Category Archives: Life Stories

Bring Him Home.

  It’s Friday afternoon. I hear the helicopter circling over my house in Fern Valley. As I reflexively check my phone for a Rescue Call out text, it dings and vibrates with 2 back to back texts. Lee and Les. ” Heads up” from both of them. I sigh, “Probably another climbing accident” I say to my empty kitchen. With the warm weather Tahquitz  rock is tempting a lot more people up into cool crisp air and stunning views.

Lee swings by to pick me up on his way to Humber Park. The news when we get there is not good. CDF has already lowered in an EMT who has confirmed it’s a fatality. It takes a while before we can get any more info. When we do, the day suddenly takes a turn for the worse. 

“Lucas… ” My face falls when I hear the name. A sharp breath in of recognition. A sinking twisting pain. oh. no. An uncomfortable silence as we all take a moment to absorb the news.  It’s one of our own, an experienced climber, a young Idyllwild local with a bright soul and a smile for everybody. 
After a long, drawn out wait for the coroner, we finally get the go ahead for a helicopter recovery hoist. It’s decided that Craig Wills and I will be sent in with a litter to package him up and bring him back. Les Walker, one of the best climbers on our team and a good buddy of Lucas takes me to the side and adds to my technical gear a few  “just in case items” help smooth the recovery of his dear friend. We push back our emotions, shoving them, struggling, down deep where they won’t get in the way- there will be time for tears later.

As we make the short drive down to Keenwild Helitack Lee casts a serious look my way. “Are you good to go on this?”. Lee’s sure of my technical skills, what he’s asking is if I want to emotionally take on the packaging of someone I know. I’ve been on several recoveries of strangers.This one is different. 

I sit and think for a second gazing into the distance . Dark clouds are gathering on the horizon, weather is coming in. Someone needs to do this, and soon. I have the skills and Lucas needs to come home.  “Yes. Yes, I’m good.”

I’ll be hoisting first in order to assess the situation and set up anchors for Craig if needed. I take the camera from coroner. After a quick briefing on the shots they will need me to document, I cross the helipad toward Star-9.

Our Pilot Kevin Boss and TFO (Technical Flight Officer) Manny greet us with a handshake and nod. A short and sweet  briefing, then I climb into the helicopter behind Craig. He takes the seat at the far end and immediately clips into the seatbelt. I swing around so I’m seated next to Manny, legs hanging out the edge of the helicopter. With a quick nod and a smile he clips me in to the hoist for safety. We check each others’ carabiners to make sure they are properly secured and locked. 

Within moments the bird lifts into the air and swings smoothly around to face North. Sitting on the edge of the deck, I have a perfect view of our mountain town gliding by below me. As we draw closer a calm focus washes over me. It’s go time. 

Kevin pulls the helicopter into a hover near the face of the rock. Manny makes eye contact with me and points downward. Hundreds of feet below I can make out the forms of four CDF crewmen bunched on a ledge. Just above is the fall zone and our subject. 

I check my harness again, rise to a stand with my feet pressed firmly on the skid. Manny takes my hand and places it on the Carabiner handle on his chest. I pivot around to face him and give him a nod. He nods back and starts carefully lowering me. 

Within a moment I’m over the edge into the open air. Slowly spinning I can see the small ledge spread out far below me. 

  
It’s surreal how beautiful the surroundings are. The sheer granite face of Tahquitz Rock is stained in dark streaks with thousands of years of rain flow. The rock is so massive it dwarfs you into insignificance. I glance at Suicide Rock looming across the valley, the gulf filled with deep green pine from wall to wall. Wind gusts swell in waves, then subside, bringing the dark clouds closer with every minute. 

I glance back down at the approaching ledge, readying myself to land upright and secure an anchor as quickly as possible. 

Suddenly I’m jerked to a stop. 

The ledge pulls sharply away as I pendulum, swinging backwards wildly as Kevin expertly peels the bird away from the face of Tahquitz. A sudden change in the wind has put the helicopter at risk of crashing into the rock. 

The air crew reels me back in. As Manny pulls me back into the helicopter I give him a thumbs up:  I’m good to go for another round. He swings his microphone up from his face to yell in my ear. “The wind’s too rough right now to get so close. We’re going to have to lower you in below the ledge. You’ll have to climb up.” I give him another thumbs up. 

Kevin edges the bird in again. I head out the door and Manny lowers me into the cold buffeting of the rotor wash. The trip down is short.  Before I know it my hand snags onto an outcropping about 40 ft below the ledge. I take time to secure a grip on the rough surface before I unclip from the hoist. 

Star-9 pulls away from the rock and circles the valley once before pulling into a closer hover. Kevin has managed to compensate for the roughening wind and maintain a stable position directly over the target ledge. Mountain flying is one of the most unpredictable and dangerous forms of piloting and Kevin is one of the best there is. Craig’s form appears at the door and swings down into the open air.  As he lowers, I begin to climb.

Once we are both on the ledge we briefly greet the CDF crew. With darker clouds gathering in the valley just below us, Star-9 wastes no time in lowering the litter. It pendulums its way to us. I manage to snag an edge and bring it in to the widest part of the ledge before unclipping it. Manny’s voice over the radio, “Those clouds are moving in. We’ll be back in got 20 minutes”. Star-9 heads back to Keenwild to conserve fuel. 

I climb alone up to site of the accident to take pictures of the subject for the coroner. Once I finish, Craig and the CDF crew make their way up with our packs. We work to quickly, yet carefully package our subject into the waiting litter. I pull the part of my mind that recognizes him back and shove it in a dark corner. Deal with it later. I’m focused on what needs to be done. Making sure that he has all of his gear, picking up his broken sunglasses and placing them gently by his side in the bagl. 

The helicopter is already hovering as we finish the last details of packaging. One last zip. I close my eyes for a second and breathe deep. The bag is closed, buckles locked, ready to go. 

Craig radios in to the bird “Ready to hoist”. Manny’s on it right away. The hoist swings precariously at the edge of our reach, then swings right in the sweet spot. Craig grabs it, the CDF crew holds up the spider and I clip it in. An exaggerated hand signal and the litter swings up and away with our subject. As it reaches the bird I pull the tag line and the helicopter swings to the South.  

I breath out a heavy sigh of deep relief. Lucas is going home. 

Within minutes Star-9 is back for us. A quick set of hoists and we’re safe back in the arms of the Aviation Unit. As we fly away I look out into the darkening pine covered valleys and say a quiet prayer in memory of Lucas. 

High Country Helicopter Rescue

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Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t a dark and stormy night.

The sun shone warm on my back, a light breeze whispered through the pines. Little chickadees sang of spring. All in all, it was a beautiful early spring afternoon.

In the middle of this Disney-esque day, my phone vibrates against my leg.

It’s my partner, Lee calling; “Want a helicopter ride?” is his greeting. “There’s a hiker, possibly in full arrest in the High Country. Star-9 needs a team ready to go immediately.”

My prep has an extra edge to it. I pull my uniform on, quickly check my backpack for the essentials, head out the door and jump into Lee’s waiting truck. We’re on our way in a handful of minutes towards Keenwild helipad. On the way we get the news that Donny and Les will be backing us up as the ground team hiking into the high country, with the rest of the team on standby to head in if we need assistance.

The A-Star helicopter touches down as we arrive. Technical Flight Officer Eric Hannum leans out and waves us in. He briefs us as Pilot Mike Calhoun speeds us towards the High Country. “Our subject’s name is Donna. She is a 70 yr old woman, blond hair, blue eyes, white jacket, black pants. She was hiking with her husband near Laws Junction when she experienced “Heart attack symptoms”, Husband hiked several miles back to Notch 5 in the State Park before he could call for help.” Eric relates that the husband reported a “large opening” in the trees nearby that he thinks should be perfect for a helicopter landing. Hmmm… we’ll see.

