They spend hours and sometimes days out in the wilderness looking for lost and injured hikers and ask nothing in return.

On Saturday, Sept. 11, one of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue’s longtime volunteers died doing the thing he lived for — training for rescues in some remote corner of the wilderness.

Larry Johnston, 67, was taking part in a swiftwater training exercise in the Salt River Canyon north of Globe when he reported feeling ill, according to a press release from the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.

“The team had just started some kayak evolutions when Larry started feeling weak and dizzy, a very unusual thing for Larry, one of the squad’s strongest members, and a triathlete Ironman competitor,” said TRSAR Commander Bill Pitterle.

Medical personnel on scene evaluated Johnston, and they transported him to the hospital in Globe, according to Sheriff Adam Shepherd.

“While he was being transported, his condition worsened, and lifesaving measures were initiated. Upon arrival at the hospital, efforts continued, but were unsuccessful,” he said.

Johnston died at Cobre Valley Regional Medical Center.

Johnston was a member of TRSAR for the last seven years.

“He would respond to almost all rescues and participated in many training sessions to hone his skills. Larry volunteered his time to keep the citizens and visitors of Gila County safe,” Shepherd said. “Larry was an outstanding member of Tonto Rim Search and Rescue and his willingness to help others was his true passion.”

A GoFundMe page has been established for Johnston’s family to assist with funeral expenses, https://gofund.me/f6de9a28.

“Our hearts are breaking for the loss of this great man who loved to serve others,” according to the GoFundMe page. “He was a chiropractor who loved to help others live a healthy, happy lifestyle. He found so much joy in living life! He loved whitewater rafting, running marathons, triathlons and finishing not one, not two, but four Ironmans! He made memories with his family and showed his love for us by spending time with us. He loved canyoneering, hiking, and being outdoors soaking up this beautiful world! ... We find it very appropriate that our hero, who we always called for help, was called home on 9/11.”

Pitterle provided the following information on Johnston

Larry joined the squad in September 2014 and brought a wealth of technical skills that he was always happy to share with the squad. His passion was canyoneering, a sport that has received a lot of attention in recent years, and as a rescue team in Gila County, we have discovered many of those canyoneering canyons are right here in Gila County. “The Jug,” Parker Creek, Water Slides Canyon, Shake Tree Canyon, are some of their names. If we ever had a rescue in some remote canyon, we would contact Larry — and he had likely been there and knew the “beta” (route, equipment required, anchor locations, etc.) or knew where to find that information. Larry was certified by the American Canyoneering Association to train canyoneering leaders and instructors. He had been through many canyons in Arizona and Utah and participated in the Canyoneering Rendezvous that was held annually at Roosevelt Lake. Many of these canyons are in extremely remote areas, and Larry would often say that “sometimes you just need to go down the gut” of the canyon in order to perform an efficient search and rescue operation. He demonstrated this by saving a life by going “down the gut” of a canyon to reach a subject who was in severe hypothermia. Larry peeled off his own drysuit and put it on the hypothermic subject so they could swim another mile in the icy water to a point where a helicopter could pull them out. Because of this incident and several similar missions, Larry created a Canyoneering Rescue Team within Tonto Rim Search and Rescue. One of his dreams was to create the best canyoneering team in the state of Arizona.

Larry had a passion for teaching youth and worked with scouting and other youth programs, teaching rope skills. Through his years he talked hundreds, if not thousands, of young men and women through the jitters and nerves of their first rappel over the edge and down the face of a cliff. He would set up multiple stations and float between them, always sensing where someone needed encouragement to get over the edge, sometimes rappelling side-by-side with them to give them confidence just so they could feel that euphoric feeling of overcoming their fears and trusting their hands and a strand of rope.

Larry was a perpetual student of technical skills of any kind, especially of rope skills. He often attended workshops anywhere he could find one, knew the strengths and weaknesses of any and all knots, ropes, webbing, carabiners, and any other gear we used, and was always on the lookout for ways to improve our skills. If we were considering a new piece of technical gear, he would borrow it and analyze/test every aspect of it, and then could talk about its advantages and weaknesses in any situation where it might be used. He even borrowed one of our old steel litters and it is said to be hanging in one of the rooms of his house where he would practice with it. He built highline systems for fun in his backyard and could relay to us by his own, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the different rope rescue systems we might employ during a rescue operation.

Larry was certified on the TRSAR rope rescue team and attended the Ropes That Rescue 7-day Mountain Rescue workshop in Sedona. He was certified every three years for swiftwater rescue. He was also one of the TRSAR squad members trained to rappel from a DPS helicopter. This highly specialized skill requires an annual training, as well as a currency certification every 120 days. This skill also included training and certification for helicopter water rescue every two years due to the flash flooding we often have here in Gila County.

Larry was involved in 100 missions during his time in Tonto Rim Search and Rescue. He was always willing to take on the most difficult missions and the most difficult tasks within a mission. He spent many days on Tonto Creek during the Willa search, taking on the deepest and fastest water, and always wanted to start early and work late. His missions list read like a “where in AZ?” Fossil Creek of course, Box Canyon, Four Peaks, Salt River Canyon, Sabino Canyon, Madera Canyon, Water Wheel, Waterslides Canyon, Salome Canyon, Parker Creek, etc. Occasionally we might decide to defer a mission until morning in order to plan and get equipment ready and in place. I would always get a text from Larry “Why not now?? If it was your mother or grandmother!! ...”, and often we would go “now” as a result of that.

One of my more memorable missions with Larry was a search near Cibecue for 72-year-old Ann Rogers, who had been missing for 11 days by the time we were called in. A lot of ground had been covered, and we were looking for some search area to cover to wrap up the afternoon. I found a canyon that did not appear to have been searched thoroughly, and Larry, always wanting to start early and work late, said, sure, I’ll cover that with you. We geared up and headed into the canyon, and about half a mile into it, I found a set of boot tracks, washed out by weather, wind, and snow. We went further, and I found a confirming set of tracks, so we reported it to Command. Command launched a DPS helicopter from Flagstaff. DPS arrived overhead just as we found a confirming set of tracks heading down Canyon Creek. DPS located Ann alive a few minutes later. Larry and I shared tears of joy at that news deep in Canyon Creek, knowing that thanks to our doubling of efforts on a long, tiring day, we saved a life deep in a very remote wilderness.

Larry was in his element anywhere outdoors, whether training, recreating, or rescuing. He took joy from it and there was always a ready smile and encouragement, no matter the weather, the temperature. He wanted others to succeed, and he was someone you wanted with you if things got rough because he always had a plan A, and if that didn’t work, a plan B, plan C, and plan D. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Larry saved me once from being pinned on a log-strainer during a kayak search on the Verde River. I think we were on plan C by the time he got me out of there, but I knew there was a plan D and plan E being worked on in his mind.

Larry was a friend. We will miss him.

Contact the editor at abechman@payson.com

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(1) comment

Mike White

Very nice tribute from Bill Pitterle for Larry Johnston. You can tell Bill spent time putting together thoughts from his mind and feelings from his heart. One of the better tributes I have read.

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