A search for an injured man on Mount Elden turned into an overnight rescue operation as daylight faded and weather took a turn for the worse.
The hiker called first responders on Thursday, Feb. 11, around 5 p.m. after breaking his ankle -- just before his phone died. When deputies and firefighters began the search they could hear the man's voice, but had trouble locating him as darkness set in.
The search crew attempted to use information from the initial call to pinpoint the man’s location. After attempts to locate him on the ground failed, the Arizona Department of Public Safety was called to provide aerial assistance.
A DPS helicopter was eventually able to locate the hiker, who was trapped in rough terrain. The search crews considered an aerial extraction of the hiker, but worsening conditions resulted in the effort being delayed until the morning. By this point, the sunlight had completely vanished and winds were picking up.
First responders decided that a paramedic with the Flagstaff Fire Department along with two volunteers from the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue (SAR) unit would be flown to the top of the mountain to spend the cold winter night with the hiker.
The Arizona Daily Sun spoke with one of the overnight rescuers, CCSO SAR volunteer Adam Barnhart, who explained the process of locating and comforting the hiker, and gave details about his experience as a volunteer.
Battling the elements
The overnight crew arrived just as temperatures dipped below freezing on Mount Elden. While rescuers provided the hiker with a warm coat, gloves and a sleeping bag, the paramedic administered pain medication.
The hiker was also treated with “the meal of the night,” as Barnhart put it, which happened to be hot chocolate and Mountain House spaghetti.
“We were able to improve his situation over the course of an hour and a half, and by that point, I would say he was pretty comfortable,” Barnhart said.
SAR volunteers undergo rigorous training and spend hours preparing for operations, but nothing compares to providing comfort for individuals stuck in frightening situations. Oftentimes, it comes down to making sure the victim is dry, has access to fluids and is well-fed.
“It’s truly amazing how far the basic necessities go when you’re in a difficult situation,” Barnhart said.
Once the situation is stable, rescuers might even strike up a conversation or crack a joke as a distraction. Just “feeling the rescuers' presence” is a huge component when it comes to calming a victim, Barnhart said.
As the rescuers prepared to get some rest that cold night, they quickly realized just how little sleeping space the rocky location provided. Barnhart was forced to sleep on the top of a 2- by 4-foot boulder near a cliffside, planting his foot on a rooted bush to make sure he didn’t fall in the middle of the night.
“You have to understand, I'm well over six foot, so it was not ideal,” Barnhart said. “But we made it work.”
For Barnhart and other volunteers with the SAR team, a short period of discomfort is a small price to pay given the opportunity to save a life, he said. Most rescuers choose to volunteer their time free of cost and even contribute their own personal survival gear when they embark on an operation.
In Barnhart’s case, he keeps his truck “chock full of gear” so that he is prepared when a tricky operation arises. The SAR department asks all volunteers to keep a cache of food, fluids and gear handy that is capable of sustaining their life for 24 hours in inclement weather.
On the night of the Elden rescue, gear selection was an unusually simple process -- the crew was aware they would spend a cold night on the cliffside, and the location had been identified beforehand. Typically, rescuers aren’t so lucky.
“We are usually overpacking because it’s difficult to tell what conditions might present themself during an operation,” Barnhart said.
Though many of the rescuers purchase gear for their personal enjoyment, SAR constantly seeks out community contributions. Monetary donations can be made on the CCSO SAR website at https://www.coconinosar.org/.
The SAR uses funds raised through donations, grants and member dues to supplement training expenses, purchase team gear and produce Preventative Search and Rescue materials, the website states.
The DPS helicopter returned to the scene at first light. At the base of the mountain, a team of rescuers was busy positioning the aircraft above the hikers location -- a difficult task considering the morning’s windy weather.
The hope was to haul the hiker out through the air if conditions allowed. In case that proved impossible; however, the rescuers worked on potential access points on the ground.
Barnhart and the overnight rescuers eventually located a chunk of terrain sizable enough to complete the aerial operation, and subsiding winds allowed the pilot to stabilize the helicopter.
The injured hiker was successfully lifted off the mountain by a short-haul team on the morning of Feb. 12 and transported to the Flagstaff Medical Center, where he was treated for injuries.
The remaining three rescuers hiked to the radio towers on top of Mount Elden where they were met by vehicles from the sheriff’s office that had arrived via Mount Elden Lookout Road.
SAR Deputy and Assistant Coordinator Paul Clifton -- who served as the mission commander during the Elden rescue -- said he could not overstate the importance of a close working relationship between northern Arizona’s first response agencies.
“Our relationship is critical,” Clifton said. “Search and rescue operations are ultimately a sheriff responsibility, but the Flagstaff Fire Department were the initial incident commanders of all of this. And I had every confidence in their ability to respond to this initial call that had a lot of uncertainty.”
In a typical year, the SAR team might conduct three to four similar rescues on Mount Elden alone. But in difficult conditions, it takes a multi-agency effort of first responders, including law enforcement, volunteer rescuers and medical personnel.
“This is just another example of how well the multiple agencies work together, because we all bring something you need to bear that others don't have,” Clifton said.
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office thanked Guardian Medical Transport, the Flagstaff Fire Department and the Arizona Department of Public Safety for assisting in the rescue.