Star-9 makes a series of wide circles above the trail near Laws for what seems like eternity- but is in reality only a few minutes. We peer down trying to somehow pick up any slight movement, any change in color. Where is she?? It doesn’t help that our subject is wearing black and white against a background of patchy half melted snow, blackened remains of trees left over from the Mountain fire and dark mountain soil.

As the minutes tick by, I start to doubt the location information we’ve been given. The husband had to have hiked out along the Hidden Divide trail to get back to Notch 5 from Laws… And it could be that they never made it all the way down to the actual junction, especially if they had to go through the burn area to get there…

I key my mic: “Hey guys, why don’t we locate the upper end of the Hidden Divide trail and backtrack?”

Mike swings the helicopter to the North and we start to scour the steep slope for the remains of the trail. Bingo! Within 2 minutes of changing our strategy, we’ve located the subject. Even better, she is obviously still responsive and no longer alone. 2 other hikers have joined her to help in her time of need.

Unfortunately what seemed like a “large opening” in the tree cover to the husband is far too small and dangerous to land a helicopter in. Pilot Mike thinks quickly and flys back to the closest large clearing to land and insert us. Once on the ground we grab a screamer suit to carry with us. We’re pretty sure this will end up being a hoist situation and we want to be prepared to get our subject safely in the air as soon as possible. The afternoon sun is fading into a warm alpenglow, the evening wind is starting to kick in and the already crisp temperature is starting to drop. We had best get moving before our window of opportunity closes. I don’t know if our subject could survive a night out here, and we don’t intend to find out.

The helicopter flies out to convert to their hoisting setup as we hike at double time down through the brisk mountain air towards our subject’s location.

Within minutes we see her ahead of us, sitting on a rock flanked by her caretakers. It’s a relief to see her responsive and in far better condition than we had right to expect from the original call-out.

Lee and I quickly introduce ourselves to our subject and her helpers. Our subject greets us with shy sweet smile, bright blue eyes and a friendly, soft spoken voice. Instead of meeting her situation with panic she is calm, although obviously worried. I begin my medical examination as Lee heads down the trail to search the nearby forest for a safe and close hoisting location.

I notice right away that she is trembling, I’m not sure yet if it is due to the cold or something more serious. I ask her questions to get her talking and help me assess her mental state. I check her pupillary response, then vitals. Her pulse is rapid, but not strong. Breathing is somewhat labored, and slightly fast. She has recently eaten and had water, already taken aspirin, and reports no history of cvd or any other medical conditions or medications. So far, so good.

Even as I lead the conversation to what happened, I’m closely watching my subject, Always assessing her, watching for any clues to her condition or information that will need to be passed on. She is alert and aware of what has happened to her, has a good memory of the situation and can explain it well.

She describes hiking down the trail to clearing, having lunch with her husband. She had a slight headache, and took a nap. She woke to extreme shortness of breath and muscular weakness. She was unable to hike at all, and found it hard to even walk a few feet. They quickly decided that he would run for help.

One of the hikers has kindly shared her jacket with Donna. Despite this, she is still shivering. As soon as I’ve made sure there is no immediate threat to her life, I break open my pack, pulling out a down jacket, a thick wool beanie and warm wool gloves. Once she is warmer, we will be better able to rule out the source of her trembling.

Since we are out this far in the Wilderness, our best bet is to get her out as quickly as possible. Unless an immediate emergency comes up, our priority is to prep her for transport, take care of her immediate physical needs and get a pattern of vitals established so I have some trends to hand off to the Hospital. Any information I can gather at this stage may play a key role in saving her life if her condition suddenly worsens.

Lee arrives back from his scouting trip. “There’s a good hoist location just a 2 minute walk to the West.” His arm points down the slightly inclined slope. Good, I think. It’s a short, clear walk downhill. It should be manageable if we take it easy. Donna’s heart and respiratory rates have slowed down a bit and her breathing seems much less labored.

I glance to the sky. The sun is hanging low in the sky. We need to get her out of here while we can still easily do so. I’d much rather hoist while we still have light to do so safely.

Donna is a real trooper and makes the trek with no complaint. Time to get her ready for the hoist. Lee holds up the screamer suit for her to put her arms through as I strap her in and join the rings with a locking carabiner, securing her into her “cradle”. Lee verbally walks her through the steps of the process.

Lee keys his radio: “Star-9, we are ready for hoist.”

The helicopter approaches, the rapid beat of it’s rotor blades echoing up and through the wide ravine. The sudden gale throws up ash from the recent fire, pelting my face with bits of debris. I turn to shelter Donna from the onslaught as Lee reaches out for the rapidly descending hoist hook. The air crew (now a new shift: pilot Kevin Boss, TFO Manny Romero) manages to swing the hook right into Lee’s hand! I clip Donna into the hook, double check that the system is securely closed and wave my hand upward and out from my helmet to signal the TFO to lift.

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The wind from the chopper is brutally cold, and my hands have become painfully stiff from just a couple minutes of exposure. I’m going to need all th dexterity I can manage to clip myself into the hoist, so this could be a problem. I jam my hands deep into my jacket pockets to warm them up. Another minute and I’m gazing up expectantly, positioning myself, reaching for the hoist, clipping in… Suddenly I’m flying straight up. As I reach the helicopter, I walk my hands on the struts to avoid bumping my head. The TFO gives me a nod and a smile and helps me into the the seat next to Donna. Our unwieldy packs come up next, spinning in the wild wind currents.

It takes far longer for Lee to come up. As the minutes tick by, I start to get worried. Is something wrong? Finally I see Lee’s head emerge over the edge of the deck. He looks sick. He has completed the most hoist rescues ever on the team, but I’ve never seen him like this. The TFO clears up the mystery “The wind spun him like a top on the way up- I’ve never seen anything like it!”

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There’s not enough room in the small cabin for all of us and the enormous packs, so Lee and the TFO sit perched on the outside of the copter, safely clipped in, but exposed to the bitingly cold wind as we fly towards the desert.

As we beeline towards our destination the scenery is majestic enough to take your breath away- craggy cliffs, the sharp relief of impenetrable ravines and razor ridge lines flying by almost to fast to absorb. Donna is fascinated- it’s a real joy to see the worry leave her face, replaced by wonder… “What an adventure!”
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We arrive at the transfer point and pass our subject off the the waiting EMTs. I give them a briefing on her vitals and current condition, shake her eagerly waiting husband’s hand, give her a big hug and wish her well.

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Over Before You Know It

After a long hard work week, it was finally time for a night out. Dinner down in the desert had been great. It was a long winding back up the mountain, but it was worth it. An hour later I could still taste the lingering flavor of Duck confit with chanterelles in my mouth as we pulled with a gravelly crunch into the driveway. Now, all I was looking forward to was a hot bath and warm bed.

I had just unclipped my seatbelt when a new text chimed out.

I look down at my phone, eyes widening: “We have a mission!”

Two lost hikers at Marion Mountain. Dang, this could be a big one! Marian Mountain is one of the steepest trails in the area. It is notorious for sending people down it’s offshoots into deep, dark, dangerous canyons. Over the years we’ve rescued many people from its grasp, and it’s usually been a doozy of a mission. We’d better prep for an overnighter for sure.

Instead of jumping in the bath, I head directly for the rescue room. In a matter of minutes I pull on my uniform, double check my gear and backpack, and am ready to head out. I grab a extra radio for the deputy and I’m out the door.

