When Good Urban Adventures Go Bad
By Ray Stern
This is a scene from an impressive mountain rescue on Camelback Mountain, shot by KTVK-Channel 3's news chopper. It was the most dramatic of three rescues on the mountain in just the last two weeks.
One of the great things about Camelback is that you can have a true mountain adventure just minutes from downtown. That's also one of the scary things about Camelback. When folks aren't careful, when they haven't brought along the right equipment or necessary experience, it might as well be K2.
Instead of freezing wind and avalanches, Camelback has vicious heat and killer bees. But help is always just a cell-phone call away. On August 4, firefighters used a helicopter to fly out a couple from Orlando in their 70s who gave up on their hikebecause it was too hot. This past Monday, it was an Atlanta man who got lost after dark without a flashlight.
Anthony Edwards and Sean Sullivan messed up good, though. The men, both in their early 20s, figured it would be fun to go for a mid-afternoon romp across the Camel's Head, the bulbous pink mass to the west of the larger "hump." The Head's the part with the biggest cliffs. After hours of flopping around in a rugged canyon, lost, without enough water in the scorching summer heat, they ended up perched on a cliff face, one slip away from a 400-foot fall.
They started by ascending this beauty on the Head's east side:
I've drawn in an approximation of the route. It's at least 150 feet of climbing -- technically easy but an exhilarating ride when done without a safety rope. These two should have known they were getting in over their heads within the first 20 feet.
Firefighters say the pair, once up at the top of the route, ruled out down-climbing and headed west into the maze that is August Canyon. They searched high and low, looking for an easier way down. There is no easier way.
In Channel 3's raw interview footage, Edwards describes how he and Sullivan used their belts to help each other traverse some hairy parts. Edwards says he vomited, a possible symptom of heat exhaustion. They found a passage that opened to the north and tried descending. But where they were, the climbing gets tougher the farther down you go. Eventually the crag turns smooth, inverted, and totally unscalable. A death sentence for any down-climber. They found a shady cove and called 911.
Dispatch connected Sullivan directly to a small, yellow cell phone on the fire truck that had been sent to the mountain.
"He says, 'I'm up on the mountain and my buddy's kind of sick,'" says Phoenix Fire Captain Glenn Palmer. "I said, 'Did you climb a cliff?' He says, 'Yeah.'"
View of the parking lot from just above the rescue site
Once summoned, the Phoenix Fire Department has to play by its own rule book. For the safety of both the victims and the firefighters (and to ward off lawsuits), few expenses are spared to make sure the rescue goes well. Technical Rescue Team members explain that if a person is injured or stranded above a certain height on the mountain, it's best to use a helicopter. But first, the person has to be brought to a proper landing site.
Sullivan climbed from the cove on his own and a chopper picked up him from the canyon without much problem. Night fell as firefighters pruned a palo verde tree in a narrow rock gully and fashioned a pulley system to help Edwards, who was unable to climb back up to the canyon on his own. A helicopter soon lowered a basket for him and took him down. Two firefighters who had lost their way in the dark also choppered out.
Camelback Mountain will never earn the nickname "Savage Mountain," but not for lack of trying on the part of some hikers.
(UPDATE: It appears the cove is part of long traverse called George Route, according to a picture in Phoenix Rock. In September, I climbed it from the east start of George Route but was stopped before getting to the cove by a hive of bees. Lots of exposure along the northern corner, but there are bolts for lead-climbing protection, if you want it.)