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.

What a Strange Mission

Things changing on a dime during a SAR mission isn't anything unusual; situations are often dynamic, and we're accustomed to altering the plan, often more than once during a search or rescue. But this one takes the cake for the weirdest twists and turns during any mission I've been on over the past few years.

So, okay, this is my best attempt to explain...

First, we responded to a call-out about overdue hikers in the area of Schnebly Hill Rd. in Sedona. That was sometime around 5:30pm.

As we were loading gear and getting ready to deploy, there was a second call-out, this one for a search on Mt. Elden. Technical team members were requested for that mission, and several of us were already at the SAR building, so we split off from the other group. Others tech members would be responding directly to the mountain and rendezvousing with us there.

Apparently, a couple of hikers had reported hearing someone yelling from somewhere on the mountain above them. That was all we knew.

Information-gathering was ongoing as five of us drove to a trail access to the waterfall area. En route, we were advised by a teammate who was handling Ops (Operations) that we should split up--drop two of us off at Buffalo Park to hike east, attempting to make voice contact with whoever was out there ... or might be out there, possibly stuck or injured on the mountain.

In the meantime, a deputy had hiked in towards the waterfall (which is usually more of a trickle on a steep slope covered with huge boulders that eventually cliffs out) and was able to make voice contact ... with someone. After being told by that someone that he was not injured but stuck on a ledge, the deputy hiked back to meet with SAR members at the parking area. Over the radio, our Ops leader gave the rest of us approximate coordinates of where the voice had been heard, and we all headed that way. I was one of the two hiking from Buffalo Park, so we had a longer distance to cover than the others.

Somewhere along the line--not quite sure of the exact timing of all this--two of my teammates, who live near Mt. Elden, got a head start on climbing and also eventually made voice contact ... with someone.

At one point, I heard radio traffic stating the subject was injured--an ankle injury, apparently--and would need a litter evacuation. Huh? Why had the stranded person not told the deputy that he was hurt? Or was this a new injury since then? An evac team began preparing to hike in with the litter and  ropes.

Well, that information changed again. No injury now. And we all kept moving towards the coordinates we'd been given.

Soon, the going got much tougher. The trail Sueanne and I had been following petered out, so we used game trails, and the terrain steepened to the point where we had to use our hands to scramble. The spear-like agave and prickly pear cactus became formidable obstacles. (I later discover scrapes on my legs that I somehow hadn't felt during the mission. And Sueanne put her hand right on a prickly pear while climbing.)

Okay, so we saw our teammates' lights above and continued towards them. And all of a sudden, we heard a scream. Or was that an animal? It didn't sound human. Then we heard it again. Yep, human alright, and it sounded bad. There was some radio talk amongst the rest of the team and IC (Incident Command) about that scream. Someone said, "He sounds altered." Uh-huh. A head injury? Drugs?

Eventually, Sueanne and I climbed to the location where most of the rest of the team had stopped. The other two, who'd gotten a head start, were above us--some were guessing 50 feet above, some 100 feet ... no one was quite sure--and they'd now gotten a visual on TWO people.

Is this getting too long? Sorry, I'll try to speed it up.

So, long story shorter, we had one young guy on a cliff. He's the one who'd screamed. The other guy--older, who turned out to be a homeless man who'd been living in a cave somewhere on the mountain for more than ten years--said the younger guy was suicidal. The "cave man" was yelling in a threatening way at my two teammates, who were in a precarious situation, both terrain-wise and otherwise. Were either of the subjects armed? Were they dangerous? The older guy from the cave--he was demanding our teammates shut off their headlamps and climb down in the dark. Afraid of having rocks hurled at them (or worse) while clinging to the side of the cliff, they retreated to a safer location and requested law enforcement assistance. Two deputies began hiking towards the mountain. In the meantime, the rest of us were told to hold our position.

As we later learned, when the "cave man" continued to yell and demand our teammates turn off their lights and hike down in the dark, they'd responded with something like,"No, we're not going to do that. You two go that way, and we'll go the other way." Then they turned off their lights and stayed put for about 15 minutes, as they watched the two subjects move off. That's when the rest of us had been informed they might be headed towards us and that we should turn off our headlamps as well, but talk so we wouldn't startle them. No, we didn't want to surprise those two, that's for sure.

Eventually, we were told by IC to return to base. We waited till our teammates above descended to our location, and then the nine of us picked our way down the mountain. Maybe half a mile from the parking area, word traveled up to the front of our line that the younger subject had come up behind the last person. No sign of the cave man.

Our teammate in the back--who I'm sure was a bit startled--had said, "Hey ... where ya goin'?"

And the young man replied, "Down."

"Well ... do you want to walk with us?

"Okay," the subject agreed. He was clearly dehydrated, weak and cold.

The rest of us were asked to wait, as two SAR members in the back stopped to give Eric--that was his name--some water and snacks and a jacket. He was very tall and extremely thin, wearing all black clothing and untied combat boots. His shaggy hair hung down over his face, but not enough to conceal his blackened eyes. Was that make-up? Or bruises?

When Eric was able to continue walking, we proceeded the rest of the way to Incident Command at the parking lot. At one point, I stopped and Eric passed me, and I watched him sway. I was ready to grab him if he fell.

When he saw the lights from the Sheriff's vehicles and waiting ambulance, Eric repeatedly looked at my teammate, Sueanne, an EMT who'd evaluated him after he joined us. He was clearly nervous.

He also looked very familiar.

When we arrived at the vehicles, Eric was helped into the waiting ambulance, as I walked over to hear what one of the deputies had to say. He told of a close encounter with the cave man--a dark shadow moving through the forest. That dark shadow must have brought Eric down to where we were (followed us without our knowing it), set him in our direction and then slinked off. When the cave man passed the deputy, he hadn't responded to his request (or order, I would assume) to stop. They would be looking for that dark shadow in the morning.

As my teammates and I were headed back to the SAR building, someone mentioned that Eric had said he was from Munds Park. And that's when I knew why he looked so familiar; we'd searched for him earlier this year, when he walked away from the group home where he was (is?) living. Eric is mentally handicapped.

So how did he come to be on that ledge on Mt. Elden? Did the cave man lure him up there? Or did he find him up there? Eric said he started walking in the morning, but we weren't sure if that was accurate. He said he hadn't had anything to eat or drink in a day. And he certainly wasn't dressed for the temperature. Had he been out there all night, the result likely would not have been good.

And who had been talking to the deputy when he first made voice contact? Eric or the other guy?

Well, I'm sure I've left out some details, but that's the gist of it. Kinda weird, huh?

As far as the other mission--the one in Sedona we'd initially responded to--I don't know yet what happened with that, but I do think I'd heard someone say it had been wrapped up fairly quickly. 

And here's a media release about a rescue (that I wasn't able to respond to) in the same area--the waterfall--on Mt. Elden the night before these two missions: Search and Rescue Locates and Rescues Overdue Hiker on Mt. Elden