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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An Extreme, Multi-Agency Technical Rescue

Photo courtesy of R. Marlatt
First an overview and then some personal comments about this mission, which may be one of the most technically difficult rescues our team has ever faced...

On Saturday, August 13t, 36-year-old Mike from Payson, Arizona, was canyoneering with several friends in Insomnia Canyon, a tributary of West Fork near Sedona. Mike was on the final 150 feet of a 350-foot rappel when he lost control, picking up speed, and fell about 100 feet. He struck a rock on the way down and then fell another 40 feet, ending up a total of 1,800 feet below the rim with multiple injuries. Two of his friends continued down canyon and made the long trip out to get help, while two others remained behind with Mike.

Once emergency services were notified of the accident, more than 25 rescuers from multiple agencies responded, including Coconino County Sheriff's Search and Rescue, Sedona Fire District, Flagstaff Fire Department, Guardian Medical Transport, Department of Public Safety helicopters out of Kingman and Phoenix, and Native Air.

Two of the volunteers from search and rescue had to make eight rappels and three swims to reach the patient late Saturday night and remained with him, rendering medical care while other rescuers rappelled with the Stokes litter, additional medical equipment, and gear for setting up lowering and raising systems and main and belay lines. About 2,600 feet of rope was needed.

An attempt by a DPS helicopter crew was made at first light on Sunday to short haul the patient from his original location, but the slot canyon was too tight for the aircraft. So the patient was then raised by rescuers 800 feet to a ledge where he could be accessed for the short haul, which took place at 1 p.m. at Sunday, at least 24-hours after he'd fallen. Two rescuers accompanied the patient on the raise, while two others continued down canyon with the patient's uninjured friends. They had at least a couple more rappels ahead of them and then a lengthy hike out. They were met en route by fire personnel, who'd hiked in from the Call of the Canyon trailhead to assist them with carrying gear after their exhausting time in the canyon.

After the patient was removed from the canyon and flown to a hospital in Phoenix, where he's since been upgraded from critical to serious condition, came the arduous task for the rescuers of getting themselves and their gear out of the canyon, with a 1,000-foot elevation difference between their location and the rim. This involved ascending ropes one by one, hauling up both their own body weight and heavy gear with their spent muscles.

Several rescuers were able to make the difficult climb, but given the stormy monsoon weather that was moving in, the time of day, and their extreme exhaustion, six of the remaining rescuers were short hauled to the rim by DPS. DPS also assisted with this rescue by lowering a cargo net full of fluids to the rescuers and hauling off two nets full of gear.

Rescue personnel were also assisted by volunteer members of Coconino County C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team), who drove our weary group back to Flagstaff. Their help was much needed and appreciated.

Regarding the patient...

In a comment on a Hiking Examiner article, Mike's mother writes, "He did break both his heels, and his pelvis in six places. He also fractured his spine and had internal bleeding. The internal bleeding seems to have stopped. He will need to have more surgeries and procedures and it will be at least 3 months before he is able to walk again."

And now for some personal comments...

I'm so proud to be a member of this team and so proud of my teammates, who went all out on this mission at significant personal risk. Controlled risk, yes, and with as much attention to safety as possible, but no tech rescue is without risk, of course. And this one was a doozy.

Yes, I was on this mission, and I did assist, but my role was minimal compared to my teammates. I say that because, after descending approximately 500 feet below the rim on a handline (using a Prusik), when I came to the ledge at the start of the next 500-foot rappel, I made the decision that that's where I needed to stop. It wasn't an easy decision, and I agonized about it throughout the night as each of my teammates loaded up with gear in addition to their own packs, attached their self-belays to the second rope and their rappel devices, and one-by-one descended through the thick manzanita, their headlamps soon disappearing from my view. It seemed to take a very long time until the one on rappel would announce over the radio that he was off rappel and off belay. One said this was the nastiest rappel he'd ever experienced.

A 500-foot rappel. With heavy gear. With a self-belay. Through the brush and other difficulties. Was I ready for that? What would happen if I ran into trouble partway down? On my own. I didn't really have enough rope time under my belt—not with all that gear, all that distance—I thought to myself.  And if things didn't go right, I was putting not only myself but my team and, ultimately, the man we were there to rescue at even greater risk. No, I decided, I wasn't going down any further.

So, the best I could do to help was go up and down the hand line with equipment and help with communication and whatever else might be called for up near the top.

Of course, this mission wasn't about me whatsoever, and I'm sure no one was really thinking about me but me. And I had to make a decision about my own limitations, regardless of the fact that more hands were sorely needed far below. Like I said, it was a very tough call for me. But I'll be continuing to gain experience on the rope, rappelling and ascending with my pack and extra gear, passing knots in both directions... and with someone else belaying me, at least at first. Eventually, I'll be ready.

And in the interest of not ending on a note about me, I want to reiterate what an awesome job Coconino County Sheriff's Search and Rescue technical team did, along with all other responding agencies. You saved a life in really difficult conditions. You rock!