hiker rescue

Kyra, a Belgian Malinois search and rescue dog with the U.S. Border Patrol, recovers with other agents following a long day of searching for Joe Smallwood in the Santa Rita Mountains last Thursday.

Joe Barr was feeling down Tuesday. After spending five days in the Santa Rita Mountains, he’s disappointed no one has been able to find missing hiker Harald “Joe” Smallwood, 82.

It’s not the first time he’s experienced heartbreak, though.

Barr, 63, has been a member of the Southern Arizona Rescue Association for the past 45 years. The retired property developer has been on countless search and rescue operations throughout Arizona over the years. If he’s not hiking with fellow searchers in the field, he’s sitting inside a truck back at the command center keeping track of the searchers and plotting their next moves.

Smallwood, a winter visitor from Ohio, called 911 around 4 p.m. Feb. 5 and reported he was lost and couldn’t find any trails. His car was found at the Mount Wrightson Picnic area, the highest parking lot in Madera Canyon, but despite a massive search, he’s not been found as of Tuesday, a week after he went missing.

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department suspended the search Monday night.

However, Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Lt. Gerardo Castillo said the department’s 16-member Search and Rescue team has purposely scheduled its normal monthly training session for Sunday in the same area.

“We had overwhelming support from throughout the State of Arizona,” Castillo said. “We had everything we could possibly have. Everything was thrown into this search and it’s very heartbreaking not to have closure, especially for the family.”

At its peak, there were roughly 120 people searching for Smallwood. Law enforcement officers from eight counties were involved in the search along with the Southern Arizona Rescue Association, Southern Arizona Mounted Search And Rescue, Cochise County Rescue volunteers, Southwest Rescue Dogs and U.S. Border Patrol.

smallwood map

A map of Madera Canyon shows where Harald "Joe" Smallwood's car was found, as well as where his phone was pinged when he called for help. Rescuers called off the search for Smallwood Monday.

Horses and aircraft with heat-seeking equipment were also deployed.

Castillo said Santa Cruz county deputies were on the Mount Baldy Trail by 5:15 p.m. Tuesday and didn’t stop searching for Smallwood until 1 a.m. Wednesday. That same night, Pima County Sheriff’s Department’s air unit, which is equipped with heat-seeking equipment, was also activated.

According to the National Weather Service, it snowed in the Santa Ritas that night, with temperatures dipping down to 29 degrees and wind gusts reaching 30 to 40 mph. Last Wednesday saw temperatures drop into the mid-teens.

“Smallwood told dispatchers he had some food, but I don’t think he was prepared or equipped to spend the night,” Castillo said.

Barr said the heat-seeking equipment may have been hampered by the dense forest canopy and snow.

There were a number of difficult factors in this particular search, Barr said.

The only thing searchers knew for sure was the location of Smallwood’s car, he said. GPS indicated Smallwood was near Josephine Saddle Trail when he called, but that doesn’t mean he really was.

“Pings can be notoriously deceptive, especially in the mountains,” Barr said.

In April 2016, authorities launched a search for missing hiker Mauricio Carreon-Maltos, 28, high up in Sabino Canyon based on his phone’s GPS coordinates, but he was found deceased one week later many miles away.

“It makes it very difficult when you really have nothing to narrow the search area down,” Barr said. “You could have hundreds and hundreds of acres or square miles of potential areas where he might be. You almost have to search every square foot to find someone if they’re unresponsive.”

Smallwood should have been within 350 meters of the GPS coordinates, but Castillo said he believes he moved since he wasn’t found.

The traditional wisdom is missing hikers should stay put, Barr said.

“In some ways, moving keeps you warm and helps you survive, but that said, we tell people to stay put because it’s harder for us to find them if they’re moving,” he said.

The decision to suspend the search was made because it’s unlikely Smallwood survived the first 48 hours, the terrain is incredibly treacherous and the weather is challenging, Castillo said.

Searchers also encountered mountain lions during their search, the men said. In one instance, they came across a deer that had just been killed by a cougar.

Searchers were hampered from the beginning, Barr said.

“The snowfall had covered up any signs, like footprints or scuff marks and that happened the first night, within hours of his call,” Barr said. “You’re putting people at risk and you wouldn’t want to risk someone being injured or killed when you’re searching for someone who is deceased.”

Rescue history

Every five to 10 years, SARA gets involved in a large scale, lengthy search like the one for Smallwood, Barr said.

While SARA spends most of its time performing rescues, most searches are much smaller and shorter, he said. Every year, hikers twist ankles or become dehydrated and need to be rescued from Sabino Canyon.

More visitors are caught off guard by Arizona summers than our winters, Barr said.

“A lot of times, they’re not prepared. When the weather changes it catches people by surprise,” Barr said. “The monsoons are deceptive. You get a rain storm in the morning high in the mountains and hours later the water actually comes rushing down to the canyon bottoms.”

The lightest and cheapest equipment can prove to be critical to being rescued, Barr said.

He highly recommends hikers bring a signal mirror, whistle and a brightly colored and reflective space blanket with them, just in case. The mirror and blanket could greatly help in an air search.

“If you get injured and you can’t move, you’re stuck just trying to attract attention,” he said.

There are roughly 150 volunteers in SARA and every one goes through extensive training, Barr said. Besides the initial 15-day training, volunteers regularly train with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, the Southern Arizona Mounted Search and Rescue, Civil Air Patrol and other volunteer search organizations.

At the beginning of searches, participants move quickly along trails and routes looking for the missing themselves or signs they’ve been in the area, such as footprints, Barr said. Routes are natural paths people may take, such as drainage areas.

hiker rescue

Searchers from a variety agencies return down the Mt. Baldy Trail after a fruitless search for missing hiker Joe Smallwood last Thursday.

Searchers also have recognized that people tend to go downhill, even though it might not make sense, he said.

People lost on Mount Lemmon have been just out of sight of the highway, but headed way from it and toward the valley instead, Barr said.

If the initial search is unsuccessful, searchers will designate blocks of land to search and assign different resources to that search, such as canines or horses, he said.

“Horses can only work some trails, but they can work a lot faster and they can carry gear,” such as water, Barr said.

After that, grid patterns are developed with searchers criss-crossing the area.

Searchers always begin their task knowing the outcome might not be good, Barr said.

“You know that at some time someone exposed to this sort of environment is going to expire, but you’re hoping for the best and you need to put in a good effort to get out there,” Bar said. “You want to be there for them if they can respond to your calls or you can come close enough to see them. If they’re unresponsive, the probability of detection goes way down.”

As the search for Smallwood continued, they realized the odds were getting lower, but it didn’t matter, Barr said.

“If we were out there we’d want someone to come by and holler for us,” he said.

Barr said that sadly, he knows there are still hikers missing in the Catalinas and the Chiricahuas.

In addition to making sure hikers carry the proper equipment, Barr has other words of wisdom.

“Make sure someone knows where you’re going or leave some indication of where you’re going. You can leave a note in your car,” Barr said. “Someone should know where you’re going, what routes you are going to take and when they can expect you back.”

Kim Smith 547-9740

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