By Jim Walsh

Howard Larson, a snowbird from Nebraska, sat for hours on a rock along the Siphon Draw Trail in the Tonto National Forest near Apache Junction in February, waiting for his two friends to return from Flatiron, a scenic rock formation that offers hikers a panoramic view.

But that view doesn’t come easy – not with a 5.8-mile roundtrip hike, a 2,781-foot elevation gain and a steep climb up a slick rock face. Hundreds of fit hikers navigate the hand-to-foot climb, but those with physical limitations, such as a bad knee, are warned to skip it.

Larson, 70, was not in condition for much more than a nature walk when he tagged along on one of the East Valley’s most challenging hikes.

He knew he was in trouble when the sun started going down.

His friends made it to the top, but by the time they reunited with Larson about three-quarters of the way up the trail, one was hardly able to stand and had fallen 10-15 feet.

The group was in no condition to make it back to the trail head. A male nurse came to their aid while another hiker called 911 and reported some GPS coordinates.

Luckily for Larson and his stranded Midwestern friends, Central Arizona Mountain Rescue and Pinal County Search and Rescue were there to help them.

A group of dedicated volunteers who respond to emergencies all around Maricopa County, the Central Arizona crew included Russell Kemp of Ahwatukee, a systems analyst for Tempe, and Dr. John Nassar, an orthopedic surgeon with offices in Scottsdale and Gilbert. The two other intrepid crew members were Scott Hoffman and Chuck Wright.  

“Spending all night freezing, keeping someone alive, people don’t believe we do it for free,’’ Kemp said. “It’s my way to give back to the outdoor community.’’

“Being a systems engineer just pays the bills,’’ he said. “I love the rescue stuff. Being on mountain rescue is my passion.’’

Larson, 70, said he was flabbergasted to learn such a volunteer organization exists, but he certainly is thankful and highly appreciative. He wrote them a thank you letter and made a financial contribution after their expert crew saved him and his friends, Randy Lanning, 70, and Rich Schuldt, 74.

“My compliments go to Dr. John and his team,’’ Larson said. “We felt bad that they had to be up there. They said, ‘these things happen.’ They were really nice.’’

“You have four guys willing to spend the night sleeping on a rock with you,’’ Larson said. “I don’t know if we could have stayed warm enough. It would have been really bad if they didn’t get there.’’

Larson said he also was amazed that a medical specialist such as Dr. Nassar would participate in the team. He said he was having dinner two days later when Nassar called him to check in and ask if he was OK.

“It was wonderful, it was all about taking care of us,’’ Larson said. “I have paid doctors who didn’t call to check up on me.’’

A Pinal County sheriff’s deputy walked the most experienced hiker, Lanning, down the trail to safety, while the Central Arizona Mountain Rescue crew helped the other two all night, covering them with blankets and getting them hydrated. It was a cold, miserable night.

Technically, the team is a division of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Posse. The state Department of Public Safety’s helicopter dropped them off at a safer landing spot further up the mountain and the crew walked down to the stranded hikers.

But it was too dark and too dangerous for the helicopter to operate safely at the hiker’s location.

“We were not able to get them out. The best thing we could do is to keep them as warm as possible,’’ Kemp said. “We made this cocoon of blankets. Those two gentlemen were asleep in 20 minutes.’’

Larson readily acknowledges he was not in shape for such a difficult hike. He said he thought he was rested and could have possibly hiked down the trail, but he decided to take the “free ride’’ back in the morning.

Kemp disagreed, however, saying it would have been foolish for Larson to attempt the hike that night.

“The other two guys were not in shape to get off the mountain. They could not even stand up,’’ Kemp said, describing their legs as wobbling from exhaustion and dehydration.

Kemp remembers spending the night rolled up in a fetal position, wearing his parka, not keeping a single blanket for himself.

Kemp and Nassar, who specializes in foot surgeries, went to work the next day.

For Kemp, who grew up in Colorado and has always been an avid outdoorsman, working on the rescue team is both a unique mission and a highly challenging hobby.

“It’s the thrill of being part of this highly specialized rescue team,’’ Kemp said. “It’s an adventure for me. When we go through a dry spell, we get bored.’’

Kemp does not consider the Siphon Draw rescue his most challenging mission. That title probably is reserved for another near the Salt River, north of the Blue Point Bridge, when a rock-climber experienced a harrowing and painful fall in a remote box canyon.

Kemp said the rock climber experienced some sort of mishap with his rope system as he was lowering himself down the canyon.

At some point, the rope system, intended to protect the rock climber from a serious injury, failed. The rock climber fell 100 feet to the bottom, breaking both ankles.

Suspended from a rope attached to a helicopter, Kemp was gradually lowered by members of his team to the bottom, where he assisted the injured rock climber. Kemp loaded the injured man into a basket. The team gradually pulled the injured man and Kemp, who was hanging onto the rope, up the canyon.

Eventually, the helicopter flew the injured man and Kemp to safety, with Kemp dangling onto the rope for the entire four-mile journey in a memorable, maybe unforgettable, high-wire act.

Kemp said the injured rock climber gave him a fist-pump after they landed.

“It’s turning the drive for adventure into rescuing somebody,’’ Kemp said. “Nobody goes out into the wilderness hoping to get in trouble. He sent us a note, saying, ‘you completely saved my life.”