I heave my backpack in the bed of the truck and hop in. My Partner Lee speeds up the 243 towards the mission base location marked by a google pin drop. On the way we get the news that our teammates Cameron Dickinson and Kevin Kern are on their way here. Good. It’s always a good idea to have backup on a Marion Mountain mission.

Turning off the main highway we wind our way along the pockmarked and potholed asphalt back towards the Marion Mountain trailhead. As we approach we can see the Sheriff’s lights ahead, red and blue flashes piercing the pitch black, illuminating the pines in an eerie dance of color.

Thank Goodness for Cell Service
Dispatch is on the radio with the deputy. One of the subjects has managed to get weak cell-service and is on the phone describing their location. The deputy slowly repeats the conversation to us. “They’re at a campground with water towers nearby”. Lee’s eyes light up immediately “I know where they are!”

“Sound the siren!” Lee suggests to the deputy. A loud whoop comes from the car. A couple of seconds later, confirmation from dispatch: The subjects have heard the siren. Perfect! Lee and I grin at each other. We won’t even need our backpacks for this one. He turns to me: “They’re at the old campground” that makes sense- it’s still closed this early in the season. They could’ve gotten sidetracked on their way back down, found an old campsite and decided to stick it out somewhere that seems at least somewhat civilized.

A 15 Minute Rescue
We ask the deputy to wait. “This won’t take long”. A quick eight minute march up a steep hillside covered in slippery pine duff, and we see the glow of a fire ahead illuminating up the trees in a warm circle of light. “Hello!” We yell out as a greeting. Excited yells greet us back.

As we approach I see two people huddled near the inviting blaze of a fire ring. Our subjects are ecstatic to see us. A quick set of introductions goes around before we get to the meat of the interview.

Ron and Diana started out separately that day. She was part of a hiking meetup group and he was travelling on his own near the group. The Meetup group had asked people to pick a hiking buddy. Through an understandable mixup Diana had chosen Ron as her partner and only realized much later that he was not part of the group.

Still, they had a great hike up to the peak but ended up making it back down in the fading twilight. They had both made some of the classic mistakes that tend to get hikers in trouble. Neither one had counted on staying out so late. They had underestimated the length of he hike, had not brought extra provisions, not familiarized themselves with the trailhead, and they had no source of light between them.

In the fading light at the end of the hike they got off the trail, but managed to make it back down. Unfortunately the simple map they had showed only the trails without the topography. (One more reason to learn to read a topo map and always bring your own!) Once off trail, they had no way to find the location of their cars. The darkness made everything unfamiliar and they weren’t even sure they were in the right area on the mountain.

“I had figured our car was over that way”, Ron said pointing North in the direction of Dark Canyon. “But she insisted we stay put”.

“I’m glad you did.” If they had headed off that way they would be lost in the middle of a tangle of deep dark ravines and thick brush right now. No cell service there! Our job would’ve gotten a whole heck of a lot harder. An amazingly simple search of several minutes would have morphed into long hours or even days, with a large potential of our subjects becoming injured, hypothermic and/or severely dehydrated.

Luckily for us all, they decided to hunker down instead. Diana had brought some matches for the fire and they both had jackets which helped keep them warm.

Heading Home
“Well, let’s get you back”. Lee puts out the fire. I stamp out the last embers with my heavy leather boots. We each hand out one of our many spare headlamps for the subjects to use. As we walk back, I review a few of the lessons of the night. Our new friends readily confirm they will not be heading out without their full set of ten essentials again, especially their not without headlamps and a good map! A short hike down the slope and we hit the pockmarked road leading to their cars.

In a couple minutes, we see flashing lights illuminating the road ahead. Time to hand them off to the deputy.

They’ll have a exciting story for friends and family. They were lucky- they had all the ingredients for things to go horribly wrong, but got a brief adventure and a good lesson instead.

 

Helicopters, Hoists & Breakfast, Oh my!

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The call comes in at 3:30 AM. It’s my partner Lee. “They need a helicopter hoist team for a lost hiker on Skyline”. My bed is warm and my fuzzy flannel sheets are so comfy… But this is more important than a few hours sleep! “Count me in”, I slur with sleep still in my voice.

Shaking my head to clear it, I throw the warm covers back, roll out of bed and head straight for my gear closet. Perfect! My Go-Pack is still full from the last mission. I dig around inside – ticking off my mental checklist. Good, everything is accounted for. I refill my Nalgene, pull on my pants and shrug into my fluorescent orange uniform shirt.

Within 15 minutes I’m already on the way to pick up Lee. Another speedy half an hour drive down the mountain puts us in the parking lot at RSO Aviation. One more cross check of gear and we head straight into the hanger.

Pilot Chad Marlett and TFO Manny Romero are on tonight. The Aviation crew are all amazing guys and exceptional at what they do – we really enjoy working with them and readily trust them with our lives.

Following protocol we do a brief review of the Screamer suit and rescue gear, then load our packs and ourselves into the helicopter. I clip the seat belt together, strap on a headset and snug it down over my ears, bending the microphone down directly in front of my mouth.

“Good to go?” Lee and I give Manny a thumbs up and a verbal confirmation of “oh yeah!”. Manny confirms we are securely strapped in, then cranes his neck around out the door, scanning one last safety check of the environment as Chad preps for takeoff.

One minute we’re on the ground feeling the increasing thup……..thup…. thup ..thup.. thup.thup of the accelerating rotor, the next the ground swings eerily away beneath us , disappearing into the black.

We discuss the mission on our headsets as we watch the twinkling city lights cruise by beneath us. “Want to hear the transcript?” Manny briefly reviews the mission notes and original call text with us.

Our subject called 911 for help with a weak cell signal. He had been hiking all night and was now trapped off trail in the thick brush of the coastal mountain range, unable to hike any further. He was scratched up, dehydrated, exhausted, and utterly disoriented by his efforts. He described seeing red blinking lights on a nearby hill. The 911 operator told him to stay put and await further contact, but RSO has not been able to raise him again. He has likely run out of battery. As is often the case in emergencies, people don’t think to conserve their batteries until it is nearly too late.

The only “red blinking lights” in the area are a set of radio towers. A ping of the subject’s cell phone put his location at 2 miles Southeast of the towers, but it’s best not to put complete trust in these coordinates. Over the years we’ve learned that since they tend to ping to the nearest cell tower, they can sometimes be miles off.

Chad suggests we start in the vicinity of the towers. In the subject’s description he said he could see the flashing lights on a NEARBY hill. I agree. “That ping is too far south for him to see the lights clearly.” It’s generally best to trust a subject’s physical description over a set of cell coordinates. Hopefully our subject has followed instructions and hasn’t moved.

We reach the edge of the city lights and venture out and above the inky black mountain slopes. Manny hands back a pair of night vision goggles. As I raise them to my eyes the world below lights up with an eerie green brightness. Ridges and valleys jump out in a rough grainy contrast. I pass them over to Lee for a quick acclimatization.

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We start our search near the radio towers, cruising slowly in the air up and down each ridge and Canyon, eyes intently searching for something, anything that will signal us that our subject is here.

In addition to a spotlight, we also have a set of cameras that allow us to pick heat signatures and the night vision goggles which will starkly reveal anything more reflective/bright than the background of dense scrub brush.

Manny, Lee and I scan the landscape as Pilot Chad concentrates on the added difficulties of mountain flying. The steep ridges guide and magnify any wind into strong updrafts, and each time we cross a ridge he must slow down to compensate for the increased rpm of the blades. Even a slight breeze over this rugged terrain can increase the risk of our flight.

We know our subject is likely on top of a ridge, since he was able to see the radio towers. We fly for a while, scanning the ridgelines, seeing nothing but thick brush and short stumpy trees crammed in tightly along the hillside and steep slopes.

