The metal basket jerked side to side then suddenly fell free, sliding down the rocky 300-foot cliff in a remote canyon north of Roosevelt Lake. I clutched the camera to my chest. Strapped in like a mummy, I was helpless to do anything but take a picture.
“Rock!” I heard someone scream from above. I looked up. Instantly, I realized this was a bad idea. So I tucked my head into the metal litter as far as I could, protected by rocks tumbling down from above by a tiny metal lip. I instantly regretted I had suggested the team take off a scratched up plastic rock guard and braced myself.
A rock tumbled by a few feet away. I looked up and Anthony Miotto smiled back warmly. “Sorry about that,” he said, struggling to find his footing on the slippery vertical slope as he rappelled.
We had only descended 10 feet.
I looked down, 100 feet to the bottom of a dark, vast abyss. I imagined free falling and smacking the smooth granite below.
“Hey are you doing, OK?” asked Gary Hall, vice commander of the squad and my cliffside flight attendant. He coaxed the litter down the cliff, periodically reminding me to keep my arms inside. “I think you were hyperventilating there for a minute.”
“Nope,” I stammered, “just fine.”
Miotto and Hall were among a group of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue volunteers who gleefully used me as their dummy during a recent training mission in Salome Canyon as the Gila County Mounted Posse volunteers looked on.
A climber since my teens, I had never been at the end of a rope I had no control over.
Lying supine in the litter, clipped in snug, I soon felt as anxious as any rescue victim — although I was not injured.
Hall tugged a series of colored ropes so the litter lay horizontal.
“There, is that better?” he asked, realizing all the blood was rushing to my head.
We crept down the cliff side, Hall strapped to the outside of the basket as he tugged at the ropes to keep us level. Occasionally, he lifted the entire weight of the basket to get us over a snag, then the basket would drop suddenly. I never knew what was coming next.
It would be the longest ride of my life.
The canyon calls
You couldn’t hear it that day, but just a few weeks earlier, helicopter blades had whipped noisily through the canyon, drowning out the moans from a badly injured hiker lying in a pool below.
The 25-year-old Goodyear man lay there hours, his head badly gashed. While canyoneering with friends, the man had fallen from a waterfall when an anchor sling snapped, sending him tumbling 50 feet backward into a frigid pool. Friends managed to drag him out, but could do nothing to get him out of the canyon’s monolithic walls of carved granite.
So he lay there and waited. And waited, falling in and out of consciousness, one of many hikers and climbers needing rescue in canyons like Salome, Parker and Hellsgate.
Many are amateurs, up from the Valley with a group of friends and not a clue what they are getting into. Others are experienced, but make a mistake.
Last year, TRSAR helped two people injured in Salome who were learning how to canyoneer with a guide service.
Another group only brought one rope and harness for a dozen people. The harness was shuttled up and down so each person could rappel. A father canyoneering with his children behind the group soon found themselves hours behind schedule.
With night closing in, the frightened children refused to rappel down the final waterfall. Helpless, the father hiked out and called for help and rescuers had to pull them out using the litter.
Other hikers have slipped and broken an ankle or landed hard on a knee, leaving them unable to complete the rugged hike out. That is where TRSAR and the Mounted Posse step in.
Canyoneering is growing in popularity every year, at least if you count the number of rescues. One of the most technical sports, it combines, hiking, swimming, climbing and requires a solid understanding of knots, ropes and general fitness.
But the sport attracts a lot of beginners with little skill. Most lack the proper equipment, as evidenced by a Home Depot rope found by rescuers at one waterfall.
In the most recent rescue, TRSAR and the Mounted Posse were among the first called.
While the team had rigged ropes throughout the canyon, they had never done so in the lower half of the canyon, one of the deepest sections.
Commander Bill Pitterle instructed the team to set up a series of ropes and pullies so they could pull the man out on the litter.
They had never done it before and didn’t even know if they had enough rope.
As they worked, a brave helicopter pilot decided to descend into the narrow space between the walls of the canyon. With the propeller blades just a few dozen feet from the canyon walls, he got close enough to the ground for a medic to rappel off the skid.
The Mounted Posse’s Larry White watched from the canyon lip. He could see the pilot’s hands work frantically to keep the helicopter steady. He later recalled it as one of the most awesome sights he had ever seen.
