A fisherman with a battered knee who spent two nights in the wild, a woman with a broken ankle who needed the help of 19 rescuers and a helicopter extraction from Fossil Creek provided search and rescue teams with a strenuous preview of things to come.
Alas: Spring has barely hit Rim Country, but the rescue business is already booming.
Volunteer search and rescue members hit the trails the last two weekends in a row, rescuing hikers and an angler using ropes, pulleys, wheeled-litters and even a helicopter. The only rescue technique not trotted out were the horses.
The most dramatic rescue occurred near Haigler Creek, 34 miles east of Payson, at the start of the Hellsgate Wilderness.
A man in his 50s was trout fishing in the creek near the Alderwood Campground.
Just a short time into his trip, the man reportedly fell on some wet rocks, badly injuring his knee, said Bill Pitterle, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue commander.
The man’s family did not expect him home for another few days, so without a phone signal, the man waited by the creek, unable to walk.
Two days later, when the man did not arrive home, his concerned family called the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, who agreed to send out a helicopter in the morning.
The man’s two sons decided not to wait and drove up from the Valley to look for him themselves.
A short distance down the canyon, the boys found their father and called for help.
TRSAR’s rope team determined it was easier to haul the man out vertically than hike down and carry him out.
“We determined it would be really rough coming up that canyon,” he said. “It is much easier to go vertical if we can — it makes for a more straightforward mission.”
The team found an area 400 feet above the man and rigged a pulley system.
Once the man was out, he was airlifted to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
Pitterle said he did not know what provisions the man had, but since he was near a creek, he had plenty of water.
For both the man and rescuers, it was quite an ordeal, Pitterle said.
On Saturday afternoon, the sheriff’s office called TRSAR for another mission.
This time, a woman in her 20s, weighing at least 300 pounds, had snapped her ankle hiking the steep trail down to the Tonto Natural Bridge.
The woman had not yet reached the bridge at the bottom of the trail when she fell.
Using a wheeled litter, 19 TRSAR volunteers took turns helping carry the woman up and out, said Dave Pirtle, TRSAR vice commander.
Pirtle said people often underestimate the strenuousness of the trail.
Fossil Springs rescue
Another area that is also often misjudged is the upper trail into Fossil Springs.
The Forest Service has closed the road to the creek so the steep Fossil Creek Trail provides the only access on the Rim Country side of the canyon.
Every summer, TRSAR helps dozens of dehydrated, injured and lost hikers off the trail.
The trail is quite manageable, however, if you are prepared, Pirtle said. Volunteers often find hikers with one bottle of water, wearing flip-flops and hiking during the heat of the day.
TRSAR is working with several groups, including the Forest Service, to get signs posted warning hikers of the dangers.
TRSAR is also getting help from the Gila County Mounted Posse, a group of search and rescue volunteers with horses.
“Since we have joined up with the posse they have been a big help getting people out,” he said. “Those guys are amazing, I can’t say enough good things about them.”
The posse, which formed a year ago, is holding a dinner and dance benefit May 12 at the Oxbow Saloon from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. The event will also pay tribute to Larry Woolsey, who lost his life last year on a search and rescue mission in Star Valley.
On TRSAR’s most recent mission into Fossil Springs, the horses stayed in the barn, but a helicopter saddled up.
On March 31, a couple that had hiked down the trail for a day of swimming missed the trail turnoff on their way out. The couple hiked a mile up the canyon, getting thoroughly turned around.
Three people who had hiked out earlier grew concerned when the pair did not return after several hours, especially since one of them was diabetic, Pitterle said.
Three teams of search and rescue volunteers hiked into the canyon and had just reached the bottom of the three-mile trail when a helicopter spotted the couple and picked them up.