The goggles make everything much clearer, but nothing is jumping out at us. We’re starting to get discouraged… The Eastern sky is just starting to lighten, and now we’re racing against time to try and find him at night. Most people don’t realize that it’s easier for us to see most signals at night, Anything bright or reflective will instantly jump out at us. The contrast of even a small light or reflection stands out against the dull black of night far more than during the bright light of day. The pilots say that in the right conditions they can see the light from a cell phone 3 miles away.

Hunting as a child with my father, I learned to let my eyes go slightly unfocused to search the terrain for patterns and movement. When searching, focusing your eyes or your mind too hard on any one point can give you a myopic view and make you overlook whats right in front of you.

The guys are scouring the ground with their night vision goggles, and I am left with my naked eye. After what seems like an eternity, but is probably just another half hour, something on a ridgeline snags the edge of my eye.

“Wait. Go back. To the North. I saw something.” Chad swings the helicopter around. I verbally direct the beam of his spotlight to a spot on the ridgeline below us. There, silhouetted in the circle of light is our subject- a tiny dot with a white shirt jumping up-and-down wildly. Its nice to get confirmation on our decision- the cell ping was definitely off!

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“Alright!” I can hear the grin in Chad and Manny’s voices.

We examine the ridge nearby. It’s a jumble of high brush and short stunted trees, “there’s no place to land” reports chad. … and nowhere to easily hike in from. “We’ll have to hoist him out”.

We circle over him for a better position and Chad turns on the loudspeaker. “Wave your hands if you can understand us”. A few enthusiastic hand waves from the subject later, The flight crew gets confirmation that he can indeed hear us and will stay put as we fly away to reconfigure the helicopter for a hoist. The subject hunkers down under the shelter of the tall brush to wait as we fly away.

Chad beelines the helicopter to landing area at the base of the foothills, and the aircrew rapidly reconfigure the helicopter for the hoist.

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This takes time, by the time we are flying back through the canyons the first rays of the sun are hitting the mountain slopes. Since our subject looks like a heavy guy, It is decided that we will leave Lee on the hillside after we hoist the Subject and come back for him later. Chad sets the helicopter into a hover and Manny hoists Lee and then me down directly onto the hillside near our subject.

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Lee pulls the bright Red screamer suit out of his pack. It looks like a combination between a jacket and a diaper, designed to be simple to put on in an emergency and very secure. We help the subject strap himself in “put your arms through the holes like a jacket” I cinch the inner waist belt tight as Lee brings the straps together from each shoulder and between the subjects legs. He secures the front rings together with a locking carabiner at chest level.

After a quick but thorough briefing for the subject of what’s going to happen next and helicopter safety, we signal the TFO that we’re good to go.

In a great show of piloting Chad manages to put the hoist directly into my hand on the first try. I clip in, wave my hand in our exaggerated “lift me up” signal and enjoy the ride. Before you know it I’m at the skids and walking my hands upward to the TFO’s chest Carabiner. Into the helicopter, clip into the seatbelt, unclip the hoist and hand it to Manny. Soon thereafter the anxious face of the subject appears over the edge of the deck. He stares straight forward, clasping the cable tight, petrified by his first hoist and helicopter flight, but manages to follow all of our instructions perfectly.

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Within minutes we are back at the landing zone. Everything goes smoothly in the subject handoff to the deputies on scene and we head back for Lee. In a great mood, we fly back the hanger (and a much anticipated breakfast!) .

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An Unexpected Overnight

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At first I can’t figure out why I’m awake.

Out of reflex I reach over to the bedstand and grab my phone to check the time. Staring through heavy eyes at the glowing face, I realize its ringing. It’s my partner, Lee; “They need a team for a rescue hoist. Can you jump in with me as backup?”

I flick up on the light switch, blink to adjust my eyes, and stride towards the gear closet. I drag out my Osprey pack and pull open the top to review the contents. Helmet, Harness, extra clothes, food and water for the subject, overnight supplies for me… Check! Even though the hoist will probably go quickly, you never know… as a general rule we “pack for 2 hrs or 2 days”.

Inside of 15 minutes I’m jumping into the cavernous cab of Lee’s Dodge Ram. We bomb our way halfway down the mountain to the Keenwild Helipad. Lee parks, I swing my hefty pack out of the truck bed after him, then we make our way onto the pitch black landing pad. A coyote howls, then fades into silence. Far out in the distance I can see Star-9’s lights approaching, intermittently piercing the dark night sky. We crouch down to the side of the Landing Zone and watch the skids cruise above our heads. Even on the smooth pavement the rotor wash from the landing pelts me with enough debris to make me glad I am wearing my safety goggles.

With a quick wave, the TFO motions to us to approach the helicopter. We duck down at the waist, carrying our packs down low in our hands, and move forward. Up close I smile to see the familiar faces of pilot Mike Calhoun and TFO Eric Hannum. After a quick but warm exchange of handshakes and nods, we climb up into our seats and buckle up. In what seems like only a few seconds, the ground sways away beneath us, and we are cruising towards the High country. I pull on on my headset and swing down the mouthpiece. We cross check communications, “good to go”.

The dark desert floor wraps out below us to the north east, cities an oasis of bright lights twinkling in the black of night. Bright flashes of lightning flash threateningly far out over the Mojave. “There’s something brewing out there” says Eric, “Let’s hope it doesn’t come our way “. I cast a glance in the same direction and silently echo the same sentiment in my head.

I realize I have been gripping my pack since we took off and let it go, settling back into my seat. It’s an unexpectedly warm night. I’m usually colder in the cockpit but tonight I have to peel my jacket off within minutes of getting in.

“What have we got?” Asks Lee, voice echoing sharp and tinny in the headset. Eric turns toward us, “Injured hiker, missed the tram down. The reporting party is her boyfriend, says she hurt her ankle on the way back down to the tram. We have a general idea of her location, but we’ll need to pinpoint it first before we can decide how to insert you.”

Mike circles the helicopter around the high mountain valleys, while we search the slopes for any sign of light, any sign of our subject. The thup.. thup..thup of the rotors echoes across the valleys, breaking into the silence of the night and probably waking up a few annoyed backpackers along the way.

VISUAL CONFIRMATION
After about 15 minutes we see it, a faint light shining up from far below. “There we go. Light ahead at 9 o’clock.” From the color and strength it looks like it may be the face of a cell phone. Most people don’t know that we can see cell phone light at night from miles away given the right conditions. Lee pulls out a local topo map and I trace my finger over the area, starting to plan our hiking approach.

Mike and Eric are doing the same for the helicopter. “We can put it down nearby. Long Valley meadow looks good,” says Mike. “Sounds good to us!” I chime in and Lee gives a quick nod and a thumbs up. It’s not too far from the subject. We can hike in quickly as the hasty team to assess her condition. Our air crew can insert further rescuers and equipment as needed afterwards.

I lean forward and hook my fingers through the top handle of my pack in anticipation. Now that we have visual, I’m eager to get out on trail. “Hold up there. We can’t land yet.” Pilot Mike says.

When dealing with helicopters, there are a lot of factors to consider. The warmth of the night has altered the air density, making it unexpectedly thin for our purposes. Wisely preparing for a potentially longer aerial search, the crew filled the fuel tank. On a colder night this weight would not be a problem, but tonight, adding in the weight of a subject and multiple rescuers… If we land, we might not have enough power to take off in the short clearance offered by the mountain meadow. Despite dramatically staged movie portrayals, a straight up-and-down take off is very difficult, potentially dangerous, and consumes huge amounts of power.

