comparing the location of the subjects and the nearest point on that trail and seeing the distance between the two was significant given the terrain. Instead, we decided to make a run into town for coffee and snacks, then return to I.C. and wait.
To make a long story a bit shorter, I'll wrap this up by saying that one of the two subjects made his way to the SAR team. At that point, he just wanted water for himself and his buddy, and our team gave him what he needed. Victor then decided to assist the mountain bikers down to the trail my team had briefly considered hiking up, though the two men would have to deal with their bikes on their own.
Once on the well-maintained trail, Victor and his two teammates left the subjects to ride or walk their bikes out on their own. Team 2 arrived at the road maybe ten minutes before the subjects, wet past their knees from the creek crossing. SAR waited until the mountain bikers arrived and were being interviewed by the deputy before we departed for Flagstaff.
After a 10-hour mission that we thought would take less than half that time, we signed out and headed for home just as the sun was coming up.
There is always a small percentage of search subjects that are smarter then those searching for them and have to find there own way out . It sounds like this is not the norm for you guys, I hope.
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