What drives a person to survive when all else seems hopeless? When the weather is not only relentless, but there are other setbacks?
For a group of climbers stuck on a snowy mountain in Sedona last month, it could very well have been knowing that a team of rescuers was doing everything they could to reach them.
Facing near certain frostbite and death if rescuers could not reach them, Tonto Rim Search and Rescue knew they had to act fast even if it meant putting their own lives and gear on the line.
Like most good adventure stories this one is filled with challenges and setbacks, but also hope.
TRSAR Commander Bill Pitterle awoke just after midnight on Jan. 25 to a call from Lt. Dennis Newman with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office. He knew the call meant one thing: someone needed help.
For the past few days, a winter storm had dumped several feet of snow on Rim Country and northern Arizona, producing icy and near white-out conditions.
It was during the height of this storm that Pitterle received Newman’s call.
“I describe this rescue as relentlessly challenging, as so many factors continually lined up against us and the three subjects stranded in a canyon,” Pitterle said as he reflected on the mission.
Pitterle learned the three climbers, all from out of state, had planned to complete a multi-pitch rappel into a canyon near Sedona. They had completed one rappel when “the relentless snow caught up with them.”
“As everyone who went through this storm knows, it was relentless in its power and ability to drop snow, and especially for the fact there were just no breaks in the weather,” he said. “This would have been an easy helicopter rescue for the location of the subjects if not for the relentless weather, which grounded any helicopter rescue attempt.”
The group was prepared to spend a few hours on the mountain. They had jackets, small packs and a space blanket, but the wind had shredded it.
“They had only each other to face survival in extreme conditions.”
The group found an alcove to huddle in to block the worst of the storm.
Newman asked Pitterle if he could bring TRSAR’s drone and deliver supplies to the group so they could survive the night or until a rescue helicopter could respond.
“My first thought was not, ‘Could I fly a drone in the dark in the middle of a snowstorm?’ My first thought was what I knew the subjects were up against because I have found myself in that extremely uncomfortable situation, although with better gear,” Pitterle said. “These subjects were in a serious, life-threatening situation. I had to try.”
While working in Oregon, Pitterle said he learned the ropes of winter mountaineering in the Cascades. When he planned to hike several big peaks he trained by summiting smaller mountains.
“One of the best ways to train for the harsh conditions encountered on the big peaks is to train on smaller peaks that are easier to get to, but do it in the worst winter storms and learn how to deal with severe weather conditions,” he said. “I had one peak in particular that I would use for this training. It was close, easy to get to, and in the summer, it was an hour and a half walkup. But in the winter and during storms, it was a 50-50 proposition to summit.”
Pitterle said when they reached a halfway point in their designated time to summit and we were not there, they would say “The Mountain Won,” and turn back.
“There were several things that would contribute to ‘the mountain winning’ — the weight of the gear we needed to carry to survive if things went wrong and we had an unplanned overnight bivy, the changing conditions that required a change from crampons to snowshoes, and back again, rope protection, losing trails in dense snow or fog, and the psychology of dense snow, fog, and wind closing down our world that we had to learn to fight through.”
When Pitterle arrived on scene in Sedona at 4 a.m. the on-scene commander said it was only a quarter mile hike to the subjects, who were then several hundred feet above in an alcove.
He launched the drone, but was unable to locate the climbers because of the dense snow.
Rescuers knew the group was alive because every hour they would call and report their status.
“These calls became their lifeline and were important to us as rescuers to keep on trying, and to our subjects to know that teams were trying to get to them with supplies.”
Pitterle offered to call in TRSAR’s canyoneering team, who train for missions just like this throughout the year.
There were several other search and rescue groups also on scene. A plan was formed to send 10 volunteers up from multiple agencies with enough gear, food, and shelter to deliver to the group as they awaited a helicopter.
With the heavy snowfall, dense fog, and nearly two feet of snow, it took the “extremely fit group” seven hours to make the three-mile approach up 2,000 feet to the first rappel point.
