In my 26 years in Arizona, I have only done a few hikes in the wilderness areas of the national forests of the state.  On Saturday, friends invited me to do a hike in the West Clear Creek area of the Coconino National Forest northwest of Payson.

Our leader opted to choose a formidable trail whose  trailhead is on Forest Road 142 about seven miles east of  Highway 260.  That trail drops down 800 feet on a treacherous  route of rock, loose dirt, logs, roots and branches and long slabs of  treacherously ensconced  limestone.   The trail threads through  a rare open space between towering limestone cliffs.

The trip down was perilous. My walking stick, a mere paint roller pole, served me on my way down and later up the mountain.  All in all the trip down for our group was manageable and not exhausting.

At the bottom, we found the clean, clear waters of the creek  and inviting water pools and grand boulders. Above us were majestic walls of the limestone soaring 1,000 feet into blue skies — the sides of the walls featuring lines and marks as if they were scoured millions of years ago.   That pine trees and other vegetation could find enough nurture in that limestone to grow out of them is a marvel of nature.

The trail is somewhere at the east end of West Clear Creek and is moderately used.

Little did we know we would be involved in an arduous rescue of a man with a broken ankle from a rappelling accident that we watched happen.  We would mount a team of canyon hikers to  carry him about more than a mile  — it seemed much longer —  over rocky, sometimes vague  trails, through water and over fallen logs to a place a lower canyon trailhead where he could eventually get professional medical care.  It was an amazing afternoon of spontaneous collaboration of strangers in the canyon coming together to help a Mesa man we only know as “Buck.”  Those who move through the mountains, canyons and trails of Arizona know the unwritten rules of helping one another in trouble.

Backing up a bit in the story: Our hiking group had first eaten our snack lunches in a scenic rock area on reaching the stream, then decided to hike about a third of a mile to the “grotto” — a side canyon that is  reached by walking across a log and balancing oneself touching a side limestone wall. The temperature drops  10-15 degrees inside it.   Once inside, we hiked about 75 yards into a massive round room, seeming created by swirling whirlwinds eons ago. The vast space rises like a  silo to 180 feet where a not-quite-closed hole can be seen.  During  rainy weather, water flows down into that hole and creates a magnificent waterfall, we were told.  Our hike leader said we needed to be there at midday because the high, end of late spring sun would cast its light down into the space like a flashlight. That natural grotto has been compared with the classic Pantheon in Rome, the world largest unreinforced dome. It rises to 142 feet and  is 142 feet across (diameter) at the floor. Competed in 126 A.D., the Pantheon is especially unique for its oculus or round, opening at the top, which is 29 feet across.  My wife and I stood in the Pantheon in June 2001.

We spent more than a half-hour watching direct sunlight begin to penetrate — first slowly down a sidewall and eventually to the ground itself.

Early on, though, we were abruptly surprised to see a rappelling rope come cascading down the hole, then a second rope.  Ten minutes later, a man rappelled down the equivalent of 15 building stories.  The first man held the rope for another and another and another.  Four men came rappelling down, then dislodged their ropes, wound them up into coils and walked out of the canyon.   One man said another rappelling team was behind them and would be coming shortly.

Sure enough, a rope and a second rope came flying down, then, in time, a man in blue shirt and  shorts appeared at the top and began his descent on the rope.  We watched him proceed faster downward than any previous rappeler, but not enough to alarm us.  But when Buck reached the 25-foot level, he suddenly started unrestrained dropping to a thud final in the sand.  He crumpled and groaned. First thoughts, he broke his back.  Buck’s first complaints were his ankle and his tailbone.   We helped him remove his backpack and let him gain his senses.  It took a lot of shouting to get word to his partner, Dave, at the top that there had been an accident.    Buck partly sat up and began to crawl backwards, saying he was so cold and wanted some of the sunlight.  He kept asking aloud, “What did I not do right?” that caused him to lose control.

In the next 40 minutes, hikers on the trail were alerted to the accident. Four of us from our hiking group along with other hikers — some loaded with Boy Scout emergency experience and some medical training went to work — planned a strategy.

Buck’s injured foot was wrapped, his pulse taken, pain pills provided and a number of plans of action explored. For the next four hours, I witnessed some of the most selfless giving by a group of men and one woman to get Buck to safety.  For much of the trek through grass, water, mud, brush and slimy, slippery rocks, we were a unit.  Most of the workhorses were guys 20 to 40, constantly tailoring the means of carrying Buck to the situation.  Half-way on the trip, we stopped by an open area beside the stream and created a stretcher from green young trees, rappelling ropes and a towel.  Six carried Buck through open areas.  But when the trail narrowed and logged, they returned to a one-man carry or four-man carry — two bearing him with his arms around their necks and two carrying his legs.    We periodically stopped to rest and drink water and talk strategies.    One of our rescuer’s girlfriend went ahead early to call for medical rescue team.  As we moved through the streams and slippery trails, I mostly carried other people’s backpacks and the makeshift stretcher when it wasn’t be used.

I was astonished that three of our volunteers were in sandals and still managed to keep up the torturous pace with unfriendly terrain and sharp rocks and vegetation.   “Where on earth are we going? When are we going to get there?” resonated through my mind. Finally, finally, finally, we were met by a man from Tempe who had a campsite and volunteered his site for the meeting point for emergency medical people to come  to take over. We made  the ascent to that spot and completed our daunting task.

Buck was grateful to the strangers who stopped everything they were doing in the remote canyons of West Clear Creek. His rappelling partner took down our names and contact information to thank us with time. Buck said he was lucky to live in a world where people will go to that trouble for someone they had no obligation to help.

Two days later, all of us got an email with photos and a letter of appreciation from Mike and Buck. And this news:

“Buck was transported by helicopter to the Flagstaff Medical Center where x-rays showed that his left ankle bone was broken and his right heel bone was shattered. Buck and his wife decided that he should stay at that hospital where he will undergo surgery this coming Wednesday.  It looks like he will have to be in a wheel chair for the next three months… not good, but it could have been worse.”

The four of us on the hiking team decided at 5:35 p.m. that we could trek all the way back to our original trail up the mountain, blessed by it  being two days before the longest day of the year.  At a fast pace, sometimes losing the trail, the four of us — two of us in our 60s — made our way back in nearly two hours — the last 40 minutes just dragging our tired bodies  up the mountain, taking rest breaks every 100 feet up.

It was grueling. Muscles were fatigued. We were expended.  By the time we reached our vehicles, the  sun was setting through the pinion pines. We got back to the Valley  4 1/2 hours later than planned.  It was a day in the Arizona woods we would not forget.

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