Adventures from Back of Beyond

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Fountain Search

John Fountain made a mistake. While hiking in the Grand Canyon, he and 2 buddies got lost and ran out of water. In July. Temperatures that time of year might hit 120 degrees in the shade, and there’s no shade. So getting lost and running out of water is real bad.

What’s worse, the 3 guys split up. Two stayed together and were rescued shortly thereafter. John Fountain decided to go it alone to find help rather than stay put. And he got hopelessly lost.

That’s where I came in.

When a hiker gets lost in Grand Canyon, the park’s search and rescue team springs into action. There’s a relatively short window of opportunity to find the lost person before he or she expires. In the summer, that’s usually because of thirst. Sometimes it’s from a fatal fall as the dehydrated person hallucinates that a thousand foot straight dropoff is an easy stroll to the river below.

The Fountain search was in its third day and time was running out. The National Park Service was geared up big time. Dozens of rangers were on it, and they were recruiting more personnel beyond their regular team. So many rangers were on the search in fact that the park requested the Air Force bring up a couple of its big Huey helicopters from Luke AFB near Phoenix. Those Viet Nam war era choppers could easily hold a dozen men and gear, compared to the Bell Jet Rangers in the NPS fleet that could only hold maybe 3 guys with gear.

I was in my third season at the south rim at the time. On the third day of the search, my days off came up, as did my friend and fellow interpretive ranger Laura’s. Our supervisor asked if we wanted to get in on the search. We’d get our normal pay, plus “hazardous duty” pay.

We agreed, and got our gear together. Basically, we prepared like it was a backpack trip – packs, water, sleeping bags, some food.

We headed over to the park’s heliport where we were to catch a flight into the search area. But once there we were told instead to go to the high school football field to meet the Huey. At that point the Hueys were being used to shuttle people and supplies in and out, and they were too big to land at the regular heliport.

When we arrived to the football field landing zone, we were met with an absolutely horrible smell permeating the area. I watched as rangers unloaded a black body bag from a second Huey. In a separate incident, a man had died on a river trip, and they’d sent one of the Huey’s to pick up the body. That was the first and only time I’ve experienced the overpowering stench of human death. Not an exactly an auspicious way to start the trip.

Laura and I boarded the big chopper. We were the only two on that particular run. The ship was manned by a pilot, copilot, and one other uniformed crewman in the back with us. They’d taken off the side doors in the back so it was wide open. We sat down and buckled up.

What happened next was both unexpected and a thrill. Normally, flying below the rims within the interior of the Grand Canyon is off limits to pilots. The park service is very sensitive about protecting “natural quiet.” But for purposes of this search, the whole Canyon was fair game, and these Air Force guys were taking full advantage of that freedom with the doors off. No doubt this mission was quite a nice break from the normal military routine at Luke.

We took off low and slow from the high school and flew right over the Bright Angel Lodge in the developed Village area, something else that would normally be taboo for local pilots. That surprised me.

What surprised me even more was the pilot heading right down the Bright Angel trail, low and slow. I’d never seen anyone do that before.

This most famous of canyon trails is located in a recessed notch in the steep cliff. The trail switchbacks down this indentation, and it could be considered a logical and convenient air route down into the canyon. But pilots normally stay completely away from the Bright Angel area because they get visitor complaints from the noise, and also because they could spook a mule carrying someone on a trail ride. Guess nobody told that to our flight crew.

So down we went low and slow, rotor wash and big concussive blasts from the blades right over the BA trail.

A great ride got even better once we reached the bottom. We leveled off above the river, a few hundred feet over the top of the inner canyon, which forms the 1,200 foot, steeply walled inner gorge within the interior of the mile high main Canyon. At that point the pilot turned east to follow the river upstream to the search area. That’s when he began making a series of spectacular slowly banked swings as we flew.

The left side of the ship would arc down toward the river, the right side up to the blue sky. Then the pilot would slowly swing back the other way. The views were exceptionally clear and open with the doors off. One side rocked up after another. Thrilled but wary with the doors off, I pulled my seat belt tighter. And loved every second of it.

For the crew of the Huey, this no doubt was play. Our pilot was absolutely making the most of his air time. And if I could fly one of these things, I’d do the same.

Soon we reached the search area, and Laura was dropped off first, at the beach along the river near the Hance trail. We landed in a huge swirl of dust and she got off.