By this time darkness compounded the dense fog and snow. Another setback.
A Blackhawk helicopter crew from the National Guard agreed to attempt a rescue during a brief break in the weather. But as they made their way up into the canyon, they could not locate the climbers.
“This was heartbreaking for our subjects, to hear a helicopter so close, yet so far away, and then to hear it disappear in the falling darkness.”
It was now dark and snowing. A two-person rescue team rappelled down to the climbers.
“After all, they were only a quarter mile and one rappel away by this point.”
The team lowered the first member, but they inadvertently went down the wrong canyon. In the light of day, it was only a matter of a few feet of difference between the two routes.
The only way out was for the group to ascend the ropes. They stayed the night where they were and ascended out with their 60-pound packs in tow the next day.
In the meantime, since there appeared to be no sign of the weather relenting, a second canyoneer team left to rappel into the correct canyon.
“Since we had sent most of the spare cold weather gear with the first team, we dipped into expensive personal gear that we normally never part with on the chance it never comes back for whatever reason,” he said.
This second team launched at 4 a.m. Tuesday. In yet another setback, snow obliterated the tracks of the 10-person team from the day before, and they had to break trail through two feet of snow all over again. It took seven hours for the team to reach the camp at the summit.
Then at 2:30 p.m., the command post got a final phone call from the climbers as their cellphone batteries were depleted. Their speech was slurred, and they had indications of frostbite.
“Just one break, just one, is all we collectively prayed for.”
The National Guard had been monitoring from the airport, and late that afternoon when it appeared to be getting dire, they launched to see if anything at all could be done.
As the Blackhawk helicopter arrived on scene, the clouds lifted enough to where rescuers could reach the climbers and they hoisted up to the helicopter one at a time.
With the climbers finally safe, the two rescue teams now had to find their way off the mountain.
The first team was still ascending and hauling gear up out of the slot canyon. They abandoned their gear and the helicopter gave them a lift out.
“Gear, all that expensive gear, had to be abandoned, and was blown off the cliff by the rotor wash when the last team of rescuers was extracted.”
The helicopter also pulled the second team out in the increasing fog and snow.
“Maybe ‘The mountain did not win’ ultimately, but it sure brought the lessons.”
Afterward, Pitterle said he had many sleepless nights thinking about how things could have gone differently and he said they continue to train to improve their skills.
“Thanks to the generosity of the people of Gila County and the state of Arizona, this group of volunteers has the gear to at least make the attempt in such dire circumstances, and we learned invaluable lessons about some additional things we need for the next time one of these rescue missions comes up. And we will have other rescues like this.”
As members of TRSAR were in Sedona, back in Rim Country, the rest of TRSAR was kept busy answering six snow rescue calls over a four-day period.
Days later, Pitterle received an email from Allen Clark, director of the Emergency Management Division for the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA), that put everything into perspective.
“To our public safety and emergency management teams. Please accept, on behalf of Arizona Emergency Management, our sincere thanks and appreciation related to the rescue mission whereby three climbers were saved on January 26, 2021. As the state’s emergency manager, I felt both helpless and encouraged when I heard about the lost climbers. Helpless because no matter what we tried, drones along with air and ground support, weather conditions made it impossible to reach the stranded crew. However, I truly believe that one can survive much longer if they know that someone cares and is making every effort to rescue them. Therefore, I was encouraged knowing that the best of the best, you and those that work with you, were doing everything possible to save them. Without doubt, I suspect the three would not be alive today minus all of your heroic efforts to devise plans or actually attempt to reach them.”
This is why they train. Why they put in so many hours.
“There is a psychological aspect to people who survive dire survival situations like our subjects were in, and that aspect is hope. A canyoneering trip that should have taken six or seven hours became a three-day survival event, and we could not get to them in two days of trying. But we tried, and we tried, and we tried again,” he said.
For more information on TRSAR, visit TRSAR.org.