279 rescues: the perils of the quest to conquer Camelback Mountain

A trailhead on Piestewa Peak (photo by Melissa Fittro)

What might be Phoenix’s most iconic landmark is also one of the Valley’s most sought after activities for local residents and tourists alike: hiking Camelback Mountain.

Proper hiking boots, sunscreen, plenty of water and a hat is the minimum preparation someone set out to hike any of Phoenix’s mountains should be armed with.

Unfortunately, many tourists and local residents find themselves unprepared and in a dangerous situation as they sit defeated atop a rock somewhere along Camelback Mountain’s 1.5-mile Cholla Trail.

In the last 90 days, the city of Phoenix has received 77 calls for help from its mountains in 2017. Within Phoenix there are 41 trailheads providing access to 88 trails totaling more than 200 miles.

Following the 9-1-1 call, each mountain rescue is different with only one common similarity: rescues require a highly-skilled team.

One person might have slipped and fallen on rocks, while another person is suffering from dehydration.

Additionally, the mecca of high-end resorts and rentals that boarder Camelback Mountain — within the Town of Paradise Valley, Scottsdale and Phoenix — are advertising the adventurous hike waiting just minutes away.

One local entity, Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia, offers a Camelback Mountain hiking package for $15 to hotel guests or $25 to local residents, that includes free parking.

Kevin Albert, Paradise Valley Police Department.

Depending on the circumstances of the emergency, partnerships with neighboring municipalities like the Town of Paradise Valley Police Department are vital.

“We have a lot of resorts, their concierge says ‘you have to do this,’ and ‘you should be good with a bottle of water,’” said Paradise Valley Police Department Community Resource Officer Kevin Albert in a March 28 interview. “That’s where we have a lot of (people) who get hurt.”

Mr. Albert says one of the many examples of being unprepared for a major hike is the lack of proper footwear.

“For one injury it may involve 10, 12, 15 folks,” he said of the amount of people required for a mountain rescue. “So we’re trying to talk with the resorts by discouraging.”

Mr. Albert acknowledges it is hard to curb the issue when the mountain is so convenient.

“It’s difficult when someone says ‘I want to go hike,’ when Camelback is literally right in their backyard versus, yeah, go five miles down to Squaw Peak Road.”

The majority of rescues are from someone physically hurting themselves while on the hike, said Phoenix Fire Department Capt. Jake Van Hook, during a March 28 press conference.

Heading into the first weekend in April, one which Phoenix welcomes fans from around the country as it plays host to the NCAA Men’s Final Four championship, the weather is projected to be a high-temperature of 72, 78, and 85 degrees Friday through Sunday.

“This time of year seems worse,” said Mr. Albert. “In January it’s the car shows; in February the PGA; now we have spring training and all of that; and now the Final Four. One day they had five rescues in one day.”

Phoenix Fire Department Technical Rescue Armando Navarro (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Take a hike. Do it right

Phoenix Fire Department Technical Rescuer Armando Navarro says he’s lost count as to how many times he’s rescued someone off a local mountain.

“I would say enough to worry my wife day and night,” Mr. Navarro said on March 28, while wearing full harness gear anchored to a nearby fire truck. Mr. Nadarro was surrounded by several scattered accessories needed to complete a mission including equipment bags, medical supplies, helmets and ropes.

Local Arizonans might assume that rescues die down in the summertime, Mr. Navarro said, but they don’t.

“The lack of hydration sets in,” he said. “I worked in fire for 12 years before I came to technical rescue and I didn’t realize how often you were on the mountain.”

A mountain rescue can vary from a helicopter rescue; to propelling down the side of a mountain; to five people carrying someone down on a stretcher.

The rescues wouldn’t be possible without the collaboration of Phoenix police, fire and parks department, and the Town of Paradise Valley, explained Capt. Van Hook.

Most often the helicopter rescues need the land within the Town of Paradise Valley.

“We have a base landing zone (where) we will take someone off a mountain and set them down here,” Capt. Van Hook said. “That often times happens in Paradise Valley.”

Last year, the city of Phoenix conducted 279 rescues.

“It happens frequently,” Capt. Van Hook said. “We understand what’s going to happen. We just try to help people.”

When asked how many rescues are of people visiting, Mr. Van Hook guesses it would be around 50 percent.

Phoenix Fire Department officials lay out necessary items for a mountain rescue. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Think head to toe before you go

Phoenix Park Ranger Mark Sirota says the city has created a concierge education program for local hotels.

“We educate the concierge, we train the trainers,” he said. “So once the concierge has good, accurate information they can provide that to their guests. Their guests can then have a safer, more enjoyable hike. It’s all about options.”

Mr. Sirota says not every hiker can do a double black diamond hike — the skill level of Cholla and Echo Canyon trails.

“We don’t want to say don’t go — we want to say, ‘based on your abilities you may want to choose a different trail,’” he said.

Mr. Sirota says the first person to die while on a hike this year occurred Wednesday, March 22.

“It was dehydration,” he said. “He should have stopped long before — he probably shouldn’t have gone to the top. But he goes to the top and after that point you’re crashing and water’s not going to do it for you. He was in the hospital for three days before he passed.”

The city’s campaign ‘Take a hike. Do it right.” advises hikers:

  • Watch the weather
  • Dress appropriately
  • Bring water
  • Keep in contact
  • Team up
  • Be honest
  • Don’t “trailblaze”
  • Take responsibility.

(photo by Melissa Fittro)

Conquer Camelback

One of the Town of Paradise Valley’s main sources of revenue are tax dollars received from the plethora of resorts within municipal boundaries. Additionally, neighboring city of Scottsdale also offers a wide selection of accommodations to choose from.

Many of the hotel websites mention Camelback Mountain specifically as being a local destination for visitors.

The Omni at Montelucia’s hiking page includes a list of best practices for hikers, in addition to a map with several walking, jogging, hiking and bike paths. The October-April guided and self-guided hiking packages they offer to guests and local residents includes two bottles of water, lip balm, sun screen and a map.

“We have quite a few hotel guests and locals participate in our Saturday guided hikes for $25 per person,” said Stevie White, spa director at Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia in a March 28 e-mailed response to questions. “Year to date we have guided over 25 hikers to the top of Camelback.”

Ms. White says the resort offers each inquiring guest with a trail guide and safety tips to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Because the resort offers guided hikes, there are a number of trained hikers on staff, Ms. White said.

“Our resort offers both group and personalized guided hikes and we take every precaution to ensure the safety of our guests,” she explained.

“Because of that, we have not had a guided hiking incident that required medical attention. Our hiking staff is trained to recognize symptoms of dehydration and takes many preventative measures to avoid heat exhaustion. Additionally, should an incident arise, our hiking staff is fully trained and prepared to assist a guest if medical attention is necessary.”

The Omni is proud of it’s special offerings of Camelback Mountain and encourages guests to share their hiking experiences on social media with the social media hashtag #conquercamelback.

“This is a spin-off of our ‘I conquered Camelback’ t-shirt available in Crave Cafe,” Ms. White said. “They have been so popular with our guests because you really do feel accomplished and like you’ve conquered the mountain.”

Phoenix Fire Department often times needs to use a helicopter to rescue individuals off the mountain. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be reached by e-mail at mfittro@newszap.com or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MelissaFittro

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