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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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 Road and on a Forest Service road in the snowcat. We're also assisted tonight by Snowbowl personnel, who were a huge help in getting the chairlift up and running to bring teams up the mountain.

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 team 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 Incident Command to say they'd completed their assignment—negative contact. 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 the lights from the snowcat and then followed its track.

The missing snowboarder was located at approximately 2 a.m., 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 at the vehicles, we carefully drove back to town on snow-packed, slippery streets. I made it home at 7:00.

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 a.m.

[[UPDATE: Sometime after I originally wrote this post, the winter backcountry permit requirement was discontinued. See what's taken its place on the Coconino National Forest website.]]

Also, anyone venturing into the backcountry should have with them a pack with survival gear, including but not limited to light sources, fire-starting 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.