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A woman was rescued on January 8 from an Arizona spire after her knee became lodged in a crack 200 feet off the ground.
The woman, 25, had set out with a group of four friends around 12:30 p.m. that day near the base of Queen Victoria Spire in Sedona. Their objective: The Regular Route (5.7), a popular beginner trad line. The four friends aimed to give the woman (who does not wish to be named at this time) a fun time on her first-ever outdoor climb.
That first pitch seemed to go well. They were a little behind schedule, but everyone made it to the belay without incident. The second pitch, however, involves a 15-foot, four-inch crack and a difficult move over an exposed ledge. The woman, who followed second behind the leader, struggled to pull the move. The next hold was just out of reach, so she attempted to use an alpine knee.
The alpine knee is the more elegant alternative to the beached-whale move: instead of hurling yourself belly-first onto a ledge, you tuck a knee on top of a high foothold and push. But when the woman weighted her knee, it slipped—right into the crack. Around 5:15 p.m., the phone rang at the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department. The dispatcher relayed the message: someone was stuck in a crack on Queen Vic Spire, and needed a rescue STAT.
“The other members of the climbing party had tried to get her out. They tried pouring water in the crack, but that just wasn’t enough to lubricate the knee. By the time we got the call, she’d probably been stuck there maybe 30 minutes,” says Aaron Dick, search and rescue coordinator with the Sheriff’s Department and the incident commander that day. “The days are short right now, so we knew we didn’t have a lot of daylight to work with.”
Aside from pure discomfort, the rescuers were also worried about the patient for other reasons. If the constriction had been tight, she could have experienced a serious loss of circulation or compartment syndrome, a condition where pressure builds in the body’s tissues to the point of nerve or muscle damage. They needed to act quickly.
The rescuers considered ascending from the bottom of the spire, but that would have taken time. Given that temperatures in Sedona regularly drop down to the low 30s in January and the stranded party didn’t have overnight gear, hypothermia was also a serious concern. The safest option, the rescuers decided, was to try and pluck the patient off the spire from the air.
To free the knee, rescuers had two options. Plan A was the standard cure for stuck appendages—good old-fashioned dish soap, nabbed from its place beside the sink in the search and rescue building. The rescuers had really hoped that Plan A would work, because Plan B involved four additional rescuers and a rock chisel.
Dick’s team geared up, handed off the dish soap to Russ Dodge (the medic and trooper charged with dropping out of the helicopter), and started setting up incident command at the base of the spire.
The climbers waited until 8:00 p.m. for the search and rescue team’s arrival—nearly three hours after they had placed the call. Three of the party waited near the top, and the other two on the ledge. The sun had long set, and all were shivering.
When the Arizona DPS helicopter neared the tower, Dodge zipped down to the ledge via hoist cable. After a brief assessment of the patient, he got to work. First, he threaded a piece of webbing between the stuck leg and the rock and used a sawing motion to scooch her pant leg out of the way. With nothing but bare skin touching rock, he was able to get the soap around the knee. Still, even after an hour of trying, it refused to budge. Around 9:00 p.m., he called for backup. The chopper returned, and four more rescuers were deposited at the top of the spire, rock hammer and chisel at the ready.
But shortly after the second team arrived—and after four hours of being stuck in the crack—the leg popped free.
The patient, the rescuers, and the other four climbers, who were by then exhibiting signs of mild hypothermia, were airlifted off the spire. At the base, Sedona Fire District paramedics evaluated the patient and the other members of her climbing party. None of them exhibited signs of serious injury and all refused further treatment. Aside from being perhaps a little sore and soapy, the knee was fine.
“I’ve checked in with her, and she’s had no issues with her knee since,” Dick adds.
Contrary to mutterings on the internet, the patient will not be charged for her rescue.
“There’s no bill for search and rescue in Arizona,” Dick explains. “The primary reason is that we don’t want people to delay calling in because they’re afraid of getting a bill, and potentially delaying the situation until it becomes more serious for that person and more dangerous for the rescuers.”
He adds that the incident was no one’s fault.
“From our perspective, these climbers did everything right. It wasn’t an issue of negligence or bad decision-making—it was an accident,” he says. “They attempted to resolve it themselves, and when they realized they couldn’t, that’s when they called.” Calling early allowed the teams to mobilize—and execute a successful rescue fast.
As for the other takeaways? Most climbers don’t need another reason to stay away from off-widths. But for many of us, a stronger motivation to keep a little more soap around certainly couldn’t hurt.