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.

May 24, 2011

An All-Night Search in Sedona

Seven of us from three merged ground teams lay on the cool rock with our packs under our heads, stargazing as we rested and waited. Our headlamps and any other sources of light were off. Not far from Submarine Rock, on the jeep road in the trees below, a team on the Polaris UTV shut off their vehicle lights, and another team on foot somewhere in the area went dark as well. The DPS Ranger helicopter out of Phoenix  had arrived with their night-vision equipment, so searchers held their positions and became as little of a distraction as possible. If the missing hikers were out there, it was them we wanted to stand out.

It was around 3am on Sunday. We'd been hiking and searching for several hours, with teams starting from different trailheads, covering as many trails and roads as possible in this hasty search phase, sometimes bushwhacking through dense manzanita, cat claw, and cactus to try to get a look into a side canyon. Earlier, a few of us had gotten a faint whiff of smoke from the top of Submarine Rock, but it soon dissipated on the breeze. We reported it and the general direction we believed it came from to Incident Command. From our high point, we didn't see any glow in the surrounding forest.

We were looking for three missing French-Canadian hikers, who'd started out from Chapel of the Holy Cross around midday on Saturday, rendezvousing with their three friends at Chicken Point at 2:30 in the afternoon. The others had started hiking the Broken Arrow Trail from the north, and the two groups had exchanged car keys when they met up, as planned. The three hiking to the vehicle parked at the chapel arrived at their destination, but the three hiking north never had. After waiting and doing some searching, the friends of the missing hikers had called 9-1-1.

We'd been told that the missing hikers were wearing shorts, light clothing, and sneakers, and they had one liter of water left between the three of them when they'd met the other group at Chicken Point. One of the missing was a smoker, so she possibly had cigarettes and a lighter or matches with her. If so, they may have been able to start a fire.

We also kept calling and blowing our whistles and stopping to listen. We looked for prints--there were many in this popular hiking area--especially for any fresh tracks that went off the main trails. We took a closer look at prints now and then that were on top of all the rest and the mountain bike tracks, but we found nothing that seemed significant. On a beautiful weekend day in that area, a large number of feet would have passed through.

As we lay on the rock, the helicopter made a big circle around the area. We watched them return in our direction and then disappear behind a butte. They didn't immediately come back into view, and within less a minute our radios transmitted our Coordinator's message in unison; Ranger had located our three missing hikers. It was indeed the smoke from their fire we'd smelled. But, thanks to the helicopter, locating the source of that smell was very much expedited. Had we tried to find it on foot in that rugged terrain and given their location in the bottom of a wash about a mile from a trail, it would have taken us hours more.

DPS Ranger gave us coordinates, which we plotted on our maps and entered into GPSes. Five of us hiked up the rocky drainage and bushwhacked to their location, arriving at the three happy hikers at about 5:15am. They were not only in a good spirits, laughing at the whole situation and thanking us profusely for coming to their aid, but they were in good physical shape, too. Carrying an ill or injured hiker out of that location would have been a beast.

After dousing and buying their fire, offering the hikers water and making sure they were okay to walk out, we all followed the boulder-strewn wash back to the jeep road, where the three hikers were given a ride on the UTV to their waiting friends at the Broken Arrow trailhead.

Before departing, I got lots of appreciative French kisses ... meaning the cheek-to-cheek kind ... meaning the face-cheek kind ... as the vacationing hikers and their friends again thanked me and my teammates for our help. Despite the skin I left behind on the cat claw, it had been a good night for some SAR.

See: 3 Lost Hikers Overnight in Sedona Wilderness from the Arizona Daily Sun

A view from Submarine Rock / Flickr -- CC

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