We then proceeded to my position, which was at Tanner Beach, the terminus of the Tanner trail. I’d hiked in there before. This was to me one of the most beautiful and desirable spots to be in the entire Grand Canyon, so I felt lucky to be assigned there.

We landed in another big cloud of dust. I got out and met the other ranger already there. The two of us would man this checkpoint. Our only job was to make sure no one walked in or out of the search area.

It was boring work. The only interesting part was listening to the park service chatter on the radio. A found gum wrapper was a major event. But no John Fountain.

Dusk came with a pleasant surprise. Before dark, a smaller NPS Bell Jet Ranger helicopter landed at our location, and dropped off dinner. I was not expecting this -- fried chicken and gallons of fruit juice. I didn't know it before, but the Park Service uses the El Tovar, the very best restaurant at Grand Canyon, to cater these big search and rescue operations. This was quite an unexpected improvement over my nuts and raisins.

After an uneventful night, the chopper returned first thing in the morning with breakfast – scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, and more juice. Overall, they brought way more food than the two of us could eat.

So we were set. We kicked back on the river on the cushy beach at Tanner rapids, and just waited.

One highlight that day was when a river trip floated by and the passengers waved to us. We waved back. When I looked closely I could see the only thing they were wearing were life jackets. Hope they had a lot of sunblock.

About mid-day, while listening to the radio, I learned of a little incident involving Laura back at the Hance location.

One of the big Hueys apparently put down to deliver something there. Somehow, Laura’s space blanket worked loose in the rotor wash and got sucked up into one of the Huey’s jet engines.

Back then, space blankets were marketed as an ultralight survival blanket that was supposed to reflect back maximum body heat for emergency warmth in cold conditions. Laura was instead using it as a ground sheet. Apparently not well secured.

Fortunately, the crew was able to limp out of there on one turbine. But that chopper had to return to Luke for repairs and it never came back. In fact, after the space blanket incident the Air Force pulled both Hueys from the search. And we all got a good tongue lashing about securing loose items near the helicopter landing zones. Laura’s consumed space blanket was thereafter the butt of many good-natured jokes.

On the fourth day, most of us had given up hope of finding Mr. Fountain alive. The window was closing, and we began to think seriously about a recovery mission instead. Then, about mid-afternoon, we got word that he had strolled into Phantom Ranch asking for a drink. We had somehow missed him and he was able to get out on his own.

We found out the details later. John Fountain may have made a mistake, but at least he was smart about it. He hiked only at night to avoid the heat of day, and found some small seeps to drink from. He also apparently found some frogs and insects which he claimed to eat. So while the searchers totally missed him, John Fountain finally hiked out on his own power to the South Kaibab trail, which eventually led him to Phantom Ranch and his rescue.

We were all quite relieved with this news. Shortly thereafter, the helicopters began their ferrying operation to get us all out of there.

Since I was stationed on the eastern-most perimeter, I was among the first to get lifted out. With the Hueys gone, this time we flew on an NPS Bell Jet ranger helicopter, with an experienced local pilot. I got to sit in the front; it's always the best view because you can see down through the plexiglass floor.

As we flew up and out toward the South Rim heliport, our route from the bottom took us directly midway toward a massive wall along the south rim. In this area, it wasn’t unusual for single cliff face to be most of a mile high, several thousand feet. Our path was directly toward the middle of this cliff and a collision appeared unavoidable.

I watched as the pilot proceeded in this direction, and soon began wondering what he would do. He couldn’t possibly continue on that line without smashing into the canyon wall. He must’ve noticed me begin to squirm as he approached closer and closer. What would he do?

I couldn’t have predicted this in advance because I’m not a helicopter pilot. I did not understand how helicopters are unique because they can fly in three dimensions. But that’s exactly what our pilot did.

This was a memorable moment. As we approached the massive cliff, the pilot tipped the ship and banked in a slow corkscrew rising up and out, making two or three loops, much like a hawk catches a thermal updraft to float up without flapping a wing. Like a dream, the canyon swung round and round from my position in the front as we rose.

In retrospect, I imagine our pilot probably knew exactly where to find such an updraft and he deliberately rode it right on up and out over the rim. So it was a spectacular ending to a successful mission.

The next week, I examined the stub on my paycheck to see about the promised “hazardous duty” pay. It worked out to be about an extra ten cents an hour.