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Vulture Peak Rescue

The call from my friend Janet came at 6:15 AM. “They’re doing a rescue at Vulture Peak with helicopters,” she said. “I thought you might want to listen in on your radio.” She went on to give me the details from the news story she’d seen on Channel 3. We don’t get Phoenix TV channels so we were unaware of the drama unfolding less than 6 miles from our house.

Our view of the Peak was obstructed by clouds, but I could see a helicopter hovering out there in the distance, its landing light making it a white pinpoint against the gray dawn clouds. I thought the story might make interesting reading on wickenburg-az.com, so at 7:00 AM, Mike and I took the jeep to investigate, armed with a camera, a pair of binoculars, a cell phone, and my aviation radio.

My aviation radio picks up all civilian and military aviation channels. But I didn’t know what frequency they’d be transmitting and using the scan function to find them was not practical. As we raced down Vulture Mine Road, we tried finding the right frequency but were not successful.

We turned in at the Vulture Peak Trail head parking area and drove down toward the Trail head. Just short of the parking area there, a Maricopa County Sheriff’s office car blocked our way. I got out with my camera to talk to the officials there.

A Night on the Peak

It appeared that a 71-year-old man and his 38-year-old daughter had hiked up to Vulture Peak early the day before. Somehow, they’d gotten lost near the top and couldn’t find the trail. DPS helicopters had spotted them when the resourceful woman set off the flash on her camera. Volunteer climbers, trained in rescue and EMS operations, had climbed up to the Peak later that night. They’d reached the Peak at 11:00 PM and had reached the hikers, some 60 feet below the Peak in a shallow cave, at about 2:30 AM. The rescuers had provided them with food and hot chocolate and everyone spent the night on the Peak.

The plan that morning, according to the Deputy on duty, was for a rescue helicopter to do a one-skid landing near the rescue team and take the two hikers on board. Then, depending on the condition of the hikers, they’d either be flown back to the Trail head where their car was waiting or directly to the hospital for medical attention. The trouble was, Vulture Peak was in the clouds and no helicopter could safely approach. The rescue helicopters remained on the ground.

I took a few photos, then climbed back into the Jeep. According to the Deputy’s description, the hikers were on the east side of the Peak, the side facing Wickenburg. We decided to drive around to some of the old mining roads off Vulture Peak Road where we’d be closer to the Peak and have a clear view of the east side.

On the Other Side

The roads were rough and certainly not recommended for anything but a high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle. We climbed to a flat area not far from the peak and killed the engine. We could hear the rescuers talking to each other, but couldn’t see much; the clouds were just as dense on this side of the Peak.

We waited for a while, still scanning the aviation radio. We could hear the helicopters on the other side of the Peak. Soon, we could hear one approaching. Channel 15’s helicopter zoomed over our heads, then hovered a quarter mile away, watching the spot in the clouds where the voices were coming from. We couldn’t hear any voices anymore; the helicopter noise was too loud. It got even louder when Channel 3’s helicopter appeared. It darted around the mountainside like a dragonfly looking for a place to land, staying right beneath the clouds.

After a while, it started to rain and the helicopters disappeared. It was almost 9:00 AM. We decided to go home.

Vulture Peak is socked in with clouds.

A rescue helicopter waits on the ground for the clouds to clear.

The east side of Vulture Peak was also blanketed in clouds.

Channel 3’s chopper cruises above the saguaro on the east side of Vulture Peak.

Return for the Conclusion

At home, I called my helicopter instructor, Paul Alukonis, who works for Quantum Helicopters in Scottsdale. Channel 3’s helicopter shares a hangar with the little Robinson R-22 we fly and Paul knows Bruce, Hilton, and some of the Channel 3 gang. I asked Paul what frequency Channel 3 uses when they cover stories like the one in Wickenburg. He gave me the numbers and I dialed them in on my radio. Then I went to work putting the new pictures on the wickenburg-az.com Web site.

The radio was quiet for at least 20 minutes, then suddenly came to life. Pilots we discussing where they could make a one-skid landing. I looked out the window and saw that it had cleared a bit around the Peak. I hopped back into the Jeep and returned to Vulture Peak.

This time, I took the Jeep road to the Vulture Peak Trail head. (See my Day Trip article about the Vulture Peak Hike for details.) When I arrived at the Trail head, the only vehicle there was a Sheriff’s Department SUV. As I cut the engine, Channel 3’s helicopter passed overhead to land on a clear spot up the trail. Someone got out. Then I noticed a string of orange dots coming down the trail. I got on the radio and asked Bruce who they were. He told me it was the rescuers and hikers.

It appeared that the helicopter rescue plans had been called off. The hikers were tired but in fine condition. They were able to hike back down.

Sure enough, the entire party was in high spirits when they reached me, shortly after the Channel 3 helicopter took off. They graciously posed for a picture with the peak in the background.

Hikers and rescuers posed for this photo at the Vulture Peak Trail head.

I offered to take anyone who wanted a lift back to the “command center” in the parking area. The hikers went back in the SUV while one of the rescuers rode with me. I also took back the packs of a number of the rescuers who preferred to hike back. Although it was still cloudy, the rain had stopped and it was becoming a beautiful spring day.

At the command center, the news crews were waiting to interview the rescuers and hikers. I hung back, watching with the helicopter pilots. The hikers were embarrassed by all the attention they were getting. Soon, they packed up their gear, got into their waiting car, and drove off.

I waited while the rescuers who had hiked back unloaded the gear from my Jeep, then headed back home. It had been an interesting morning. But I was glad the experience had such a happy ending for all parties concerned.

