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.

June 12, 2012

A Busy Memorial Day Weekend for SAR

The San Francisco Peaks / Wikipedia -- CC
It was a bright, sunny day in Flagstaff, but I was nervous about going up that mountain I've hiked so many times before. The nerves were because that clear Spring day was unseasonably cold and extremely windy in town, more than 5,000 feet lower than up on the exposed ridge. I have what I think is a healthy respect for those conditions, which made me pause to reconsider them when our Coordinator walked over to those of us who'd congregated at the base of the trail and said no one was obligated to go up if he or she didn't feel comfortable or prepared.

I quickly looked through the extra clothing in my SAR pack, now adjusted for warmer weather, and decided I had just enough (thermals, fleece, and Gortex) for the freezing temps we'd face up there. But I was still on edge about the winds, which would be much stronger on the ridge. Ultimately, I decided to go up with my teammates.

This was to be a body recovery, unfortunately. Our team knew that before we'd left the SAR building, where a group of us had been in the midst of a Saturday technical rescue training. Others were doing PSAR (Preventative Search& Rescue) in a popular ATV area which always sees a lot of activity and often a number of accidents over the Memorial Day weekend. A couple of those SAR volunteers also responded to this mission on the mountain.

We'd been informed that a couple of hikers had come upon an unresponsive man a short distance from the 12,633-foot summit of Mt. Humphreys (I couldn't imagine why people would choose to go up that mountain on a day like this, sunny or not) and immediately began CPR. One of the hikers continued to work on the victim while another called 911, given that there's cell phone coverage high on the mountain. Sadly, after about half an hour of effort, CPR was unsuccessful. No one knew, at that point, how long the then-unidentified man had been down when the hikers found him.

What was obvious, however, when our team, including our Coordinator who hiked up with us, arrived at the victim's location was that he was a runner. And that's what he'd obviously been doing -- an early trail run to the summit -- when he'd died among the rocks and rime ice. None of us recognized this man, who we eventually found out was from Goodyear, AZ. He was 53 years old (so we also later learned) and appeared to be exceptionally fit.

In fact, he'd recently run a marathon and was, according to his family, doing high-altitude training here in Flagstaff for an upcoming event. So said the news article I read a few days later. I'd been scanning the paper each day for any information.

At the time of the mission, though, I looked at this man for long moments every now and then, thinking, Who are you? And who might be waiting for you at home?

When this man, lying on the rocks, had woken up that morning, I was thinking, it had probably been a day like most any other day. Or so he'd thought. I'll bet he had been feeling fine. Maybe better than fine. I didn't know a thing about him at the time, but I was sad for him and for his family and friends, whoever they might be.

But back to work....

As our team braced itself against the uncomfortable conditions on the ridge, discussing options for bringing the man's body down the mountain, we all noticed a rather sudden drop in the wind. So, in an attempt to take advantage of the improved conditions -- however long they may last -- our Coordinator made a call to DPS and, within a short time, we heard the helicopter approaching. One of the best pilots there is, anywhere, hovered, the helicopter visibly shifting and swaying, buffeted by the gusts that were still plenty strong, as he and his medic assessed the situation and those of us on the ridge hoped aloud that this alternative would work.

And it could, the pilot said over the radio. The winds were too strong for a short haul, but he would go land down at Snowbowl, remove a door, prepare the cargo net, and burn off some fuel, then return to hover over our location. Still, nothing was certain until that actually happened.We took shelter on the lee side of some boulders as we waited for the helicopter to return. If the cargo net maneuver didn't work, then it was back to plan A or B or ... well, something much more difficult.

In less than an hour, the man who'd died on Humphreys earlier that day was air-lifted from the mountain, as those of us who'd gone up to help began making our way down the long way.

See: Runner Dies at Humphreys Summit in the Arizona Daily Sun


That wasn't the only time this latest Memorial Day weekend that our SAR team was called to Mt. Humphreys. The night before the body recovery, on Friday, May 25th, several of our members rescued some hikers from the saddle who were unprepared for the cold.  

Another group was rescued from the nearby Kachina Trail.


Our K9 team was also busy over the weekend, after hikers found a human skull at a small campsite in Forest Lakes. Handlers Cindy and Dianne and their dogs were called to search the area and eventually located 26 more bones and other evidence, but there was no vehicle around and no ID was found.

Sheriff's office investigators are asking for the public's help to identify the man based on items located. Investigators believe the man had a 44-inch waist and wore double-extra-large size shirts. A Bass Pro Shop hat and a tan hat with a red diver's symbol on it were also found, as well as a Harley Davidson bandana, red Peterbilt suspenders, fishing waders and a green 5-gallon water jug. The man was possibly last wearing a tan T-shirt and blue jeans.

See: Weekend No Holiday for County Sheriff's Office


del said...

Nice post, Deb, and very sad about Mister Greer. These incidents are great reminders that mountains can (and do) sometimes bite the ones who love them or who don't respect them - even relatively benign mountains like the Peaks.

Unlike some mountains I've visited that seemed to want blood, the San Francisco Peaks have always felt mostly benevolent to me, fairly tolerant of mistakes, and a good place to learn about mountains without taking on too much risk. That's an illusion, of course, and that one could develop that notion says more about the trail system up there and those who built it than the mountain. If you step off the trails the Peaks have a *much* different attitude and character to them.

Deb Kingsbury said...

Thanks, Del. And, yes, so true. The trails on the Peaks CAN give a sense of security that is at least somewhat false. We've rescued hikers who've strayed even just 20 feet off a trail (lost it in the dark in some cases) and gotten themselves into some very uncomfortable and potentially quite dangerous pickles. In this case, it appears the mountain wasn't forgiving at all -- even ON the trail -- and a mistake caught up with this person up there above treeline. (Of course, I don't know for sure if this was or was not at all related to something medical, not just the cold.) But, regardless, people need to keep in mind that the cold can have dangerous effects VERY quickly, causing one's mind and muscles not to work properly, which can in turn cause falling and other injuries, therefore slowing someone down enough for that cold to overtake him or her completely. Before I joined SAR, I'm sure I was far less respectful of that fact myself. Now, I've seen it too much to forget.