Sunday, November 15, at 9 a.m., a damsel in distress sat on a trail-side rock three-quarters of the way up Camelback Mountain. She was 29, but looked younger, and dressed as if she were going to the health club. She had hyperextended her knee, then grown nervous over the climb down.
The first hiker to pass offered her ice from his canteen to reduce the swelling, the second offered to help her down the mountain, the third said he didn't want to get involved because he was worried about legal liability in case she fell. The fourth hiker had a cellular phone with him, so at exactly 9:09, he dialed 911, and went on his merry way.
Seven minutes later, an ambulance, a heavy rescue truck and a fire engine from Station 12 at 32nd Street and Glenrosa roared into the parking lot at Echo Canyon Park. Two paramedics sprinted uphill with splints and blankets. Doug Smith, the fire captain on duty, and five "technical rescue technicians" followed, threading a metal stretcher through the rock formations that line the trail.
A hook-and-ladder truck and two police cars pulled into the park; a DPS helicopter soared overhead. By now the rescue crew numbered 17 firefighters, four police officers and three helicopter crew members, not to mention the folks back in the alarm room arranging the logistics--finding a hospital emergency room, arranging for helicopter landings, notifying the three municipalities that border the park. All this to pluck one frightened and sore-kneed hiker from the mountain. It was certainly more than she anticipated.
"We start out pessimistic," Smith says, "because we're never sure what we'll find," and they'd rather be overprepared than underprepared. They reached the hiker 30 minutes after the call, and discovered her injury was not serious. But "you don't want to second-guess a knee," says Smith, so they set about "packaging her," strapping her into the litter, an oblong basket with a wheel at one end.
Since the woman was near the top, the rescuers chose to airlift her out, which meant that first they had to haul her 250 feet higher, to one of four helicopter landing zones on the mountain, using ropes and a belay system, a slow and slippery dance.
It was more than the victim bargained for. "We become protective at that point," says Smith. "In plain, simple English, it's called 'cover your ass.'" Or, as another TRT puts it, "Jacoby and Meyers are hiding behind every bush." By 10:30 the woman was in the helicopter, rotoring safely to an ambulance waiting at the corner of McDonald and Tatum.
This was the 193rd rescue of the year for the Fire Department Special Operations Unit. Nearly half of these have been from swift water in flash floods, 83 more have been "high angle rescues," from buildings or scaffolds or palm trees. Or mountains; 48 hikers or climbers have been carried out of the city mountain parks this year. "We're way ahead of last year, and we're just now getting into the climbing season," says Deputy Fire Chief Steve Storment. The majority of rescues take place on Camelback Mountain, followed by Squaw Peak. Sometimes the climbers are hanging from pitches beyond their ability, other times hikers fall on the steep and rocky summit trails. Occasionally there are fatalities--a man who ventured off the trail to photograph the sunset and fell to his death, a young woman who suffered a fatal heart attack. "People tend to underestimate the angle of the mountain and overestimate their skills and their physical fitness," says Storment.
The young woman they rescued that Sunday morning, it turned out, was recuperating from knee surgery, which makes one wonder why she was on the mountain in the first place without so much as an ACE bandage for support. After a three-hour rescue involving 24 men, four trucks and a helicopter, she'll get a bill for $196 for the ambulance ride to the hospital. If she had driven home, the service would have cost nothing more than a red face.
"Heck, I wouldn't fault her. You don't know how much pain people experience," says Smith, the charitable sort, as most TRTs seem to be. "They could go into shock. You don't want to cause any further damage." He thinks for a moment, then adds, "Yeah, well, if it was me, I probably would have walked out." Instead, she sat down as if waiting for the ski patrol to whisk her down in a sled.
In fact, the rescue technicians do resemble ski patrollers; they have the same lanky looseness about the shoulders, the same intense gaze, shaggy mustaches and boyishly angled baseball caps. Rescue time is fun--which is not to diminish its seriousness.
"We don't get a lot of 'snivel' calls," one TRT says.
"When we do a rescue, it's game day. We get out and perform and feel good about ourselves."
And it gets them out of the station house, which is as dark and dreary a place as you'll find anywhere.
"The only thing that rubs me wrong is when we're out of service for three hours," says Captain Mike McDonald, who also works out of Station 12. "Then what happens when the lady down the street has a heart attack?" Then he shrugs. "Awww, it's a roll of the dice, anyway."
Before the city instituted the ten-year-old technical rescue program, it depended on tow-truck drivers to rescue motorists caught in flash floods and amateur mountain-climbing clubs for high-angle mountain rescues. The latter added hours when minutes were critical.
Smith recalls a cold Thanksgiving morning 18 years ago, when the department was called to save a woman who slid off a cliff while frolicking with her boyfriend. She landed on a narrow and inaccessible ledge, and rescuers climbed down to her without so much as good hiking shoes. They had to use their belts and strips of their clothing to tie the woman into the stretcher, then haul her up with a hemp rope. She died en route to the hospital.
Now there are 60 TRTs centered at two stations (the second at 12th Street and Van Buren). They've gone through 240 hours of special training that ranges from digging out collapsed buildings or trenches to plucking people from the tops of palm trees. Or off the top of Camelback Mountain.
"If people had more judgment, there'd be a whole lot fewer of us," says TRT John Halter.
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There's no shortage of stupid-hiker stories: older folks recovering from heart surgery who have been told to get exercise; when the big one hits them, the top of Squaw Peak is at least a three-hour ordeal to a cardiac ward. Half of the injuries, McDonald claims, are people in good shape who are running on the trail and lose their footing. "Running down's the best way to get hurt," he says, suicide on the knees even if you don't fall. "Another quarter of them, I wonder why they're even here," people with bald heads and no hats, without water, wearing sandals. "You want to ask them, 'What were you thinking?'"
"We've had a lot of embarrassed fathers," Smith adds. Last year a dad who was fired up after taking a rudimentary climbing class took his two young sons and one of their friends to the base of "the Monk," a steep spire atop the cliffs of Echo Canyon. Climbing up is far easier than climbing down; the father hoped they'd all rappel down, but the boys froze in terror. When they didn't show up at home, their mom called for help. "She was not pleased," Smith punctuates.
One chilly night, McDonald encountered a "drunk and nekkid individual" on Shaw Butte. His girlfriend had abandoned him there. "No telling where she went to, and I have no idea how he lost his clothes," he says.
Couples climb to the mountaintops to share a bottle of wine and a sunset, then can't find the way down in the dark and drunkenness. Their cries for help resonate through Echo Canyon until the folks who live at the bottom call 911. Then the Phoenix Police Department sends a helicopter with a searchlight. Squaw Peak, alas, is far out of anyone's earshot. A couple years back, the TRTs say, two lovers hiked Camelback after dark, were overcome by passion, stripped down and went at it under the stars. When they finished, he rolled off, stood up on a rock to stretch and fell off a cliff to his death.