It was 11:32 a.m. on March 16, and Dominic Epps, a volunteer with Cochise County Search and Rescue, could figure a few things from the alert, all of them very bad: The unidentified hiker’s water was running dry; she was miles deep in the high and narrow Lutz Canyon, probably at high altitude; and she was injured.
In the Grand Canyon State, rescue organizations save hikers without charging them for the service. They do that because they’d rather a hiker make the smartest lifesaving decision instead of trying to tough out an injury. By state law, each county must have a search and rescue team.
Epps’ organization sent volunteers to the hiker’s trailhead, and that ground team scrabbled up the steep, rutted path to her. She told them she could hobble a little on her ankle, but not far.
At first, Cochise County Search and Rescue considered asking a helicopter to insert a team atop Miller Peak, at 9,466 feet high the tallest mountain in the range. They realized that a chopper ride to emergency medical care would be the best option for the hurt hiker.
But it was spring in the Huachuca Range, when freezing winds race like greyhounds through the canyons and over the peaks, spitting grit and howling dust. So they formed a second team that grew to six rescuers. They volunteered to tug the Stokes basket wheels and the rest of the medical equipment up the cliff, an arduous journey over brutally rugged terrain, the wind whistling through their ranks as they rose up the mountains.
At around 2 p.m., the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office reached for what Epps joked is the “Batphone.” They rang US Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations Tucson Air Branch at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Officials there could scramble their wind-defying workhorse, a UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter, and fly 90 miles north.
The winds in Tucson already were holding steady at 30 knots and the agents on board the chopper worried it would get worse when they reached the range. Aviation Enforcement Agent Cory Bishop recalled the crew bouncing in the back of the Black Hawk as it took off, “just with the wind moving us around.”
They put Aviation Enforcement Agent Josh Sims on the hoist. He’d run a rescue on the same crag in early 2021. That hiker had suffered a broken leg, exposure, and hypothermia, Bishop told Coffee or Die Magazine, “so he had an idea in his head what we were getting into.”
But even with the crew’s decades of experience saving lives in the unforgiving borderlands, Bishop said this rescue was about to become one of the most difficult missions they’d ever run. They neared Lutz Canyon around 4:30 p.m. After two orbits around her last known position, the crew spotted her at roughly 8,300 feet. The four-bladed Black Hawk hovered 15 stories over her, and down the rope went Bishop.
“Man, they’re high,” he remembered thinking after he hit dirt and stared up at his chopper.
Next went Aviation Enforcement Agent Scott Bowles. Once on the ground, he and Bishop began the trek to the hiker. On the radio, the Black Hawk pilot told the agents he didn’t like the look of their planned extraction point.
“You could see him flying around, looking for alternate places to try and get us out just because it was that rough,” Bishop said. “It was probably one of the harder rescues I’ve been involved in because of the wind and the terrain.”
Sometimes there are no good choices, only less bad ones. The agents helped the hiker navigate the loose dirt under her gimpy ankle to where the pilot thought he’d found a stable spot, about 120 feet up the mountain.
She was an experienced trekker, with expensive equipment. Before blousing her in the air rescue vest, Bishop asked her, “How important is this bag to you?”
She started crying. The crew decided to try to get her gear out, too. But they worried that packing it on Bowles and Bishop would make them “wider” on the wind-whipped line. That could cause them to spin as they dangled on the rope.
On the hoist, Sims decided to lower a hook for her equipment. It would run below the hiker as she was being heaved up into the chopper, but would go up before the agents, cutting the risk of spinning them like tops.
“I know she was grateful for that,” Bishop said.
The Black Hawk delivered her to Sierra Vista Fire & Medical Services to rush her to the nearest hospital.
Before she left, the hiker leaned into Bishop and told him how grateful she was for the pilots and crew for saving her. Bishop told Coffee or Die that was “really nice” because “a lot of people forget it’s not just the guys going down on the hook and running the hoist” who save lives.
“We had another crew member in the back that no one knows about, our left-side scanner,” Bishop said. “And he allowed us to get lower. They don’t think about that when they’re, you know, getting out of a bad situation or reading a story. It took all of us.”
And that includes the Cochise County Search and Rescue volunteers. Their team, who stayed with the hiker until she was safely away, didn’t start down the sheer Lutz Canyon cliff until 7:30 p.m. It was a rescue mission that pushed all of them to their limits.
But they made it. Together.
Editor’s note: This story was changed to add more details about Cochise County Search and Rescue’s efforts during the mission.