High Pine Rescues: Saving Lives in the Santa Catalina Mountains

Santa Catalina Mountains

Hiking in Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains can be challenging because of the rapid rise in elevation, scorching summer temperatures, and lack of water along the rutted trails. Coronado National Forest photo.

Coronado National Forest photo.

Under the jagged granite shoulders of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the Southern Arizona Rescue Association volunteers watched the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s Ranger 52 helicopter veer away with two injured hikers on board.

It was nearly 5 p.m. on Sept. 10, another scorching Saturday, when they started back down the Romero Canyon Trail that snakes through bighorn sheep country, from the Coronado National Forest’s Pusch Ridge into Catalina State Park.

And that’s when they found him, a 72-year-old hiker alone on the trail, dead tired and nearly collapsed.

“We just happened to walk into that person. We didn’t even know that was going to be an incident,” Sean Fawcett, an 18-year volunteer with Southern Arizona Rescue Association, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

Southern Arizona Rescue Association

Founded in 1958, the Southern Arizona Rescue Association is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that runs more than 100 rescues annually, charging nothing for the lifesaving services. The volunteers are experts in wilderness searching, cave rescues, high-angle and technical rescues, swift water rescues, mine rescues, and outdoor safety education. Photo courtesy of Sean Fawcett.

Photo courtesy of Sean Fawcett.

The hiker had tapped out less than 3 miles up the trace, which starts out deceptively easy in the flat bajadas rimming the range in the state park before rising up a rocky path, summiting about 6,000 feet above sea level in the high pines.

It’s a popular trek because hikers can watch waterfalls cascading off Mount Lemmon after a good rain, but many visitors never make it to the vantage point.

“People in other parts of the country can hike 10 miles in a day and it’s not even that difficult, but our trails all have thousands of feet of elevation gain,” Fawcett said.

The hiker had started up the trail around 900 feet above sea level. By the time he’d reached 3,600 feet in elevation, his body had lost a lot of water through sweat, and his core temperature had climbed under a relentless sun.

Santa Catalina Mountains

Southern Arizona Rescue Association volunteers wait for assistance from the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s Ranger 52 helicopter on Sept. 10, 2022, on Romero Canyon Trail. An elderly hiker had nearly collapsed due to heat exhaustion. Photos courtesy of Sean Fawcett.

Photos courtesy of Sean Fawcett.

“It’s pretty much exposed to the sun all day, and to get up to the falls you’re hiking uphill,” said Sgt. Stephen Ferree, the Pima County Sheriff’s Office supervisor of search and rescue.

“You can go past heat exhaustion, into heatstroke,” added Fawcett. “And heatstroke is very hard to reverse. A lot of times, it leads to death.”

The mercury had risen to nearly 100 degrees, which made the rescuers mull what to do next. They could carry the man another two hours or more to the trailhead, or they could call for help.

They reached out to Ranger 52 and got lucky. The Bell 407 helicopter aircrew was still nearby and could make one more pass to retrieve a third hiker.

Santa Catalina mountains, Southern Arizona Rescue Association

Southern Arizona Rescue Association volunteers wait for assistance from the Arizona Department of Public Safety Ranger 52 helicopter Sept. 10, 2022, on the Romero Canyon Trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains. A hiker had succumbed to heat exhaustion. Photos courtesy of Sean Fawcett.

Photos courtesy of Sean Fawcett.

It hovered over the rescuers, and then a medic began rappelling down to the path. The aircrew member fitted the hiker in a Bauman Screamer Suit, to be able to hook him up for secure, rapid extraction during lifting, and the injured man was hoisted into the helicopter.

But the day hadn’t ended for the rescue team. Moments later another call came in: Two hikers had run out of water along a ridge in the state park.

Ranger 52 said it would rendezvous with the pair of hikers near Window Peak, at 7,456 feet the second-highest ridge on the front range. But first the crew had to bring the three other casualties to a waiting ambulance.

It was a good day for Ranger 52 and the Southern Arizona Rescue Association, but the weekend wasn’t over.

On Sunday, six volunteers and a different crew in the same Ranger 52 helicopter rescued another woman on the Romero Canyon Trail.

Santa Catalina Mountains

Paths through Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains often start out at around 900 feet above sea level before rising thousands of feet in elevation. The traces often are rutted and rocky, cut as switchbacks along the granite ridges near Tucson. Coronado National Forest photo.

Coronado National Forest photo.

Like many sheriff’s offices across the Western states, Pima County leans on volunteers like the Southern Arizona Rescue Association to save lives.

Ferree leads seven deputies, but only two are on duty at all times, too few to handle all the mayday messages they get during a shift.

So they rely on what he calls the office’s volunteer “ground pounders” to help out.

Fawcett’s day job? Software engineer.

Santa Catalina mountains

The Arizona Department of Public Safety’s Air Rescue service has been saving lives for nearly five decades. The agency maintains a fleet of five helicopters stationed at four bases throughout the state. Arizona Department of Public Safety photo.

Arizona Department of Public Safety photo.

With so many rescues along the same path, debate simmers over closing the trail.

But many of the hikers start on federal land and end up in the state park, to be rescued by state or Pima County teams and volunteers like those of the Southern Arizona Rescue Association.

So it remains a jurisdictional conundrum.

“It’s been discussed, but if somebody wants to go hike, we’re gonna let them go hike,” Pima County’s Ferree told Coffee or Die. “And if they get hurt, then we’ll go rescue them.”

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Noelle is an award-winning journalist from Cincinnati, Ohio, who came to Coffee or Die Magazine following a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has strived to be a military journalist ever since her internships with the US Army Cadet Command in college. She worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military herself and served as a public affairs specialist attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. She deployed once to fill a role as a media analyst for the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Kuwait. She has a passion for sharing stories of heroes and people who are far more interesting than they think they are. She follows where the job takes her, but currently resides on the East Coast in Georgia.
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