A woman desperately clung to a rope in a Fossil Creek whirlpool Thursday, her head barely above water for hours as she waited for rescue.
It took a few helicopter trips, rigging and the clever work of rescuers to get the woman out of the chilly pool. One rescuer called it one of the most difficult rescues he had done, combining technical rope gear in swift water currents mid-way up a wall.
The 22-year-old was swimming with a friend near an old dam in upper Fossil Creek when she took a dip in a deep pool.
“The stream splits and part of it flows into this bowl and the rest flows down the channel,” said Bill Pitterle, commander of the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue. “There is a strong flow into the bowl and it had the effect of creating a strong, clockwise current.”
While some people exit the 12-foot-deep pool by swimming through an underwater arch back into the main stream, the woman was afraid to let go of the rope.
With slick, vertical walls, the woman couldn’t get herself out and her friend thought she had drowned when he couldn’t see her from the lower pool.
He called for help just after noon and it took rescuers nearly an hour to reach the site.
A Department of Public Safety helicopter dropped a medic off at the creek and flew back to the command center to get Pitterle.
The medic crossed a narrow ledge and reached the woman, but could do nothing to haul her out without proper equipment. He rigged an anchor by slinging a rock and waited.
“When I arrived, the helicopter circled once so I could see and I realized we would need to get her into a harness and haul her out of that hole, so I called back to have TRSAR Warner Thompson bring the pickoff harness attached to our litter,” Pitterle said.
“I got to the ledge the same way the medic did — by crossing the stream above the bowl, then skirting the edge of it above it. This is travertine and extremely slick in wet shoes, so it took awhile to get around.”
Pitterle lowered a flotation device to the woman, but she couldn’t get it on. Instead, he tied a number of knots onto a new rope, making it slightly easier for her to hold on.
Pitterle then clipped himself into the anchor and lowered himself into the water. Working against the strong current, Pitterle secured a harness around the woman. By this time, the woman had already been in the water for nearly two hours.
“By then she had lost feeling in her arms and hands,” he said.
Thompson arrived on scene and rigged a pulley system.
“I clipped it to her and they were able to pull her out quickly. They lowered it back down and pulled me out,” Pitterle said.
Out of the water, the woman was very unstable on her feet. Rescuers rigged a rope line along the ledge above the bowl and helped her traverse the slick lip.
A DPS helicopter flew her and her friend back to the trailhead, where she was checked out and later refused medical treatment.
Hours later, the DPS Ranger helicopter crew helped another woman, this time lost near Horton Springs.
The woman was reportedly planning to hike a loop when she missed the Derrick Trail turnoff and got lost. She called for help around 7:20 p.m. and the helicopter crew spotted her from the air and directed sheriff’s deputies to her location.
The hiker was found safe and escorted back to her vehicle.