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.

January 21, 2010

Out-Of-Bounders Beware

It's nearly two a.m., and I'm now back at Incident Command, inside the Agassiz Lodge at Snowbowl, warming up and resting a bit before going back out to continue searching.

The blizzard really has intensified. It's blowing and snowing something fierce out there, and I'm thinking about my teammates who are still on the mountain. Three of them just went up the chair lift in whiteout conditions, to search First Gully from the top down. They'll be starting at 11,500 feet.

This isn't looking good. The subject--a 19 year-old male from the Phoenix area--was last seen around 3:00 in the afternoon, when he and his friends ducked under the ropes marking the boundary of the ski area so they could snowboard on fresh powder. This young man is not an experienced backcountry hiker, skier or snowboarder, and he's not carrying any survival gear or an avalanche beacon.

Our team was called out at 5:30pm, after the subject's friends reported him missing. At the time and for several hours into the search, there was no precipitation. But the news media has been warning of this series of major winter storms--combining within several days' time to be a "top-three weather event" for the area--for at least a week. And, sure enough, it started right on schedule around 11pm.

Conditions quickly deteriorated as some of our field teams snowshoed, while others did containment on Snowbowl Rd. and on a Forest Service Rd in the snowcat. We're also being assisted tonight by Snowbowl personnel, who were a huge help in getting the chair lift up and running to bring teams up the mountain.

Well, I guess I'll do what a few of my teammates are doing and find a spot on the floor to try to sleep until we get our next assignment.


I was just awakened by our Captain, as he burst into the room and loudly announced, "We got him!"

It took me a moment to shake off the sleep and realize what he meant.

"He's alive, Code 4," Andy said. "He walked into our containment team in the snowcat."

Amazing! And, wow, that really highlights the fact that containment on a search is so important. Earlier in the mission, after the snowcat team had driven out and back on Friedline Prairie Road, doing sound sweeps as they slowly went along, searching for tracks, they'd called in to IC to say they'd completed their assignment, negative contact. And then they were told to do it again. And again. And thank goodness they did, because it was that containment that led the missing party to them when he saw their lights and then followed their track.

The missing snowboarder was located at approximately 2am, about 11 hours after he'd separated from his friends. He was transported by ambulance to Flagstaff Medical Center for evaluation.

Meanwhile, several of our team members were still on the mountain in increasingly difficult conditions, slowly making their way to pickup points along Snowbowl Rd. Once everyone was safely back at the vehicles, we carefully drove back to town on snow-packed, slippery streets. I made it home at 7am.

Read:  Rescuers Find Lost Snowboarder; Missing Man Located from the Arizona Daily Sun.

A Note To Those Considering Out-of-Bounds Skiing and Snowboarding

Be aware that a free backcountry permit is required during the winter for the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. So, if you're planning to do any recreating in this area or want to go out of bounds from the Arizona Snowbowl to do some snowboarding or skiing, be sure to contact the Peaks Ranger District at (928) 526-0866 before doing so. Permits can also be obtained at the Arizona Snowbowl at the Agassiz Lodge ticket window on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays between 9:00 and 11:00 AM.  For more information on these free permits and why they're required, see the Forest Service website.

Also, anyone venturing into the backcountry should have with them a pack with survival gear, including but not limited to light sources, firestarting supplies, extra layers of clothing, an emergency bivy, food and water, a fully charged cellphone (but don't rely on there being a signal), and, in the winter, an avalanche beacon. You can ask questions about gear and other aspects of winter backcountry travel when you obtain that required, free permit.

Read: Coconino Sheriff's Department Warns of Avalanche Danger in the Backcountry


eluctor said...

Great post Deb! Just goes to show you can never be too careful, and should ALWAYS be prepared and pack survival gear. It makes me think back to my teenage years when I used to routinely head out-of-bounds at the ski resorts in Lake Tahoe, Ca. I was never prepared... and never really knew where I was heading... luckily I never got in any trouble. It was pretty stupid though.


Anonymous said...

Great ending to a horrible situation..

My Life Outdoors said...

I love your stories. They remind us of why we have the rules and guidlines that are ment to keep us safe. Thank you for your hard work and thank you for sharing it with the rest of us.

Roy Scribner said...

These are the types of people who should be fined for their ignorance. BTW - what is your opinion on paying for rescues? It seems to be gaining some traction around the country, again.

Deb Kingsbury said...

Hi, Roy...

It's interesting that many (most?) of us involved in SAR are opposed to charging for rescue, while many (most?) people who aren't involved with SAR--aka "the general public"--want people to be charged for searches and/or rescues. But I support the position held by the National Association For Search & Rescue, which is against charging victims or their families for SAR ... as are the Mountain Rescue Association, U.S. Coast Guard, the National Park Service and other SAR-related organizations.

And I don't say that because I'm trying to be politically correct as a member of a SAR team; it's what I really think. Sure, there are times when I shake my head about the decisions made by and actions taken by those who get into pickles (and worse) in the backcountry, but, at the same time, unfortunate things happen to even the best prepared people, and even smart, experienced hikers, skiers, climbers, etc. make mistakes. Who would make the case-by-case decision about whether or not to charge? Where is the line between foolishness or negligence and "just an accident" or bad luck?

Anyhow, those are my two cents.

Roy Scribner said...

Yes, that seems to be the opinion of all (I think) my friends in emergency services. Usually with the argument that if people know they might have to pay, they'll be less likely to seek help. It's an interesting dilemma, though.