Nothing is foolproof in the wild, where nature routinely demonstrates that it is more powerful than man.
But Central Arizona Mountain Rescue, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and other organizations say technology is helping them even the odds when it comes to saving stranded hikers.
Technology has significantly reduced the number of long ground searches for lost hikers, they say, and that turns more missions into rescues of injured or lost hikers rather than body recoveries.
Experts say a person lost in the wilds of the Superstition or other East Valley mountains can frequently use a cellphone to call someone and ask for help – unless a battery is dead or there is no service.
Global positioning coordinates from smartphones help search teams find injured people more quickly, so that a helicopter can fly directly to their location.
“That is for the most part because of the advances in cellphones and cellular data,” said Lt. Brandee Ralston of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office search and rescue team. “It makes our job a lot easier. I would rather know where a person is first.”
The growing number of cell towers has helped as well.
“We think it’s because of additional cellphone towers” that have improved service in fringe areas, said Jesse Rutherford, a spokesman for Central Arizona Mountain Rescue, a division of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
Ralston said that while cell service appears to have gradually improved throughout the state, it is not a foolproof way for rescuing lost or stranded people more quickly.
Hikers sometimes fail to conserve battery time for emergencies, wasting juice on social media and posting photos on Facebook and Snapchat.
Ralston applauded a recent move by the Phoenix City Council to drop a proposal to adopt a “stupid hiker law” in an attempt to discourage hikers from failing to take proper precautions in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve. The proposal would have recouped rescue costs.
Unlike the law that penalizes motorists for driving into flooded intersections and getting trapped, she said hikers often get lost or injured through no fault of their own.
Besides, added Rutherford, “Even the most prepared person can twist an ankle.”
‘Stupid hiker laws’ don’t work
“Stupid hiker laws” would discourage lost or injured people from calling 911, leading to a potentially catastrophic impact on public safety, Ralston said.
“We would see a lot more searches and a lot more fatalities,” Ralston said. “It’s critical we get to them, the sooner the better.”
The number of incidents involving stranded or injured hikers has held steady in the last two years, according to statistics maintained by the Pinal County rescue unit.
In 2016, there were 72 searches and 103 rescues – not much different from the 69 searches and 101 rescues last year.
That’s not to say fatalities don’t occur, even though there is more opportunity for safety because of better technology.
“We would rather they call and ask for help before they get into dire straits,” Ralston said. “It’s a wilderness area. Bad things are going to happen.”
Hikers should not rely on technology to save them, she said, if they fail to follow basic safety precautions – such as not hiking on a 100-degree day and bringing plenty of water.
Hikers always should stay on established trails, making themselves easier to find, and to make themselves more visible by air by shinning a flashlight, rather than hunkering down behind a tree or bush.
Most missions seem to involve injured hikers rather than people who get lost, Rutherford said. Central Arizona Mountain Rescue averages about 50 missions a year.
Russell Kemp of Ahwatukee, a Central Arizona Mountain Rescue member, said most of his missions have occurred at night – when people realize they are running out of light and time to return to a trailhead or are injured.
Hikers often get “summit fever,” Kemp said – a term he gives to the fixation of reaching the top of a trail and losing track of the amount of light left and/or their water supply.
“These people are so determined to get to the summit that they ignore warning signs along the way,” Kemp said.
Technology impacts rescues
He said technology helps tremendously.
“It’s become much easier to reach people who call 911,” Kemp said. “We get very accurate coordinates.”
“We can fly almost directly to you,” using a helicopter, he said. “As long as you don’t move, we can find you.”
Kemp said he much prefers rescues to the old-fashioned searches.
“We have had multiple-day searches for lost hikers where people have succumbed,” he said.
Technology has also impacted rescue units, reducing the need for as many volunteers as were once available.
Robert Cooper, the longtime commander of Superstition Rescue, who spent 30 years looking for lost hikers in the Superstitions, said his volunteer organization was largely replaced by helicopters and cellphones after old-fashioned ground searches became mostly unnecessary.
Cooper said the unit has been redeployed as a community action response team with the Apache Junction Police Department that searches for lost children or people with dementia.
“Now, the sheriff’s office does everything with a helicopter,” Cooper said. “It’s a sign of the times.”
Serving on either the Maricopa or Pinal County search and rescue team as a volunteer posse member takes a major commitment, according to officials with both search organizations.
Volunteers must pass background checks and extensive conditioning tests, with only three out of every 10 candidates passing the Central Arizona Mountain Rescue entrance requirements. They also must buy their own specialized equipment, which can cost $1,500-$1,800, Kemp said.
“We try to knock out the physical stuff first so that people understand it takes a lot to do what we do,” Rutherford said. “The closest level of training we have found was a wildlife firefighter. We don’t want any of our members to be a liability in the field.”
Members also must pass a grueling annual fitness test.
The process speaks to the level of dedication necessary to perform a special job when people’s lives are in the balance.
“Everybody on the team, we are avid outdoors enthusiasts,” Rutherford said.
His team responds to emergencies throughout Maricopa County, including technical rescues using ropes and helicopters and swift-water rescues.
“We are all over the fringes of the East Valley,” he said.
Howard Larson, a snowbird from Nebraska rescued from the Siphon Draw Trail near Lost Dutchman State Park, is eternally indebted to Rutherford, Kemp and their fellow team members.
Larson admits that his friends fell into the “summit fever” category, but says he knew from the start that he had no business making it to the top of Flatiron.
“They are the experts. They know what they are doing,” Larson said. “It could have been a whole lot worse.”