Local search and rescue groups put an inventive, horse-based hauling technique to test this weekend to rescue an injured hiker in the recently re-opened Fossil Creek.
Although Tonto Rim Search and Rescue and the Gila County Mounted Posse had successfully tested hitching a wheeled rescue litter behind a horse, they had never used it on a real mission.
On Saturday evening, a woman hiking with family grew faint and complained of shortness of breath and chest pains near the bottom of Fossil Creek trail, still the only way down to the popular creek from the Strawberry side.
After reportedly passing out briefly, it was clear the woman could not hike out and rescuers would likely need to haul her out.
The Gila County Sheriff’s Office called on both rescue groups and the Pine-Strawberry Fire Department to make the 3.5-mile trek into the canyon, which includes a 1,600-foot change in elevation.
In the past, rescues like this meant TRSAR volunteers would have to pull and carry the wheeled litter up the rugged canyon, requiring dozens of volunteers and hours of effort.
The formation of the mounted posse lifted a huge weight from the weary search and rescue volunteers. When hikers have minor injuries, the posse can now ride them out on horseback, saving search and rescue’s time and their backs.
Sunday’s mission was a culmination of this new partnership.
“It was an awesome mission because it is the first time we jointly helped someone out,” said TRSAR Commander Bill Pitterle.
Using two ropes, volunteers attached the litter to the horse. A posse member then rode the horse out while six volunteers guided the litter over rocks.
“It really, really worked well,” Pitterle said. “It wasn’t that it was easy, but it was a whole lot easier.”
By 1:30 a.m., volunteers made it to the trailhead.
The way the ropes wrap around the litter make it easy for volunteers to detach the stretcher from the horse should the animal get spooked, Pitterle said. The rider can also release the connection between the litter and the horse.
Earlier on Saturday, the mounted posse successfully brought another hiker out to safety. This time, volunteers responded to Salome Jug for a dehydrated 15-year-old girl. Volunteers gave the teen water and rode her out to the trailhead.