“We need to fly around and burn more fuel to get the weight down”, states Mike. We circle the rim of the mountain valley several more times. It’s absolutely stunning and for a moment I gaze down and let myself relax into the view. Off to the North I can still see flashes of lightning illuminating the desert floor. I feel my brow furrow. The storm seems a lot closer. I’m starting to get a little nervous that it might show up before we can finish.

HITTING THE TRAIL
Another 25 minutes and things are looking good. We’ve burned enough fuel and it’s time to land. As we come into the meadow, tall grasses lie down flat in wide waves in front of us. The helicopter draws a circle of light out directly below us fading into the jagged black silhouettes of pine trees. Eric, our TFO, cracks open the door and leans out for a better view. It’s his job to make sure that the helicopter is safe, that we have enough clearance around us and that no major debris are poised to be sucked up into our rotor. Mountain landings are risky business.

Within moments we are down. Time to move out. Eric opens the door all the way and motions for us. I unclip my seatbelt, I grab my pack and step out into the dark.

After a quick radio check with Eric to make sure we can keep up communications with our air crew, we head out onto the trail. Within minutes, Lee spots the reporting party wandering along the trail. We gather information from him about our subject’s whereabouts and condition. He’s well off and in decent shape and we request that he return to the relative shelter of the tram station to remain safe until contacted.

Lee heads off first down the trail, long strides carrying him along quickly. I crank my own short legs into gear and manage to haul him back in. As we reach the base of the switchbacks I interject between strides; “Hold up, time for a call out!” We pause and I turn my shoulders to face upslope. “One… two…three…” I suck in a deep breath, spreading my ribs wide, and we bellow out “Helloooo!” in unison. My ears are met with silence for a few seconds, then a faint cry echoes in from far upslope. Great! I let my breath out, only then realizing that I was holding it. Lee radios in “Star 9, we have voice contact, proceeding to the subject“. A few minutes of intense hiking later, I see a faint light ahead and my heart lifts further.

Hello, we’re from Search and Rescue, we’re here to help”. Our subject, Teresa, is happy to see us. She is sitting in the middle of a switchback on the trail, obviously exhausted, but smiling a greeting back at us. Despite her smile, it’s obvious she has not had a fun night.

After a quick scene safety assessment, I settle down by her on the dusty trail. “Are you hurt? What happened?” Careful questioning gives us a good outline of her backstory and method of injury. After a long and exhausting hike attempting to keep up with her friend, (probably excessive for her level of conditioning) she reports having slipped, twisting her ankle and bumping her hip, luckily with no head, neck or back involvement.

After her friend left to get help, she did her best to try and self-evacuate, sliding and dragging herself downhill for an extended distance until her strength gave out. She finally found a relatively soft spot on the trail to hunker down and await rescue. She has been sitting alone in the middle of the dark trail for hours.

She’s a friendly, tough lady, a nurse, and makes no complaint as we examine her. We gather necessary information. A thorough head to toe reveals some scrapes and bruises, in addition to a painfully sprained, potentially broken ankle. LOC, SAMPLE and quick set of vitals shows her to be in generally good condition, although we will keep track to make sure she maintains a positive trend. As soon as we examine her foot, it’s quickly obvious that our subject will not be walking anywhere tonight. Lee keys the radio: “Star-9, we will need a litter, a wheel and additional rescuers to help with transport.”

I pull out my first aid kit. Time to prep our brave lady for transport. One SAM splint, and plenty of coband and TLC later and we have a stable injury. I make sure to leave access so that we can continue to check her distal pulse and make sure she is getting circulation. Hopefully we will have her out of here in just a few minutes, after the rest of the team arrives with the litter, but it’s always better to prepare for the long term if possible.

Now that we’ve dealt with the most pressing safety issues, it’s time to further address patient comfort. Teresa has been sitting still for a long time on the cold ground. Lee pads her sitting area and wraps her up our spare sleeping bags and down jackets. I make sure she has enough to eat and drink. Getting her insulated, rehydrated and fed will fuel her body and help keep her warm.

Are we good to go?” Lee asks. “Good to go“. I reply, giving our subject an encouraging smile.

Lee walks off to the side and calls in: “Star-9, Team One. We’re ready for transport. Where are we with the litter and additional rescuers?”

The radio crackles; “Team One, this is Star-9. Bad news. We have the litter, and rescuers are standing by, but the storm is almost here.” Oh heck. I almost forgot about the storm.

HUNKERING DOWN
Star-9 isn’t exaggerating-the storm has moved in unbelievably quickly. Seconds later, the first burst of lightning streaks across the sky and thunder booms close behind. The sky opens up in a pelting rain. The first raindrops splash cold onto my scalp.

Team One, we can’t pull you out! Are you and subject prepared to overnight?”

Lee glances at me and I nod.

Star-9, we are good, we repeat, good to overnight, request additional rescuers and resources when available.”

With our last radio contact I put in a request that the Sheriff’s Department let my school know that I won’t be in to teach class in the morning. At least I have a unique excuse: left behind on a mountain helicopter rescue is something they probably haven’t heard before!

The helicopter peels off. We are alone on the mountaintop. Without the helicopter we have no outside radio contact. We’ll just have to wait until the storm breaks or the tram opens up in the morning to allow new resources.

We ramp down from our evacuation efforts, and start to prep for a long, wet, and cold night. Lee pulls out a tarp and I wedge several logs up against a deadfall tree to form a lean-to shelter in place above Teresa. Luckily, within a few minutes the torrential downpour has passed. Unfortunately, the cloud cover is still far too thick for a helicopter to penetrate.

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We make sure Teresa is warm and as comfortable as possible in the circumstances, check distals and vitals again, then bed down nearby for an uneasy rest. I set my alarm to repeat every hour, so we can check in regularly on our subject. High winds moan through the trees as we settle down for an uncomfortable night.

I meet first light with the reassuring weight of my rescue pack on my back. Lee and I have decided that I will head out to the tram to re-establish contact with the Sheriff’s Department and try to wrangle up some reinforcements. I leave my first aid supplies, spare sleeping bag and clothing behind to help take care of our subject.

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On the way back I swing by the Ranger Station. Although it is officially closed and unmanned, I notice that there is a CCC crew camped just outside. Perfect! With some aggressive pounding and loud voice I quickly manage to wake them up. A quick explanation of the situation gets them in motion. In a few minutes they have pulled a litter and wheel from the station (which they conveniently have the keys to) and we now have several strong young guys to help us transport our subject. That’s what I call using the resources at hand!

I radio Lee with the good news: “I’ve got a gift for you on the way up. Litter, Wheel and four strapping, eager young guys”. Lee is more than happy hear this: “Copy that!”
I send the guys back up the trail to Lee and Teresa and continue on my way to the tram.

The tram employees have just arrived on the first car. Once informed of the situation, they are eager to help. Sharon from DSSAR has just arrived at the base of the tram. I brief her and the deputy on scene, and we coordinate to bring up more rescuers and gear with the first car.

Together RMRU and DSSAR escort the subject back down to the tram and to safety. Our brave subject has kept a good attitude through her entire ordeal and soon will be heading home after a quick check out at the hospital!

As an extra surprise, the Riverside Sheriff Department has not only informed my School that I would be late, they also provided an officer to drive me back to my side of the mountain. I arrive in class only 5 minutes late, and with a great story to share with my kids.

Right on Track

It’s Saturday morning.

Pulling into the dirt upper parking lot at Simpson Park I swerve around the large puddle left from the rain the night before. Just this winter we had a frustrating search in the rugged terrain at the back of the expansive park. Dogs and helicopters combed the terrain to no avail. A “ground-pounding” by our foot searchers yielded results only after a long and exhausting night. Now in an odd coincidence we’re returning to the same scene to sharpen skills that just might help us find the subject faster on future missions.

