Climber clung for life before 80-foot fall

Mary K. Reinhart, Tribune

Emily Decker reached out to grab her boyfriend as he tumbled down the jagged face of the Flatiron in the Superstition Mountains.

“He was about five feet above me and he slipped passed me. We touched hands,” she said.

“I watched him fall… I keep seeing the image in my head.”

John Wilkinson bounced off a ledge then landed flat on his face in a thicket of brittlebush 80 feet below. He lay still and Decker clung to the cliff face, sobbing, certain that he was dead.

But after a few moments, he started to move. Then, miraculously, the 19-year-old Texan rose to his feet, blood streaming from gashes on his face, arms and chest.

He pulled out a cell phone and called 911, though he doesn’t remember doing it, while Decker, 24, started to faint.

Wilkinson’s call Saturday afternoon alerted the Superstition Search and Rescue team and launched one of the most daring rescue efforts in the volunteer group’s history.

The nearly 12-hour, 400-foot rescue spotlights the often unheralded work of a dedicated team of trained climbers who risk their lives to help strangers, and pay for their own equipment.

“I don’t see how he lived,” said team commander Robert Cooper. “But he was the easy one.”

Cooper and his team set up a command post at the end of the street where Emily Decker’s family lives. They hiked in about a mile and started to work on Wilkinson.

Once he was stabilized and “packaged” in a rescue basket, team member Mike Wallace hooked himself and the basket to a line dangling 175 feet from a Department of Public Safety helicopter and off they flew.

Wilkinson was then air-evaced to Maricopa Medical Center, where he waited for word about Decker. He would have a long wait.

After she saw her boyfriend fall, Decker started to black out. Then her ears started ringing and the world came back into view. Still clinging to the cliff face, she looked up and saw a tiny ledge. Somehow, she managed to scramble up to it.

“I thought I was going to fall, too,” she said. “I closed my eyes, and I was breathing and I was holding on tight.”

The rescue team started up the way as Decker and Wilkinson, but soon realized it was too dangerous, even for them.

A helicopter rescue was ruled out because of Decker’s location and the possibility that, alone, she might panic and be knocked off her perch. The only choice left was a 400-foot descent.

The DPS helicopter returned and dropped Cooper, technical rescue team leader Mike Mello and three others atop the Flatiron. They fashioned a 600-foot rope system and lowered Mello down.

The sun was setting, the wind was picking up and Decker was worried.

“Finally, Mike appeared above my head. It was the best sight I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Mello leaned against her and helped her into a harness, but still had to coax her off the ledge.

“She was a trooper. But she was a young lady who was scared witless at that point,” he said. “She was just hanging on for dear life… and she was mighty thankful.”

Decker wasn’t sure about the rope system, and didn’t know exactly what she was supposed to do. She took a leap of faith.

“I was so confused. I had to trust him and walk off the ledge,” she said.

The pair rappelled down the 80 feet that Wilkinson had fallen and a profoundly grateful Decker hugged her rescuers. By the time the team hiked out and headed home, it was nearly midnight.

“They saved our lives,” she said, sitting next to Wilkinson in his hospital bed. “They are so amazing. They are the most incredible group of people.”

The Superstition Search and Rescue team is affiliated with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. In the past year, the team has helped nearly 300 people get out of the Superstition Mountains. The roughly 25 members rely on donations and volunteers.

Wilkinson expects to be released from the hospital in a few days. He suffered a bruised lung and got stitches to close gashes along his right eye and chin. He lost about seven teeth, and his chest and arms are covered with broad scrapes. There are more stitches in his knee and results from an X-ray of his right ankle are pending.

“I can’t believe I’m alive,” he said, his right eye swollen shut and his mouth a mass of red and purple. Decker smooths his hair back.

“At least you know I’m tough,” he says to her.

Decker moved to Arizona a few months ago, and Wilkinson was visiting from his home outside Houston. They readily admit that they made several mistakes and hope their experience will help other hikers.

“We didn’t plan anything. We didn’t tell anyone where we were going. We were just setting up for a day hike. We wanted to go to the top. That was our plan,” Decker said.

“We just had no idea of the danger that we were getting into.”

Phoenix New Times Best Mountain Rescue

Superstition Mountains, March 2008

It’s inevitable that a few people end up dead or seriously hurt each year in the Valley’s semi-wild mountain parks, given the crowds those parks attract when the weather’s nice. Fortunately, we have volunteer groups like Superstition Search and Rescue, or its larger cousin, the Central Arizona Mountain Rescue, to keep the body count as low as possible.

Last spring, the Superstition team, affiliated with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, showed off its skills in a dramatic cliff-side rescue on the face of the Flatiron, a prominent prow of rock on the west side of the Superstition Mountains.

TV and newspaper reports made it difficult to know exactly what went wrong. Somehow, after hiking up the steep Siphon Draw Gully trail, Valley newcomer Emily Decker and her boyfriend, Texas resident John Wilkinson, both in their 20s, had found themselves where they should never have been: perched on a near-vertical face of the Flatiron. Wilkinson had fallen 80 feet and was left balancing on a ledge, bruises and cuts all over his body. He had bashed his face so hard, according to reports, that he lost seven teeth. Decker was stranded on another ledge above him, too terrified to move.

With the help of a helicopter, on loan from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, team members lowered a 600-foot rope and plucked the pair safely from the cliff face in a risky effort that took nearly 12 hours and ended just before midnight.

A quote from Decker, in the East Valley Tribune, reveals the underlying problem that leads to most mountain rescues: “We just had no idea of the danger that we were getting into.”