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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Buried Alive on Purpose (Me, That Is)

I suppose if you have to get buried alive, it's best if it's done by fellow SAR members who will also dig you out.

When my cell phone rang and I saw it was our coordinator, I figured I was being selectively called for a mission, which happens now and then when only a small number of searchers and/or rescuers are needed.

But that wasn't the case this time. No, this time I was asked to be the live avalanche victim for our team's third and final Mountain Rescue Association test—the Snow & Ice/Alpine test—to be held on Agassiz Peak on March 6th.

"We'll give you a straw so you can breathe," the sergeant said.

I laughed (a little). "Very funny," I replied... but noticed the absence of a chuckle on the other end. Um... uh-oh.

As it turned out, I didn't even get the straw. After trudging up to the test area with evaluators, I turned my beacon to transmit and, as my teammates got closer, lay down in the hole that was dug out to fit my body. When they got within minutes of being in view of the (fake) avalanche path, with me and a deceased dummy (without a beacon) buried in it, one of the evaluators from Las Vegas shoveled several inches of snow over my face, leaving a small air space. With one eye, I could see a bit of blue sky as I waited for rescue and the snow melted by my warm breath trickled onto my face and down my neck.

Within minutes, I heard snowshoes crunching quickly across the mountainside, coming toward my head, as one of the searchers picked up my beacon signal with his own beacon and honed in on my location. Moments later, a shovel nailed me on the leg. I emitted a muffled "ow!" which wasn't part of my instructions, then went back to being the verbally unresponsive victim I was supposed to be.

Soon, the snow was removed from my wet face, and two more teammates showed up to begin a medical evaluation. Being "pain-responsive only," I moaned when my right rib cage and upper right leg were palpated. Otherwise, I kept my eyes closed and stayed as limp as I could. That is, until I started shivering uncontrollably. That part was real.

Honestly, I've never been so cold in my life. My alpine clothing has always been sufficient in the past, but then again, I've never tested it by lying on, let alone being buried in, the snow for any length of time. Though a small closed cell foam pad had been placed between my core and the snow, moisture eventually soaked through my two bottom layers to my legs, and the cold seeped into my arms through layers of thermal underwear, fleece, and my lined coat and to my head through my wool hat. My attending teammates covered me with a space blanket and whatever else they had with them, but without the evacuation team there with extra hands and the Bowman bag and litter, they couldn't get me off the snow. So, they tended to me—for fake and real issues—including placing a traction splint on my right leg for the fake femur fracture, and we waited.

Oh, right... I was let out of my hole to go for a quick pee break, but that movement did little to warm me up. Then back to my hole and (sort of) unresponsive state I went to wait for the others. When they arrived and I was lifted onto the Bowman bag, I warmed up right away. Or I should say, I was less cold at that point. Once packaged like a burrito in the litter, I stopped shivering completely and relaxed for the ride down the mountain, secured by rope and my capable teammates. The ride was a smooth one... while it lasted.

Then I heard at the same time my teammates did, "Rig for raise!" Oh, crud. The evaluators wanted to see the team display a "hot changeover" and alpine raising skills. With my eyes closed and face mostly covered by warm layers, going up felt just like going down. The only difference for me was that I heard the litter attendants' breathing become more labored with the extra effort of going uphill at altitude.

And then I heard an evaluator yell, "Okay, unpackage her and let her out!"

Shoot. There went my easy ride down the mountain, not to mention the warmth of the gear burrito I'd been in the middle of.

When I was helped to my feet, I was colder than ever. As my teammates who are alpine certified continued testing on various skills, several others on the mountain worked to boil water to make me hot drinks and started a small fire. Shivering despite additional layers and a wool blanket wrapped around me and chilled on the inside, I danced around and waited. Once I got hot liquid into me, sipping as I leaned over the fire, I finally warmed up again. By the time the testing was over and we were ready to hike out, I felt like myself again, vowing to invest in some better alpine clothing right away.

Oh, and I should mention... the team passed the test! Yay, Coconino County Sheriff's SAR!  Ours is now only the fourth MRA-accredited team in the Southwest region. It's been a long and sometimes stressful effort but worth it. Our team will be formally voted in as an MRA member at their Spring conference this June 16–19 in Eagle, Colorado.