For the next 2 days Fernando Moreira, a highly respected tracking expert, will be giving us in-depth Search and Rescue Tracking Training.

It’s a cloudy day, the sun showing through only intermittently. Fernando takes this opportunity to show us how varying light conditions can affect the visibility of the tracks. With direct early morning sun at a low angle, the tracks he has laid for us stand out in sharp relief. But as a cloud covers the sun the contrast fades and the print disappears into the ground. The effect would be the same around noon with the overhead sun obliterating contrast. He explains we can counter this by shading the area and shining a flashlight at a low angle to create shadows and reveal the prints.

The class dives immediately into practical experience for the SAR tracker. How do you estimate the height and weight of a person from their shoe size? Predict the path of their travel? Where their foot will fall next? How can you tell the age of the tracks? How can you measure and use knowledge of their stride length to your advantage?

The location is perfect for our purposes. To put it plainly- it’s confusing. Simpson Park is a popular mountain biking, running and dog-walking destination. With so many tracks and current activity in the vicinity it can be vital to have several tools that help you to distinguish the track of your subject. Quite often you wont get a clear print- only a series of scuffs. How can you tell if this is your man? Knowledge of their usual stride length (measured from prints at their last known location) can help you rule out many prints and keep on track.

Those who have gone through the class the year before are enlisted to help guide the new trackers in the basics of Micro-tracking. The slightest of clues; the transfer of grains of wet dirt up onto vegetation, a broken leaf, and pebbles shifted slightly forward from their positions are the language of Micro-tracking. We line up across a vaguely level hillside about half the length of a football field. Tracking sticks in hand (trekking poles with a set of adjustable rubber bands to mark print and stride length) we kneel down to read our first tracks of the day.

The ground is already covered in tracks from daily usage of the park, but after a few pointers from Fernando and his aides the subject’s prints start to announce themselves. As my eyes warm up I see the telltale slight depressions, transfers, and subtle shifting forward of pebbles that signal that we’ve discovered the next step.

The next couple days are full with practical exercises and live scenarios designed to help us find our subjects more quickly and efficiently. We learn leapfrogging or ‘cutting ahead’ in boxes and half moon patterns to speed up the process of tracking. We learn to look for natural “Track Traps” along the path of travel. Tracking at night had once seemed impossible, but if you angle the light just so the patterns of slight depression in the ground can become a path pointing directly towards the subject.

Fernando discusses how to most efficiently set up and work tracking teams. We learn to read the story that tracks are telling us- did the subject shift their weight to one side to look back? Throw something? Trip and land heavily? “The tracks don’t lie”, he states.

Several live scenarios are staged to test our growing tracking skills in the field. The team responds successfully to a search for a missing hiker. Another person is “lost” and we learn to track from a central location such as a car, determining a Direction of Travel. We measure the prints leading out from the car, mark the stride length on our tracking sticks and move out in a spiral pattern, careful to not destroy any prints we encounter.

In our final live scenario slight scuffs on the ground, dirt transfer, drag marks and a broken quail egg under leaf cover lead our team to the ‘body’, an orange team shirt. We return proudly bearing our prize and a newfound confidence in our own practical tracking skills.

After a weekend of practice with Fernando, what before had seemed a series of hints in the dirt transformed itself into a clear trail pointing to our subject. After this weekend I’ve come away with an entirely new respect for the value of tracking in Search and Rescue. We’ve added a valuable new skill to our arsenal as a team, one that we can use on missions to come.

 

 

RMRU Members at Training: Glenn Henderson, Gwenda Yates, Carlos Carter, Helene Lohr, Craig Wills, Rob May, Nick Nixon, Mike Herman, Roger May, Michael George, Matt Jordan, Alan Lovegreen, Paul Caraher, Joe Erickson, Lew Kingman, Pete Carlson.

 

Ringing in the New Year: Rescue in Pinyon

RMRU Search and Rescue: Pinyon
Lee Arnson and Glenn Henderson confer with the Deputy on scene

 

Change of Plans.

The call out comes late in the afternoon on the last day of 2012. “We have a lost hiker in Pinyon, call the rescue line with your availability.” A call to our call captain fleshes out the details. A man out for an overnight backpack has just been reported missing by his girlfriend in the steep ridges and canyon lands surrounding Martinez Peak.

We had planned to celebrate that night in the high country, ringing in the New Year with a bottle of wine and an inaugural snow camp. Holiday plans foiled again! Well, at least my pack will be ready for a rescue with just some minor editing.

We swing a hard left and pull into our designated base at the local fire station, tires biting into the gravel of the parking lot. The RMRU Rescue truck is already on scene and Glenn is conferring with the deputy. Lee and I join in. We learn that a helicopter in the area last night spotted a small fire along the east face of Martinez. A quick review of the topographic map and rough coordinates from the copter helps us to form a plan. Since it is unknown if this is our subject, it is decided that we need to cover as much ground as possible. In this type of scenario, it is likely that he will have taken the route of least resistance and headed down into the canyons below, but if not, we need to cover the upper elevations as well.

Lee and I will head up a fire road that wraps up and around the mountain towards the fire’s coordinates. Freshly arriving RMRU members will be diverted down Sawmill Trail to the search along the canyon floor. Neighboring DSSAR members will be covering the search efforts from the desert side of the mountain.

RMRU Search and Rescue: Pinyon, Pidgeon Springs Road

Lee and I throw our packs back into the bed of his truck and swing out of the parking lot and onto HWY 74. A sharp left off of the pavement onto gritty dirt takes us to Pigeon Springs road. The going is slow. The road is deeply rutted and the recent cold spell has left a fresh coating of crusty unmelted snow along the north facing switchbacks. At the mouth of each ravine we stop, turn off the engine and get out of the car to yell out, our voices echoing through the canyons. Our calls hover in the air for a while, but bring only silence as a reply

As we reach our target overlook, we hear from base that Les Walker and Ralph Hoetger are now on trail in the deep maze of canyons below us. Patrick McCurdy, Steve Bryant and Alan Lovegreen are en route and will be arriving soon to add strength to our numbers.

RMRU Search and Rescue: Pinyon, Lee Getting Ready to yell out
Lee Arnson Getting Ready to yell out

Looking down I have a clear view of the vast labyrinth spread out into the distance. After quieting the engine, we step out onto a thin crust of snow. It crunches beneath my heavy boots as we climb up onto a conveniently placed boulder to yell again. We aim our chests towards a large bare slope several miles in the distance. I start the count: “1…2…3…” I stretch my lungs full with air and we bellow out in unison: “Hello!” The sound reverberates through the canyons and disappears.

Voice Contact?

Suddenly, out of the silence, there comes a faint call. A man’s voice! We call again, and again… Holding our breath till bursting in the hopes that we will hear a return call… And each time, we barely make out the edge of a voice, far away. After the third call, there is again only silence in response to our yells. Maybe the wind has shifted, maybe our subject has grown tired, or maybe this is not even the man we are looking for. A quick call in to base confirms that none of the other rescuers have recently yelled out. They did hear our calls, and one also reports hearing the same lone voice calling back.

Next, the critical question: where did the voice come from?

Pinyon is a unique terrain for sound. As sound bounces across the land, the varying contours and vegetation will shape it differently. In our usual high country terrain heavy tree coverage on the reflecting slopes muffles the sound and spreads it out, the thousands of pine needles reflecting sound vibrations in thousands of directions. In Pinon’s mix of steep slopes, sparse brush, packed desert gravel and rock faces, sound can travel for astonishing distances as it hits and bounces sharply back like a ball off of a pool table.

