Rescue Squad Practices Its Craft

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High up on a narrow, rocky cliff, an injured hiker waits. After falling half way down the precipice, the hiker is lucky to have landed anywhere but the ground.

With a rescue far beyond the skill level of any officer, a group of dedicated volunteers are called in.

After huffing through remote terrain, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue arrives and begins stretching out lines of rope and rigging a pulley system to save the hiker. They send a metal litter over the lip along with an attendant, attached to their own climbing rope. While it took several hours to rig the whole contraption during training, in less than half an hour, volunteers have set the system up and have a volunteer at the victim’s side.

While this is only a drill, TRSAR puts its training to the test on dozens of missions each year.

In late June, volunteers practiced one of the more challenging rescue techniques, litter pick-offs off Flowing Springs Road. The rock face features advanced climbing routes, a perfect place to practice.

Although they have never had to use it, TRSAR Commander Bill Pitterle said if they did, they could do so safely and efficiently.

The team has practiced the drill twice a year for at least the last eight years. Every month, the group meets to practice a different rescue technique, ranging from swift water to heat exhaustion.

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Photo by Jim McMillion

Although they’ve never had to use this technique in a real rescue mission, TRSAR volunteers practice cliffside “litter pick-offs” twice a year.

For the latest training, volunteers set up a high directional rigging system. Basically several metal poles anchored above the victim and a web of ropes securing it all. The rig keeps the climbing ropes from dragging over the cliff edge and makes it easier to pull a litter up and over.

The $3,000 piece of equipment is one of two TRSAR owns and was bought solely with donations.

Nearly everything TRSAR has or does is funded by donations. From the countless hours 65 members put in, to the trailers of rescue equipment — donations keep the organization afloat.

And TRSAR puts its training and equipment to work. Every year, it responds to more than two-dozen calls for help, ranging from lost hikers to severely injured canyoneerers.

In one weekend in early June, the group went out on three rescue calls. The weekend before that, two missions. One where a woman got lost on the Barnhardt Trail and another in the area of Fossil Springs where a man had broken his ankle after jumping from a waterfall.

Some of the most dangerous and exhaustive missions have occurred in Salome Canyon, a popular place for canyoneering. In 2010, TRSAR helped rescue three people from the extremely remote area.

Pitterle said its during these missions that training pays off.

“Because we do this every month, things just go together,” he said. “We spend a lot of time at it and it shows. When we have a real mission, it always comes together in 20-30 minutes and we are ready.”

The origins of a Rim Country rescue group stretch back to the 1960s.

A group of citizens got together to help the Gila County Sheriff’s Office with stuck vehicles or lost and injured people in the Pine-Strawberry area.

At that time, one deputy took care of all calls in the area and there were more calls than he could handle. In 1977, Arizona passed a law making all search and rescue activity the responsibility of the county sheriff’s office.

Volunteers were now covered by workmen’s compensation during missions and approved training.

The name and location of the group changed through the years, from Tonto React in Star Valley to TRSAR in Payson and now Strawberry.

Pitterle joined the group eight years ago.

After a lifetime of safe outdoor adventures, Pitterle said he wanted a way to say thanks.

“I had often thought about joining a search and rescue as a way to give back,” he said. “The mountains have given me a lot over a lifetime and I have empathy for problems people get into. I have never needed to be rescued, but I have been in similar positions.”

Most volunteers echo a similar sentiment.

“We are familiar with how hard it (Mother Nature) can knock you around sometimes.”

To donate to TRSAR, visit www.TRSAR.org or call Pitterle at (928) 978-9105 or Dave Pirtle at (928) 970-3830.

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