With the man loaded onto the litter, the pilot rose straight up between those rocky walls. With night closing in, TRSAR put away their ropes before they tested the feasibility of a lift. At home later, Pitterle wondered if they could pull off a rescue there without risking the helicopter.
TRSAR decided to return and give it another go, this time without the time pressures of a real mission and a reporter posing as the victim.
The first thing you realize about a search and rescue mission is the amount of gear needed.
Pulling into the Salome Canyon trailhead, a dozen TRSAR and half a dozen Mounted Posse volunteers filed out of their dusty pickup trucks and SUVs and laid out an impressive pile of stuff.
They soon had a pile of packs of rope, bags of carabineers and cams and even large metal poles of mysterious purpose.
Thanks to a unique partnership between the squad and Mounted Posse, horses and donkeys haul most of the gear. This means the TRSAR volunteers only have to haul their own food and water.
And TRSAR still has to haul the litter to the pickoff spot, not an easy task given its size and weight.
Once on scene, volunteers busily lay out the gear, setting up an anchor, putting together a tower with those metal poles and rappelling down to check for loose rocks. No one gives orders — everyone seems to know their role.
That comes from years of experience. GCSO Deputy Jim Blackburn formed the group in 1964 to assist in rescues in the Pine-Strawberry area. At that time, one deputy took care of all of the rescues, but the number of calls soon grew too numerous to handle. The squad helped people stuck in the snow and lost or injured hikers.
Today, TRSAR responds to about 30 missions a year. One of the busiest locations is Fossil Creek, where people frequently get lost, twist an ankle or run out of water on the steep, exposed trail.
On call 24/7, TRSAR is always ready to respond.
No one gets paid and members often even have to cover their own expenses.
Remarkably, at every call, at least a handful of volunteers show up.
Most are retired with just a few volunteers under 50. Their age doesn’t show though. They rarely complain, even after hours and hours of work.
After several hours of rigging at the lip of Salome Canyon, TRSAR was ready to load me into the litter and send me over the edge. Peeking over the edge of the cliff, I asked Pitterle if he still thought this was a good idea.
He just laughed.
I gingerly stepped into the basket and faked a smile.
“You look like a professional,” said one woman.
Right: Professional fool.
Usually in rescues, the litter goes down empty and comes up with a grateful victim.
This time, I got the reverse trip.
Fortunately, I couldn’t look down to the dizzying drop below. Unfortunately, I also couldn’t see enough to brace for falls, rocks or trees.
As we descended the cliff-face, the basket bounced off the rock several times, dropping out from under me like the Disney Tower of Terror ride.
More comforting than any amusement ride attendant, Hall catered to my every need as he guided the litter down the cliff.
If I needed them to stop so I could take a picture he would radio to crews above. If I stopped breathing, he nudged me. If a look of terror passed over my face, he asked if everything was OK. In short, I felt like the most important person in the world — both to Hall and every one of the volunteers on scene.
I was the priority — the victim. They focused on keeping me safe — even happy.
Most victims, however, are injured, some severely. TRSAR volunteers are not trained medically and can offer no drugs or relief beyond a bottle of water. I asked Hall about coping with those injuries.
“Sometimes you just have to tune out the screaming,” he said, “and know you are doing the best you can.”
A litter ride is anything but calm or smooth. Despite his best attempts, we smashed against the granite walls repeatedly. I can’t imagine what that would feel like with a broken femur.
After what felt like an hour, Hall and I reached the bottom of Salome Canyon. I got out and kissed the ground. Then a rock whizzed by and struck the sand, leaving a crater. I ducked under an overhang, one rock from a real rescue.
For the next several hours, the rest of the squad would rappel down into the canyon and join us. After swimming through the pools and hiking out, we convened back at the top. Pitterle declared the mission a success.
As we made the grueling 2.5-mile hike out, I quickly realized I was not the victim anymore. Pitterle hung a string of climbing gear around my neck and I grabbed a side of the litter. It took several hours to hike out, the litter loaded down with packs.
Back at the trailhead 10 hours after having left the vehicles, we found no welcoming committee — not so much as a cold drink. But that’s normal.
Volunteers give everything they have to every mission and only get back the satisfaction of knowing they helped.
But on the hour-long drive back to Payson, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Despite the bruises, exhaustion and sunburn, it ranked as one of the best days with some of the best people.