It started like any other search and rescue: a call for help.
Five members of a church group hiking the Barnhardt Trail Saturday had not returned.
Then airplanes flying into Phoenix detected a distress signal from a personal locator beacon south of Payson near where the group said they were going.
Was someone hurt badly? Could crews get to them in time? And exactly where were they?
Search and rescue personnel knew they needed to act quickly, but carefully. Carelessly rushing in could wind up with rescuers themselves hurt or lost, especially in the day’s cold, snowy conditions.
Luckily, it was all just a test.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office set up the mock mission and invited the Civil Air Patrol, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue (TRSAR) and the Gila County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse to participate.
With the rescue season warming up, rescuers are hosting several mock missions, including another this weekend, to test their responses and work out any kinks before the real calls roll in.
Every summer, TRSAR responds to dozens of calls for help. Volunteers often devote hours bringing water to dehydrated hikers, guiding or carrying them out.
This is only the second year for the mounted posse, which is working with TRSAR to alleviate some of the heavy lifting.
Horseback volunteers helped on 18 missions in Fossil Creek last year, frequently carrying injured and dehydrated hikers out.
TRSAR members have sung the praises of the 46-member mounted posse who can go places no hiker could.
Riders helped find a lost child in a remote, rugged canyon north of the airport in the summer of 2010. After the success of that mission, the posse formed under the leadership of Earl Chitwood, who was among the riders that found the boy.
“We feel strongly about the need of a horse-mounted search posse,” Chitwood said.
On Saturday’s mock mission, the mounted posse again played a critical role.
As search and rescuers gathered at the Barnhardt trailhead, organizers doled out duties.
The Civil Air Patrol took off from Payson’s airport at 9:30 a.m. and looked for the missing group from the air.
On the ground, the GCSO’s portable signal locator picked up a distress signal coming from up the canyon.
“The Civil Air Patrol was able to confirm the direction quickly, but due to very rough air from the storm, was not able to get a visual of anything in the canyon near where the signal appeared to be coming from,” said Bill Pitterle, commander with the TRSAR.
The mounted posse took the portable locator and less than 30 minutes later, had found three subjects, one with a mock leg injury.
“When we learned of the injury and that it was in a difficult location in the bottom of the canyon and would require rope rescue assistance, we dispatched a rope rescue team and utilized a mounted posse donkey to haul gear,” Pitterle said.
In past missions, TRSAR has hauled injured hikers from canyons using a complicated system of pulleys and ropes. While safe and effective, it takes time to set up and lots of manpower to haul up the injured.
This mission was different.
With the help of horses, the injured hiker was put on a stretcher and the litter pulled by a horse.
“We invented a special way to connect the stretcher onto the horse that is safe,” said Chitwood.
“This marked the first time we used horses to assist with a litter carryout in a realistic, rugged environment,” Pitterle said.
While the mounted posse worked with the injured party, also on the trail, search and rescue dogs looked for two other missing hikers from the group.
“The dog teams had a difficult time getting on a trail, possibly due to snow flurries all day, as well as high winds,” Pitterle said. “They were working in the right direction, and the tracking team was on a track, albeit a very difficult one in such rocky terrain, when the lost subjects walked out.”
With everyone found safely and no accidents, rescuers declared the mock mission a success.
“Communications is always difficult when dealing with multiple agencies, but we found ways to make it all work well,” he said. “There are always improvements we can make, and mock missions are a good place to learn those. We have trained together and have a system in place, but this was a real test of it and it worked well.”