The callout comes at 11:15 a.m. on a hot, muggy Sunday: ankle injury at waterfall off the lower Fossil Creek Trail. It is barely enough information to fill an index card, but Bill Pitterle knows he’s in for a long, hot, weary day.
Pitterle, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue’s commander, grabs his cell phone and records a voice message, which automatically goes to every member of the team. He asks for help, but has no idea how many of the volunteers will respond.
For him, there is no time to wrap up a programming project he is in the midst of or barely tell his wife where he is going. A woman has been waiting in pain for hours for their help.
An hour later, he sighs with relief when he spots a dozen volunteers dressed in neon orange shirts at the trailhead; a dusty pickup loaded down with rescue gear next to each. They’re the same handful of couples and individuals who show up for nearly every mission no matter the day, time, weather or location.
They exchange few words in the oppressive heat, intently gathering up their gear. After working dozens of these together, they know who will grab the metal litter, the wheel and the water.
Each stuffs half a dozen water bottles in their bag, along with gloves, rope, GPS devices, maps and snacks. They don’t know what they will find at the end of the trail or how long it will be until they see their vehicles again.
It could be like the missions in April at Salome Canyon, where two hikers injured their ankles canyoneering and the group had to help carry them out. That took hours. Or like that time in October of 2011 when Pitterle had to climb down into a whirlpool like Spiderman and pull out a 22-year-old woman.
With the creek running low, the group leaves behind their swift-water rescue gear for this mission. It won’t be like the time they had to pull a man clinging to a boulder in the middle of a storm-swollen Tonto Creek in Box Canyon.
And they won’t need their bags of climbing ropes, harness and pulleys to lift the injured woman out as they had to in January when a flash flood stranded two teens at the bottom of Tonto Natural Bridge, requiring a 200-foot rappel in sleeting rain.
The 30 to 60 calls TRSAR answers each year range widely in scope and difficulty, including injured hikers with ghastly wounds, grueling searches for the lost — and sometimes the somber task of carrying a body out over miles of rugged trail. They don’t get paid — so they have no days off. In fact, they’re most likely to get the call when everyone else is enjoying their vacation time. That is when things really heat up for members of northern Gila County’s all-volunteer search and rescue crew, each dedicated to a “hobby” that demands training and stamina.
On any other job, you’d call that crazy. But these volunteers live to help.
An elite group, they bring to the task training in technical rope and swift-water rescues, tracking and other skills.
On today’s mission are Jim McMillion, one of the group’s best trackers and their tracking instructor. He helps carry the metal litter out to the injured hiker in Fossil Creek, packing his tracking skills away for the day.
Also on the team are Roger Miotto, Darrell Floyd and Warner Thompson, all graduates of long-rope rescue classes at Ropes That Rescue in Sedona.
Several other members on the mission are also on the rope rescue team.
“So if we need it, we could construct just about anything we needed, from vertical lifts to high lines,” Pitterle says.
The group trudges down the path in the 100-degree heat past the crystal blue creek. Along its banks hoards of families lounge in the cool spring water, enjoying their time off.
Toe-whacking travertine rocks litter the trail, slowing the group’s progress. Still, from what they know Pitterle says they should make it back out in a just a few hours.
Then again, “we go in for one and come out with three sometimes,” he laughs.
After just 15 minutes on the trail, the group finds a woman huddled up against the side of the trail, a glazed look in her eyes. They ask if she needs more water. She says no and holds up a near-empty water bottle.
They insist on refilling her bottle.
Volunteers ask everyone they meet on the trail if they need more water. Nearly all say no, although most don’t have any visible water on them.
The group knows they may run into many of those hikers on the way out again.
They finally reach the waterfall. Amidst the bellyflops, flip-flops, coolers and water fights, they find the 21-year-old woman laying flat on her back, ankle propped up on rocks.
Her friends say while her tears have stopped, the pain is so bad she can barely move. They explain they had come to Fossil Springs, a first for most, for a fun escape from the heat and school. The woman, they say, is a student pilot at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott. Like most water-goers, they had enjoyed swimming in the deep pool near the waterfall and decided to climb up behind the waterfall and jump through. While everyone else made it safely, the woman’s leg struck a rock, breaking her ankle.
The group carried her to the shore and laid her down. There she sat for four hours, awaiting rescue.
Around her, things quickly went back to normal. The folks on their day off just walked around her, no doubt figuring someone else would know what to do.
Some seemed surprised to see so many rescuers tending to the woman.
“All this for that girl?” one person says to their friends.
“We’ll let you carry her out then,” a volunteer says.
Crews gingerly load the woman onto the litter and toil back to the trailhead, hand-carrying the litter over the rock-strewn trail, careful not to bump her. With paramedics looking over her, the woman is calm the whole way out, never saying more than a few words of thanks.
All is quiet again as volunteers put away their gear, but then they notice dozens of hikers sitting off on the side of the road. Others have started the long trudge up the steep road. Since the Forest Service closed the road, many creek-goers hike the road into Fossil Creek.
“We better pick them up,” the group agrees, since they have a key to get past the locked gate at the top of the road.
Each volunteer picks up half a dozen hikers and ferries them to the top in their vehicle.
“This one was a nice straightforward mission, no complications,” Pitterle says. “Some wind up being canceled before they start, some are unbelievably complicated and physical, some morph into multiple missions. The folks who were out there could have and would have assembled the most complicated rope rescue scenario required if it was necessary.”
Approximately 30 percent of TRSAR’s missions each year are technical, requiring ropes or swift-water equipment. These missions require tons of gear, drawn together from scattered storage locations. Pitterle said TRSAR hopes to raise enough money to secure a building that can hold meetings, trainings and equipment.
“Response time is critical for injuries, heat or cold emergencies, and especially for missing children,” he said. “We could greatly improve our mission response time with a dedicated facility in the Payson area.”
For now, the group takes their gear home; their trucks loaded down and ready to go for the next callout. It may come for someone lost in Fossil Creek or injured in Salome Canyon or a child missing in the woods. Wherever it is and whenever it is, they’ll be waiting.
For more information or to donate, visit www.trsar.org.