And those hikers…well, they got the adventure of a lifetime and came out of it without a scratch.

The hikers are no more than tiny dots on the hillside beyond Chopper 3 in this photo.

The news crews were on hand to interview the rescuers and hikers.

Thank You Note from Walter Moffat

3/31/00

Maria,

I now know who the lady in the Jeep was …

My name is Walter Moffat and I am the Operations Leader (the Senior Rescue Team Member) from the Vulture Peak Trailhead Rescue Mission. Although remaining in the Command Post, I was helping to coordinate the Rescue Operation with the Team in the Field.

I just wanted to say THANK YOU for your assistance to my team mates! After a long rescue, a ride out is a welcome relief for most of us. The older we get, the more our feet hurt after a difficult rescue.

I am not sure you are of aware of this, but our team is a completely volunteer? We receive only gas expense coverage for our services from the
Maricopa County Sheriffs Office. In addition, MCSO provides general liability insurance and Workman Compensation Coverage in case we get hurt while on a rescue mission). I should also mention that we exist in the business world as a “501C3 Non-Profit Corporation” (according to the IRS anyway). Our only source of revenue is from Grants and Private / Corporate Donations. We are not asking you for any kind of donation. However, if you happen to hear of a company or individual needing to donate funds to achieve a better tax position, please keep us in mind. We generally use all or most donation money directly into equipment replenishment to help the next “lost” person on the next rescue mission.

Thanks again for your generous support of the Mountain Rescue Team.

Hope to Talk to you again,
Walter Moffat – mcsomr60@yahoo.com
Operations Leader
MCSO Mountain Rescue Team
Work (602) 850-1200 x2049 M – F 8am – 5pm

Clarification from David Bremson

3/31/00

We met briefly at the Vulture Mine rescue, my name is David Bremson from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Mountain Rescue Team (the folks who helped the hikers out).

The purpose of this email is to help clarify a few points concerning the rescue and to provide some assistance to those who venture into the backcountry.

The MCSO Mountain Rescue team is a team of volunteers who provide two things to the people of Maricopa County and beyond. We provide wilderness education and wilderness rescue. Our team trains to perform rescue on a continuous basis. We train at least one weekend per month plus several “concurrent” training’s throughout the month. The team is also accredited by the “Mountain Rescue Association”, an organization dedicated to mountain rescue throughout the world. To earn this accreditation the team must qualify and requalify every few years in three disciplines- Technical Rock Rescue, Snow and Ice Rescue (Alpine), and Wilderness Search. We are also qualified to perform cave/mine rescue and Swiftwater rescue.

Although our hikers did many things right, they also did many things wrong. The media in Phoenix has been declaring that they were saved by a camera flash, well, half true. The DPS Ranger helicopter did spot them because of the camera flash. The camera, however, did not prevent them from getting into the situation altogether, nor did it provide any lifesaving use.

As I stated, we provide backcountry education to the people. Regardless of how many times we emphasize certain points, or how many “real life” stories, photos and video we tell and show, the answer is always the same. “We never planned on becoming lost/injured/dead”. I have a saying “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance”. The reason why people should take certain items (I’ll list them) into the backcountry is because we don’t plan on staying over-night or becoming injured, etc. If we were planning on staying, we would bring a tent and sleeping bag, etc. People should bring these items in case something unplanned occurs. I don’t know of anyone who gets into their car and says “today I will have an accident, I will wear my seatbelt”. Even Mario Andretti wears his, ALWAYS. So regardless of one’s experience level certain items should ALWAYS be taken into the woods. What to bring ALWAYS:

  • Flashlight- if our hikers had one, they wouldn’t have had to rely on a finite amount of film to provide flashes
  • Map and Compass- they never would have become lost if they knew where they were going. One does not work without the other and just having a GPS is no good without a map or a compass. Just knowing the general direction back to the car is often useful. Plus, have to know how to use them.
  • Sunglasses/ sunscreen- for obvious reasons
  • Food — well, really food and water. One can survive for weeks without food, but we need about 8 ounces of water per fifteen minutes of activity to maintain hydration
  • Clothing — remember “cotton kills” especially in cool temperatures. They wore cotton although “knew better”. Cotton retains moisture thus cooling the body. Always bring a rain jacket and in cooler months a fleece hat and gloves. Plus, a trashbag would have kept them dry!
  • First Aid — especially Imodium A.D. and Aleve or ibuprofen
  • Firestarter — in a 35mm film container place cotton balls soaked in hot candle wax
  • Matches — in waterproof container
  • Knife — not a Rambo knife but a multi-function tool
  • Experience
  • Most important — Your BRAIN

The rescue mission was not so difficult although it did require special technical skills. While looking at their position we wondered how they got there without falling. None of us, even with experience would have ever walked onto that ledge. It was at least 400 feet above the ground and the “path” was about 1 foot wide on a sheer vertical wall.

I don’t mean to be lengthy, but we see this on a regular basis. These folks were lucky. We have done similar missions, in similar weather only to find a subject that died of hypothermia or fell to their death. One factor that contributed highly to their survival was the fact they were in excellent shape (both were marathon runners). This along with their wonderful attitude helped increase their likelihood of survival. We were in protective clothing, moving around and experienced in this environment and were still very cold.

If you would like to speak more concerning this, I would be more than happy to.

Thanks for playing sherpa with our packs, it came at a perfect time. Although, next time could you bring some hot chocolate chip cookies too?

David Bremson
MCSO Mountain Rescue
CAMRA (Central Arizona Mountain Rescue Association)

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