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.

Hikers, Party Of Eight

At noon on Monday, my phone rang. It was our team Captain, calling to say thank you for my help on the mission early that same morning and to tell me I did a good job. He said, "Eight is a big group to bring out, and you [meaning, the three of us who responded] went right in there and got the job done. The family was very appreciative."

Well, that sure was nice to hear. The part-time coordinator in charge of the mission also had let us know how much he appreciated our help. All in all, it was an easy mission with a good outcome, so I really hadn't expected the extra thank yous. Regardless if anyone says it, though, I know what we do as volunteers is definitely not taken for granted by the Sheriff's Department, and I'm as glad as ever to be part of the team.

Anyhow, on Sunday afternoon I had returned from a 4-day trip to La Quinta, California, where I'd gone for a Jazzercise event. (No, we don't wear leg-warmers.) I'd worked out for three hours on Friday and six on Saturday, and all that exercise, the 110-degree heat, and the six-hour drive home had me feeling pretty beat. So I was really tired when my pager went off just after midnight on Monday, after only 2 hours of sleep.

But I was fully awake when I got to the SAR building, where I met up with a teammate and waited for a third, who had been hand-called. The two of us who'd initially responded to the page would have been comfortable going up the West Fork Trail alone--we were both familiar with it and knew it was pretty easy hiking for the first few miles--but our Captain wanted a third person to go along. As he explained, with three, if one had to stay behind with the subjects in case of a medical issue perhaps (one of the kids was asthmatic) or an injury, the other two could hike out together to get help. Radio communication from the canyon would likely not be possible and a cell phone wouldn't work, so it made sense that three of us go in.

The situation involved a family group, including five juveniles--the youngest being 11--who'd set out to thru-hike West Fork, which is about 14 miles long. The route includes wading and some unavoidable swimming. They'd started out with twelve people (contrary to the newspaper report, which states there'd been 10), two of whom had turned back about two miles in and two faster hikers who'd gone ahead as agreed and hiked out by around six pm. But the eight others didn't appear at the lower trailhead before dark, where their rides were waiting. The mother of three of the kids agonized about calling SAR, she said, but finally made the decision to do so.

As my two teammates and I were en route to the staging area at the lower end of West Fork, a helicopter spotted a campfire in the canyon, about two miles from our starting location, which is before you have to begin to wade then swim. With the coordinates of the light source programmed into my GPS, the three of us headed up the trail in the dark, crossing the creek (West Fork) no less than five times, calling the names of a few of the subjects and sniffing the air for any hint of campfire smoke.

As we hiked, I ran through possible scenarios in my head. Many missions have not gone as I'd expected, either one way or the other--better or worse--so I wondered if this one would be as straight-forward as I'd been thinking on the drive to the staging area. Could the child with asthma have had a serious problem? Was one of them hurt? Had they gotten separated?

There was no response to our frequent calls or whistle blows. Not until we got within yards of the coordinates, when I finally heard a shout. Within moments, I saw several people--adults and kids--standing on a rise on the opposite side of the creek. As we made our way over to them, I called, "Are you all together? Are all of you okay?" And they answered that, yes, they were all okay and accounted for. So I guess this was going to be as straight-forward as I'd first guessed.

After the three of us SAR members offered extra clothing, drinks and snacks, accepted by only a couple of the kids, we turned around and slowly hiked back out with me in the lead, one in the middle and the other taking up the rear.

Turns out, the group had simply taken longer than expected, having been slower than expected apparently because of the younger kids. They'd also gotten "a bit lost" at one point, they said. Then they just ran out of time and stopped till daybreak. They'd seen the helicopter fly over and figured it wasn't a coincidence, so they knew someone would probably come along. Just before we'd found them, just after first light when we'd been able to turn our headlamps off, the group had put out their campfire and gotten ready to hike the rest of the way out. They said they'd had water filters with them and space blankets for everyone, so they were all in pretty decent shape other than one scraped leg and a couple of chilly kids, whose clothing hadn't completely dried.

Once we'd deposited the eight of them back at the trailhead with their waiting family members and friends, we headed back to the SAR building. Not long after, I was in Jazzercise class and, later Monday evening, at tech team practice where I really started to feel the lack of sleep. My brain was sluggish and I was having trouble getting the hang of what we were being taught (how to change from ascending to rappelling while on the rope). So when I got home at 10pm, I decided to turn my pager off for the night. I wouldn't be of much help to the team or anyone else until I'd gotten some good sleep.

You can read the Arizona Daily Sun article, Search Team Aids Overdue Hikers, Stranded Climbers, about this and other recent SAR team calls, including some reader comments that follow.