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.

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My First SAR Mission as a Tech Team Member

"Did he just say my name?" I ask another new tech team graduate who's standing next to me in the dark street. Our coordinator has just announced the four members of tonight's hasty team.

"Yep, he sure did," my teammate confirms.

It's not like I've never done any scrambling, but climbing of any kind really isn't my forte. And all the training we did during the three and half months of Rock Rescue Academy was from the top down, rigging anchors and belays and going over the edge. Tonight, we'll be going up. Way up, it appears.

At our coordinator's request, the two stranded hikers he's in contact with by cellphone flick their Bic, and we see a small point of light appear against the dark backdrop of the huge rock formation, darker than the sky surrounding it.

I rush to get my seat and chest harnesses on and thankfully receive some help with the straps from a teammate. Adrenaline is interfering with my dexterity. And I don't want to keep the other three hasty team members waiting.

Once I have my gear on, with all my carabiners and other equipment weighing down my seat harness, I grab my pack and 200 feet of rope and follow my teammates up the trail. It's awkward hiking with all this gear hanging on me.

But I have plenty of time to get used to it.

Hours pass as we hike and scramble one way and then another, looking for a route to the two teenagers and their dog. We know they're uninjured and in a secure spot, which is a good thing; in the dark, we're having a heck of a time trying to get to them.

A second team is now trying other routes. We wonder if the route would be obvious in daylight. I mean, they got up there somehow, with a dog and without ropes. Surely there must be a much easier way. If only we could find it. The boys' description of the route they took isn't matching anything we've found so far.

As we use our hands to scramble and steady ourselves, we notice in the beam of our headlamps: scorpions. All over the rocks we're touching. I'm sweating profusely, but the sight of those creepy stinging things makes me shiver. A teammate also notes a "huge" spider. Another reminds us to watch for rattlesnakes. Oy! I'm having a hard enough time keeping myself out of the cactus.

"Go check it out," one teammate says to another, and I look up. I see an intimidating dark spire silhouetted against the night sky.

We're going to climb that?

"There's about a 10- or 12-foot, narrow chute we'd have to chimney up," our teammate calls down to the three of us waiting below. "It doesn't look good, but I think we could do it. I can't see what's beyond that, though."

I hate to say anything—I don't want the others to know I'm unsure of myself up here—but I admit aloud that I'm not an experienced climber. Just, you know, so they're aware of that.

In the end, they decide it's not the right way to go anyway, and I'm relieved. I wish I hadn't admitted my insecurity, but it's too late now. Besides, we have ropes and tech gear, and if my experienced teammates had deemed the route doable, I know we would have done it as safely as possible. And I would have sucked it up and followed.

But now we're heading back down. I have to use my hands and sometimes my butt along the way, and I make little zigzags as I descend to prevent myself from slipping... which I do anyway. I pull a few barbs out of my exposed fingers (my leather gloves are fingerless) as I go, but I manage to keep up. We reach the main trail again and head back to the staging area at the road as we listen to field Team 2 over the radio. It seems they're getting close to the stranded hikers.

Finally, one teammate manages to climb part of a vertical face and reaches the subjects. From there, he finds an easier way back down that face. Now the descent will be steep but manageable, especially if some of us back at the road bring up extra lights for the subjects.

I'm not tired at all and want to be useful, so I'm glad when our coordinator hands me an extra light to bring up. I also grab extra water for the hikers and their dog and stuff it in my pack. At least now I don't have to carry that 200-foot rope as I start back up the trail.

Before long and after a stretch of uncomfortable bushwhacking through vegetation intent on tearing off pieces of my skin, hair, and clothing, we rendezvous with the party coming down and hand over the lights. The hikers don't want anything to drink, but their dog sure does. I get a face-licking after their part pit, parts some other breeds of pup finishes off a large bottle of water as I pour it into my cupped hand.

After assuring and reassuring one of the boys that, no, they won't be fined or charged for search and rescue, they accompany us back to the trailhead, where their parents have been waiting all night.

All night? Wow, those nine hours between signing in and signing out back at the SAR building went by quickly, even with all the hiking and scrambling. I guess my excitement about my first mission as a member of the tech team carried me through the night and all the next day, until I finally fall asleep at my computer the following evening.


Here's the brief write-up in our local paper about this mission: Lost Hikers Found (Hey, they left out the part about the scorpions.)

Well, folks, I best be off to bed. I have to be at the SAR building by 4:30 a.m. to head to the Grand Canyon, to assist with a mission there.