The dos and don'ts of hiking in cliffy areas

The dos and don'ts of hiking in cliffy areas

(Robert Williamson, Contributor)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Standing on a mountain summit or looking at vistas from the edge of a lofty overlook is a beautiful and exhilarating experience. However, every year tourists and hikers take tumbles and falls. Some falls result in injury while others are fatal.

So far this year, there have been three fatal falls in the Grand Canyon in Arizona and one at Angel's Landing in Utah. Knowing a few dos and don'ts for hiking near or viewing lofty overlooks will help keep you safe.

Know the trail, terrain and your limitations

Hikers should know the trail and terrain they will be hiking, as well as their level of fitness and mental comfort with elevation and exposure to cliffs. There are websites and guidebooks available that provide information for many of the trails found in Utah and surrounding states.

Perusing the available information will not only help keep hikers from getting lost, but it will often give information about the difficulty and precautions to be taken.

Most trails will simply be rated as easy, moderate or difficult. Easy trails usually have fewer miles and elevation gain. Moderate trails are longer and steeper. Difficult trails have more miles, steep terrain and may have scrambling, rock climbing or sections with cliffs and exposure to drop offs of several hundred feet to a few thousand feet.

Each hiker must know his or her level of fitness and ability. Fear of heights and exposure need to be considered. If an individual feels higher levels of anxiety and fear on specific sections of trails or while scrambling to a summit there is nothing wrong with acknowledging it and turning back when uncomfortable.

Some people may experience severe or mild altitude sickness when hiking from low elevations to high elevations. Know the symptoms and how to remedy them. If you feel light-headed or dizzy near cliffs or mountain summits be extremely cautious and stay away from the edges.

Robert Williamson
Robert Williamson

The difference between hiking, scrambling and climbing

There is a difference between hiking, scrambling and climbing.

Hiking is nothing more than walking on a trail. It may entail elevation gain and rocky terrain. On many of Utah's trails, especially those with mountain summits as the end goal, hikers will often have to scramble or climb over rocks and boulders. Some great hikers may not be good at scrambling and climbing.

Robert Williamson
Robert Williamson

Designated trails and safety railings

Many of the state and national parks have designated trails and overlooks with safety barriers or railings. It is best to stay on the designated path or trail and behind the safety railings. Several fatal falls occur each year when tourists or hikers ignore the safety features and venture out too close to the edge of cliffs.

In Utah, we are blessed with trails that are natural and do not have many man-made safety structures. There are, however, designated trails. The trail system must be followed. These routes are usually the safest and staying on the route and not cutting trail will keep the area more pristine and less susceptible to erosion.

Several falls occur every year in Utah when hikers attempt to climb around the features of destination waterfalls. Bridal Veil Falls in Provo Canyon and Lisa Falls in Little Cottonwood Canyon are two that have had recent fall mishaps. It is tempting to climb the rocks around the waterfalls, but these areas are wet and slippery.

One of Utah's most dangerous trails, Angel's Landing in Zion Park, has chains secured to the narrow parts of the trial where exposure to thousand-foot cliffs are found on each side. This is a popular trail and when in heavy use hikers may have to wait to use the chains. Be patient and courteous in these areas. Again, if you feel uncomfortable, stop and get your wits about you. Proceed with help or turn back. Never compromise safety.

Tree branches, brush, rocks or tufts of grass as hand holds

When near cliffs and areas of exposure, never trust tree branches, brush, rocks or tufts of grass as handholds. Many falls occur when people try to use these as handholds. While natural items can be used to help in balance, they should not be used to support the total weight of a hiker.

Snow and rain

Hikers need to be aware of past and current weather. If it is raining or there has been recent rain, the rocky trails will be muddy and slippery. Also, in years of plentiful snowpack, trails can still have patches of snow and summits may have snow cornices.

Snow cornices overhanging a mountain precipice are dangerous and a person could break through or slide down one. Be very cautious and mindful of the condition of the trail.

Taking photos near cliffs

Getting the glory shot of your hiking experience is rewarding. Showing the world the summit, the vista, the vertical drop is all well and good, but precautions must be taken.

Be careful when looking through the viewfinder of a camera or phone. Do not walk forward or backward near cliffs when looking through a viewfinder.

Those being photographed should never walk backward as directed by the photographers when near cliffs. Use common sense when edging as close as you can to cliffs. Great photo shots can be taken without having to get right on the edge. The same advice goes for selfies.

Robert Williamson
Robert Williamson

Horseplay, drugs, alcohol and cliffs

Having your wits about you when near cliffs and exposures is always best. Drugs, alcohol and horseplay (goofing around too much) can often lead to mishaps in the outdoors. Running around cliff areas, pretending to push someone over the edge or playing tag can lead to slips and falls. Parents, watch your children around cliff areas.

Planning and preparation: the key to safety and success in hiking

While spontaneity is fun, the key to having a safe and successful hike takes planning and preparation.

Always leave a detailed itinerary at home with someone who knows your plans. This includes the name of the trail, the route being taken (including the driving route), the destination and when you plan to return.

As a hiker, you need to take enough water, food, and emergency essentials.

Short simple hikes can often be taken alone. It is wise to have at least four hikers in your group if hiking in remote areas or areas where there are minimal people. This allows for someone injured to have one person stay with them and two people go for help.

Boots and hiking staffs

Good hiking boots, lightweight hiking shoes or trail running shoes are a must. Hiking trails, rocky summits, and overlooks often have loose gravel and dust. Good soles with gripping traction can help prevent slips and falls. The use of good sturdy hiking staffs can also provide a degree of balance and stability.

Robert Williamson
Robert Williamson

Safety is no accident

Get out and enjoy Utah's trails. It is a great way to exercise both the body and the mind. Know your skills and limitations and act accordingly. Plan and prepare wisely and you will keep accidents to a minimum.

Always remember: Stay on the designated trail, stay back from cliff edges, observe and obey warning signs — those posted on the trails and those in guidebooks and online sources — and carefully watch children. Use common sense and your hiking can take you to lofty summits, beautiful vistas, refreshing waterfalls and lakes. Robert Williamson is a graduate of Weber State College and the author of "Creative Flies: Innovative Tying Techniques."

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