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.
November 10, 2008
Drunk on Devil's Head
The page was initiated by our Captain, also a volunteer, since Sergeant D is out of town. This would be a search for a 43 year-old male who'd driven up to the top of Mt. Elden, drunk (or had gotten drunk up there perhaps) earlier in the afternoon, and hadn't been seen since. The reporting party said the man was not dressed for the cold. It was now a little after 10pm on Saturday, below freezing at 7,000 feet and certainly colder at over 9,000.
I've never driven up Elden Lookout Rd. before, just hiked to the top via various trails. And I think I prefer the hiking, actually. The trails are fairly strenuous but not nearly as rough on the body as bouncing up that dirt road, which is more a jumble of boulders than it is actual dirt. As a passenger that night, I was holding on to the "oh-sh*t" bar, as I call it, with both hands. Even my seatbelt wasn't enough to keep my head from bumping the roof of the vehicle a time or two! And that drive took us a while. I'm thinking I may have been able to hike up there faster.
At any rate, I think there ended up being thirteen of us on the mountain, including two deputies. When we convened at the tailgate of a pickup, a usual location for a briefing, we learned some additional details:
Originally, there had been four in the party--the man now missing, his girlfriend, his brother and a friend. They drove together to the top of the mountain, where they drank and they drank. Then they argued. Then the brother and the friend took the vehicle and left the mountain. Bye-bye! Meanwhile, the now-missing man and his girlfriend continued to fight and walked southward, across a fairly open area called Turkey Park, and apparently slid aways down the side of Devil's Head.
Just to give you an idea of the terrain, it's basically one long mountain with three peaks--Little Elden to the east, Elden in the middle, and Devil's Head to the west. Mt. Elden, the highest of the three, and Devil's Head are mostly separated by a grassy area called Turkey Park. You can drive right up to the top of Elden or, just below Turkey Park, take the other prong of the forked road and go to Devil's Head.
Anyhow, the reporting party this evening had been the missing man's girlfriend. The details were a bit fuzzy, but I think the man had slid further down than his girlfriend had (at one point someone said she'd actually pushed him) or perhaps not but was maybe drunker than she was, and he couldn't get back up, either due to injury, inibriation or maybe both. I'm not sure about any of that, but I do know the girlfriend climbed back up to Turkey Park, then walked all the way down Elden Lookout Rd. and somehow got a ride back to town and called 911.
Okay, so before breaking into ground teams, we gathered around a clear footprint definitely made by the man we were looking for when he and his girlfriend had started walking southbound, first on the road and then overland toward the rim. He was wearing cowboy boots.
We then divided into several teams. One team of three had arrived a bit before the rest of us and were already headed to the area the girlfriend had described as where they'd gone off the side. The rest of us were assigned to scouting the interior of Turkey Park ("purposeful wandering," as our leader for the evening described it), searching the perimeter of Turkey Park along the rim, and searching the radio and lookout towers at the summit of Mt. Elden. We had no idea if the subject had perhaps left the area where his girlfriend had last seen him. We had no idea if he was badly hurt or if he was suffering from severe hypothermia, or both. Alcohol only makes matters worse, of course.
I was on the three-person team doing the "purposeful wandering" around the interior of Turkey Park. We spread out about, oh, thirty feet or so, and searched the tall grass and clumps of short trees as we went along, calling out the subject's name as we always do, and looking closely in case he was there but unresponsive.
Eventually, Team 1, which had gone to the general area last seen, found what looked to be a slide pattern. And, soon afterwards, they had voice contact from below. I was actually a little surprised how accurate the girlfriend's description had been, given her altered state at the time.
Turns out, the man was not seriously hurt. Nor was he apparently stuck, at least not by then, because he walked up to meet the SAR team. After warming him up, the rest of the ascent was quite slow, as apparently the man had to, uh, stop and dispose of some "cookies" shall we say (okay, barf) every so often. Other team members, at the request of Team 1, brought Gatorades down to the dehydrated guy. Eventually, he was handed over, wobbling, to a deputy, who drove him home. (Hope she didn't have to clean her patrol vehicle. Yuck.)
I heard that the subject was lucky he hadn't slid off the edge of Devil's Chair, which is a sheer cliff. I'm not familiar with that area on an up-close-and-personal basis, but if you see it from a distance, that's what the formation looks like--a big chair. All in all, things turned out much better than some of us had anticipated. A heavy-duty hangover is nothing compared to a broken neck.
Anyhow, that's how I spent Saturday night till 4:30 Sunday morning. No ZZZ's that night.
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