McKinley County Search and Rescue

By Chuck Whitney

In the winter of 2005, when that day’s snow was just starting to fall, I left McGaffey’s Twin Springs trailhead bound for the far reaches of Forest Route 50 as it winds its way to Highway 53.  Piloting a four-wheel-drive Jeep and loaded up with a full array of camping gear, I felt prepared.  This was a darn good thing considering that two hours later I had buried the Jeep up to the wheel wells in a snow-filled ditch.  Right about the time I realized there was no way the Jeep was moving without something large pulling it, the snow really started to come down.

I bedded down that night in a field across from the Jeep, warm in tent and down bag, while another foot of snow fell over the next six hours.  Not everyone that night was as lucky as I.

McKinley County SAR Gallup JourneyLate during the same afternoon I was trying to dig out the jeep, an Albuquerque man parked on Forest Road 50 and walked alone into the woods.  On the trail of an elk herd, he lost track of the route and surroundings and soon had no idea where his truck was or how to get back to it.  As I was busy driving the Jeep into a ditch, moving vast amounts of snow with my hands and probably a crow bar or something weird, he was getting colder, wetter, and more lost by the minute.  Sometime after midnight, the man found the Jeep, started it, and used the heater to gain some critical warmth, a stroke of luck he later said might have saved his life.  Amazingly, I didn’t hear a thing that night, and knew nothing of this man’s wanderings until days later.

The lost hiker had been reported missing on the evening of his trek and a statewide search was soon underway, but he was not found until nearly 24 hours after walking into the woods.

While not at all a normal occurrence, people do get lost in the Cibola National Forest, as well as in the maze of arroyos, cliffs, caves, and hogbacks surrounding Gallup.  When it does happen, McKinley County Search and Rescue steps in.  Founded in the early 1970s, McKinley County SAR has had differing levels of involvement, but after a recent merger with Open Sky Search and Rescue, a unit trained in technical rope work and vertical terrain rescues, they are well on their way to being amongst the most professional and prepared crews in the state.

With 45 members on the active roster, an organized and committed board of eight, monthly meetings, regular training sessions, and access to powerful radio communications systems, McKinley County SAR now has the infrastructure to respond quickly to calls within a 100-mile radius of Gallup.  In addition to rescues, they are a consistent presence at the Squash Blossom Classic races, Dawn ’til Dusk and 24 Hours in the Enchanted Forest mountain bike races, and December’s Red Rock Balloon Rally.

McKinley County SAR Gallup Journey

McKinley County Search and Rescue during monthly training.

Why Is McKinley County Search and Rescue Unique?

– Responds to emergencies within a 100-mile radius of Gallup.  Rescuers are out the door within one hour of receiving a call.

– Enjoys full cooperation between city, county, and state organizations.  The McKinley and Cibola County Sheriff’s Departments, Gallup City and New Mexico State Police forces, McKinley County Fire and Rescue, Amateur Radio Emergency Services (ARES), NMDOT, and Gallup’s Red Rock Motorsports all work together to allow missions to run efficiently and with access to all necessary communication devices and technical gear.

– Two designated Hasty Teams – four to seven McKinley County SAR members prepared to respond quickly and consistently – guarantee that boots will rapidly be on the ground.  If need be, the crew has the capacity to run extended, tactical missions, and was recently involved in a 3.5-day, round-the-clock search for a missing man near Bluewater Lake.

– They are designated as a Special Operations Response Team (SORT) under the umbrella of McKinley County Fire and Rescue.  This means that all primary members are volunteer fire fighters, allowing them to respond rapidly to situations that have not been designated as missions at the state level.  This change cuts out red tape, allowing for faster response.

– To learn more about what McKinley County SAR does to keep adventurers safe, check out

McKinley County SAR Gallup JourneyWhy Would Anyone Need to Hug a Tree?

If your child were lost in the woods what would you do?  The easy answer to that is that you would organize a search beginning at and based around the child’s last known position.  Considering this, it’s obvious that searchers would want the lost youngster to stay in one place, making them much easier to find.  This, however, is counterintuitive; a lost person wants to get to safety.   The Hug-A-Tree program was started in the early 80s in an effort to teach kids the basics of wilderness survival, chiefly that they should stay where they are and wait for rescue.  In the ensuing decades, Hug-A-Tree has been responsible for saving the lives of many children.  A packet including training and presentation DVDs as well as coloring and activity books is now available at assuring that this valuable program is given in a standardized and effective way.

The “Cliffhanger” Rescue

At some point in the evening early last February a man hiking the red cliffs north of Fort Wingate lost his footing and slid 10-15 feet down a rock face before landing on a two-foot ledge, 80 feet from the base of the cliff.  The man’s cell phone was functional, allowing him to make a call to 911.  By 8:30 pm McKinley County SAR was officially involved and members were dispatched to the scene, guided by GPS coordinates from the hiker’s cell phone.  After a difficult scramble to a point roughly 15 feet above the fallen hiker, three rescuers were able to rig an anchor by wrapping climbing rope around a large rock pillar.  This system allowed one team member to rappel to the hiker.  Using a rescue device called a pick-off harness he quickly attached the man to the safety line, performed a brief assessment of the hiker’s injuries – severe pain in the mid-back and symptoms of hypothermia – and was able to safely rappel to the ground with the patient.

The hiker, who had been stranded for six hours with only a two-foot ledge protecting him from an 80-foot drop, was safely on the ground less than 15 minutes after rescuers arrived at his location.

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