Search and rescue volunteers were busy this past weekend with two rescues in the Hellsgate area east of Payson.
Tonto Rim Search and Rescue and the Gila County Sheriff’s Office helped an ill hiker to safety and then a Great Dane that had worn its pads down so badly it could not walk out with its owner.
The weekend started around 12:30 a.m., Sept. 20 when TRSAR Commander Bill Pitterle said he got a call from the GCSO about a very ill hiker on the Hellsgate Trail.
The man was roughly half a mile inside the wilderness boundary.
“Unable to reach the subjects by phone again to see if they could wait for a morning rescue, we decided we needed to go now and take quads and litter and wheel,” Pitterle said.
The group brought in three quads and a number of volunteers to head in and look for the group.
“We can get a quad to the wilderness boundary, but it is a very rough road, even for quads,” he said. “About a mile from the end, one of the quads broke down. We piled gear and people into the other two quads and continued to the wilderness boundary. We hiked down and found the subjects.”
The group had reportedly rested and then the ill hiker was able to hike out further, ultimately meeting up with TRSAR.
TRSAR put the hikers on the quads and started to drive them out.
“Part way back, a second quad broke an axle going up a steep hill. The third quad attempted to provide some assistance by towing it, but that quickly proved impossible and was causing problems with the drive belt,” he said. “So the third quad headed back to the trailhead with the subjects, and plans were made to recover the broken down quads. It took until the next day to repair the last quad and drive it out.”
With that exhausting rescue behind them, the group still held a rope training session the next day in Box Canyon.
“Because of the tall cliffs, it is often not possible to use a helicopter in there, so we have worked for years to perfect techniques to get someone out of the bottom of that canyon. This day was another day to perfect a highline rescue, and as is often the case, we learned a lot of things to try for the next time that will make it faster and more efficient,” he said.
Then Sunday morning, Pitterle received a call from the GCSO about Jesse, a 90-pound dog injured near the bottom of Hellsgate Canyon.
Crews are not normally committed for animal rescues as it pulls resources away from the district should a person need help. A GCSO official asked Pitterle what the best approach to getting the dog out was if by chance he had someone who could help.
“The sheriff’s office was committed to assisting, if for no other reason than they would likely be called to rescue the dog owner eventually,” Pitterle said.
“Having a recent Hellsgate rescue with three damaged quads seared in my memory, I recalled a couple of squad members who had gone into Hellsgate from the south side who said the trail could be a bit shorter, and not quite as rough a quad trip,” he said. “So I offered to go in order to see what this side was like for future reference for future rescues.”
The group hiked in and found Jesse, a Great Dane, along with his owner Chris and his friends.
“Jesse had worn the pads off of her paws,” said Alicia Keller with TRSAR. “Chris and his friend were on an overnight backpacking trip into Hellsgate Canyon. Chris realized the only way that they were going to get Jesse out was to call SAR.”
The group carried the dog out on a soft litter for miles before reaching an off-road vehicle and taking it back to the trailhead.
“We managed to get the dog out, but it was a tough trip,” said Pitterle. “A lot of people will get down on the dog owner for this, and maybe some of it is deserved, but this is extremely rough, rugged and unforgiving country that many don’t understand until they experience it firsthand. It’s why we live here, but it drives a lot of rescues too,” Pitterle said.