RMRU Search and Rescue: Pinyon, a maze of canyons
Pinyon: A maze of interlocking steep canyons and near barren slopes

Looking at the shape and angle of the slope from which the call is reflecting suggests to me that it is probably echoing to us from several miles to the South and East. This puts it roughly in line with the coordinates of the fire from the previous night. Still, we can’t be certain that this is our man. We also can’t be certain of the exact location of the voice. It’s not much to go on. After more discussion it is suggested by base that Lee and I join the Horsethief Creek crew and explore the lower canyons.

A New Discovery

While Lee is on the radio discussing our next step, something catches my eye that is not marked on the topographic map. A trail peals off of our dirt road, heading to the east slightly below the elevation of the reported coordinates from last night. It is heading the correct direction to take us at least part of the way there.

RMRU Search and Rescue: Pinyon, Trail forking off of Pidgeon Springs Road
The unmarked trail peels off of Pidgeon Springs road.

I show my discovery to Lee. We have cell service, so we take a minute to research it on Google Earth. Bingo! There is a clear cut clear trail for an ample section of the hike. This presents us with a new option: the rest of the team is taking the low road, why not have us on the high road? If the subject was the source of the fire last night then we might be the best positioned to find him if we continue contouring the mountain towards the southeast at constant elevation.

We call in our plan for approval. “Base, this is team one… We’ve got an idea.” Lee quickly explains our plan and we receive the go-ahead to explore this new trail. Swinging myself out of the truck I feel the familiar bite of cold on my cheeks. It’s already in teens and falling fast. Lee and I cross check our gear and make sure that we have adequate food, water and extra warm clothing for what promises to be a frigid night.

RMRU Search and Rescue: Pinyon, sun low in the West
Trailhead already in Shadow.

We take our first steps down the trail as the sun looms low in west. Already in deep shadow behind the sharp ridge lines ourselves, the desert in the distance glows in contrast with a warm light. The excitement of discovering and exploring an unmarked trail fuels us and we make good time forward despite the cold. The rough brush has been cut back by pruning shears and trail ducks perched on boulders help guide the way. As we move through the unfamiliar terrain, we mark turnings in the trail by dragging deep cuts in the wet earth with our feet, knowing that we will likely have to find our way back in the black of night.

RMRU Search and Rescue, Helene Lohr
Helene ready to head down the trail

As we travel onwards, we discover unexpected benefits of our new trail. Traversing high up on the surface of the mountain, we are in a unique position to overlook the steep canyons and deep valleys below. The rescuers within the deep ravines are effectively isolated, their voices limited by the canyon walls. Their calls can only echo along their canyon or straight up into the night air- only carrying so far. Our position allows our voices to carry down into all the ravines stretching out below us.

We’re also in perfect position for radio relay. Our standard radio relay at Tewanet overlook has already lost contact with the team members in the deepest canyons, so we take over their duties. A new reliable location for relay is good information for future missions and we take special note. Even if we don’t find the subject, we’ve discovered a potential asset for the team on future Pinyon searches

“We’ve got him!”

A couple of hours into the dark hike, our radios crackle with encouraging news: “The copter thinks they’ve found him”! The darkness has revealed a new fire on the Southeast face of the mountain. Hovering nearby, the aviation crew communicates with the man by loudspeaker and confirms his identity. Great news! Unfortunately, this is New Years Eve and a helicopter crew that can hoist at night in the mountains is not available

Discussion ensues. If necessary, our ground team will be sent the many arduous miles cross country to secure the subject’s safety. After aviation confers again with the subject, this is deemed not necessary. Now that his location has been established and we know that he has enough supplies and warmth to spend one more night, the call is made to extract him in the safety of morning light.

RMRU Search and Rescue: Pinyon, getting ready to head back
Getting ready to head home.

Happy New Years!

As I follow Lee down the trail homewards the excitement of the search starts to wear off and I begin to feel all the small aches and pains of the day. My throat burns from yelling and my sore ankle is flaring sharply every time I take a misstep on the rocky trail. That doesn’t really matter though, because there’s still just enough time to get home before midnight and crack open that bottle of wine.

As the first day of the New Year dawns Alan Lovegreen is flown in to a nearby landing zone and helps an exhausted, dehydrated, cold and extremely relieved subject into the helicopter to be welcomed home by his happy family.

(As a side note: our calculations on the distance, direction and source of the calls was correct. The subject had indeed heard our calls from miles to the North and West and was hoarse from yelling back.)

 

Dinner Can Wait

“Ding!” I look down at the text, sigh and kick off the high heels I had just slipped on. Dinner down in the desert can wait; we have a call out.

15 minutes later my heels and dress have been exchanged for an orange shirt and hiking boots. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Lee’s truck as we bounce up the rutted dirt road leading to South Ridge Trailhead.

It’s a search. Out from the coast for a relaxing time camping in the mountains, the subject (Herb) had wandered off to the South to meditate, became disoriented and used his cell to call his friend back at camp. As Herb became increasingly lost, his friend made the call to contact 911.

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We see the red and blue flashers ahead and pull up parallel to the Sheriff’s car. Mark Young is the RSO deputy on scene. He’s in contact with the subject by cell and already has a good handle on the situation.

Deputy Young uses his previous military experience to help pinpoint Herb’s location. “Point your chest to the setting sun and describe what you can see in front of you.” Having the subject turn in a circle and relate what he sees at each 90 degree angle gives Young a good idea of Herb’s location. This helps him guide the Sheriff’s helicopter rapidly to the spot. Star 9 hovers above Herb for several minutes, allowing us to get a bead on the direction and distance we’ll need to go.

We get the news that several members of the team from off the hill are on their way. Gwenda is bringing our RMRU Rescue Truck, Dana is heading up the mountain and Paul is already on the way out from Orange County. Good to know- if anything goes wrong we may need additional people.

Since we still have daylight, Lee and I make the call to head out as a hasty team and see if we can locate the subject before nightfall complicates the matter. After a quick cross-check of our gear, we swing on our packs and head out cross country through the heavy brush. Thick stands of Manzanita, Chinquapin and various other thorny and spiky obstacles have us swerving off course more than once. We note landmarks along the way to keep us on track for our way back.

Once the helicopter peels away and the forest becomes quiet again, we yell ahead to establish voice contact. “1…2…3… Hello!” Herb responds loudly and boisterously “Hey, Hey, Hey! I’m over here! I’m here!” His voice is coming from a few hundred yards directly ahead. “Stay put! We’ll come to you!” We start out again, picking our way through the brush and calling out once in a while to make sure we stay on course.

Within a matter of minutes we crest a hill and come across a thankful Herb. He’s dressed in tattered blue sweatshorts, his arms and legs covered with scratches from forcing his way through the sharp foliage. After shaking our hands, he gratefully guzzles the Nalgene of water Lee passes his way. “Man, I’m soooo glad to see you! I was waving at the helicopter, but then he flew away. If the deputy wouldn’t have kept telling me to stay put, I would have definitely moved!”

After giving Herb a few minutes to drink and eat, we make the call to head back quickly. We might still be able to beat the sunset. Herb certainly isn’t dressed for nighttime in the mountains and the temperature will be dropping quickly.

Lee is familiar with the area, and after a few minutes of hiking he locates an unofficial mountain bike trail. Having a nice, smooth, brush-free trail makes the going much easier for our exhausted subject. We reach the truck and load Herb into the back seat. We pull up next to Deputy Young as the last fading rays of the sun disappeared in the west. Mission accomplished.

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Desert Rescue Decathalon

Map of Rescue at Horsethief Creek, Cactus Spring Trail

“You never believe everything you hear.” ~ Haley Hightower

It was supposed to be a simple carryout. But if there’s one thing you learn in Search and Rescue, you should never believe everything you hear about a call-out.

The “heads-up” text comes in at 12:30 early Friday morning; a warning that a call-out might be on it’s way. I groan, roll back over and stuff my head under the pillow. The call-out may or may not happen, but I’ll catch as much sleep as I can in the meantime.

At 1:30 the sharp “ding” of a text announces that we do indeed have another mission.

Everyone but Craig Wills and I are off the hill tonight. With the team so short-handed, there’s no going back to sleep on this one. I roll out of bed and shuffle over to pull on my hiking pants and orange shirt. I load the 4Runner up with gear: my standard call out pack plus additional food, water, medical, warmth and overnighting gear. Even though it’s reported as a simple carryout, you never really know what’s coming when you hit the trailhead. I swing by Craig’s house for a quick pickup and we’re on the road with our traditional Rammstein blasting out the stereo.

The request is to assist Cal-Fire with a critical carryout. Intermittent cell service contact with the subject tells the highly dramatic story of a man with “two prosthetic legs, injured and covered in blood.” Cal-Fire is already on trail to his location. We are to provide backup manpower on the litter.

The flashing lights lead us directly to the fire engine at Cactus Spring trailhead. We arrive on scene, ready to spring into action. Not so fast. We’re informed that the fire crew is already on their way back out, but without the subject. They hiked in several miles with a heavy litter in their full call-out gear, but were not able to locate the subject at his self-reported location at the crossing with Horsethief Creek.

Apparently the elusive subject has moved and isn’t responding to attempted voice or cell contact. With failing headlamps and sagging energy the Cal-Fire guys are simply not set up for a major search. What was once assumed a simple assisted on-trail carryout has now become a full-blown search covering miles of wild canyons.

Oh man. I look over at Craig. This is big country out here. There’s a lot of ground for just two people to cover. I guess we’d better get to it! As Craig and I conduct a last cross-check of our gear and sort out our plan of attack, a paramedic brings the welcome news that DSSAR has been contacted to join in on the search with an additional 6 people. We decide to hold off heading into the field until we have the additional manpower.

In the meantime, the RSO deputy has established shaky cell contact with our subject once again. Parked at the Tewanet overlook, the deputy pointed his headlights out into the abyss of canyons south of the 74 and was able to roughly ballpark the subject’s location on the trail. The deputy repeats cardinal rule of Search and Rescue to the subject: “Stay put. We’re coming for you.”

The united RMRU/DSSAR Search team decides we will hike in together with CDF along the trail. Once we can see the police vehicle headlights, we should be directly in the subject’s vicinity. He’s been told to stay put, so we should be good to go. Great! Sounds simple enough.

As we head out, the final search party consists of RMRU and DSSAR joint squads joined by 2 CDF and 1 paramedic carrying around 60 lbs of gear. We take turns trundling the litter and the wheel over the dusty and rocky terrain towards the subject’s last reported location. Hiking with a litter can be strenuous, even without a subject strapped in. After several minutes on litter duty the cold night seems suddenly all too warm and we stop to strip down to our bright orange team shirts.

RMRU Cactus Spring Search Reference Map
RMRU Cactus Spring Search Reference Map

After a couple miles we reach the crossing with Horsethief Creek. Staring up in the moonlight we survey the challenge ahead of us. The ridge looms in front of us, a final extended vertical push of steep and rocky switchbacks up to where our subject supposedly awaits us. We stop to deliberate. Should we lug the litter up this extreme grade without confirmation of the subject’s whereabouts? He’s already moved on us once. “That could just burn us out- and if he’s not there, well…” notes Sharon from DSSAR.

We call out towards the ridgeline “1…2…3… Hello!”…and wait expectantly for an answer. None comes. Calling again produces the same result. The decision is made to leave the litter at the base of the climb until we’ve confirmed his location. He should be nearby. How far could a man with 2 prosthetic legs get in this sort of terrain?

We wind our way up the ridgeline, towards the slowly brightening horizon to the east. We call out once in a while, just in case our subject has gone to sleep or wandered off trail into a nearby ravine. Reaching the top of the climb, I look to the North. In the far in the distance the red and blue flashers of the deputy’s vehicle are visible, its headlights pointed directly towards us.

Police Flashers at Tewanet Overlook
Red circle around the Police car lights at Tewanet Overlook

Radio contact with the deputy yields disturbing information: He recently saw the subject’s light 400 yards below our current location. Since there’s another ridgeline between us and the road, the only way the subject’s light could be seen below us is if he’s …(sigh) massively off trail! Oh dagnabit: He’s been moving again! I share a look of frustrated understanding with Craig. We both know we’re in for a much longer night.

Looking again to the North, I can understand why the subject would be tempted to make a go of it. The lights from Highway 74 are so tantalizing. They appear to be so close, almost within reach, especially when the rough terrain and impassable cliffs are concealed under the cover of night. But still- you have to marvel that a man with two prosthetic legs could make it that far off trail in this kind of rough terrain! Something just doesn’t seem quite right here.

Craig Wills on Trail: Cactus Spring Search
Craig Wills on Trail on ridgeline above Horsethief Creek

After a brief conference, the decision is made to head back down to the crossing with Horsethief Creek. We’ll attempt to access the neighboring canyon by following the scar of the boulder-strewn creek downstream. We once again make the wise decision to leave the litter at the crossing. In brightening light of dawn, we pick our way through the rocks, debris and puddles that clutter the narrow base of the ravine.

Just over a mile in we receive encouraging radio contact: “He’s on the move! The deputy can see him!” The subject has made his way to a ravine far below the Tewanet lookout. Of course the canyon is far too steep for him to climb out of, but now we at least have a visual. The deputy establishes faint voice contact and finally gets the subject to stop moving.

A few minutes later, even better news crackles its way over the radio. A Cal-Fire Helicopter is available and will be here in a few minutes. “Alright!” The relieved team shares a quick celebration as we take a much-needed break from clambering through the ankle-twisting rocky debris. Snacks are passed round and drinks shared. As the thup-thup-thup of the helicopter approaches our mood starts to lift. Help from the air is always appreciated.

RMRU/DSSAR Search Team waiting for the Helicopter
RMRU/DSSAR Search Team waiting for the Helicopter

“The copter says we’re about 1500 feet from him as the crow flies, but there are some very steep drop-offs between us and him,” the Cal-Fire crewman on radio detail reports. Getting to the subject on foot would be very difficult and extricating him on foot even worse. Luckily, the weather is calm and clear and the canyon wide enough for the Cal-Fire air-crew to hoist. What a relief. We stand by as the Cal-Fire Helicopter extracts our elusive subject and returns him to trailhead parking lot.

Cal-Fire to the Rescue
Cal-Fire to the Rescue: Helicopter extracting the Search Team

 

Now all we have to worry about is ourselves. After hiking around all night carrying a full call-out pack and litter after a moving target, we’re not looking forward to the long hike out. Luckily, our generous friends at Cal Fire have a greatly appreciated solution: spend the extra time and effort to extract the search team as well! The helicopter crew drops a man in along the trail behind us to clear a landing zone. The copter extracts us in groups of three, cutting an exhausting hike of several hours down to a matter of minutes. Thank you Cal-Fire!

Back at staging area we get the scoop on our subject (who has refused medical care and already left). The man “covered in blood” with “prosthetic legs” was actually a guy with a couple of bad knees who had gotten a bit scratched up by the brush during his cross-country travels. Craig and I look at each other and can’t help but laugh. What a great punch line.

Sigh… like I said before… you should never believe everything you hear about a call-out.