AMERICAN FORK — For the second time in two days, someone fell off a cliff at Timpanogos Cave National Monument, and Thursday it was a monument employee who fell to his death.
Rex Walker, a maintenance worker for the monument, had driven off in a two-wheeled motorized trail bike around 1:30 p.m. to fix some lighting outages. He was fairly close to the cave when he somehow drove off of the trail and fell more than 500 feet to his death, Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon said. Park officials said he fell near the cave exit on a portion of the 1.5-mile, paved trail that leads visitors to and from the cave.
"We don't know what happened, but somehow he fell off the trail," Cannon said. "There were other people around, but no one was with him. Other employees heard the fall, but we're still investigating to get an idea of what he was doing when he fell."
Staff members at the park tried to rappel down the steep slope to reach the 58-year-old man, who had fallen down a narrow rock-slide chute an additional 300 feet or more. Park superintendant Denis Davis rapelled to where the motorbike had landed but couldn't reach or even see where Walker was. Two National Park Service rangers, including Timpanogos Cave Chief Ranger Michael Gosse, hiked up from below to where the worker had fallen and found him dead.
Walker, who leaves behind a wife and children, lived in Pleasant Grove and worked at the park during the summer only.
"We worked with him every day, and we loved him. Our hearts are hurting," Davis said. "Rex was the kind of employee you love: great and broad set of skills, here early and often worked late. It is a tragedy that we hope never to repeat."
Sheriff's search and rescue crews were at the national monument with employees of the National Park Service, working to determine what caused the fall, Cannon said.
Davis told KSL that park employees heard the accident, prompting other employees to try and help the man.
"At that point, we rushed to the scene, saw the trail bike," Davis said. "We set up a rappel and went down to it, but there was no sign of him. A few minutes later, we heard our rangers coming up from below discovered him in the ravine. So he had fallen, my guess is, over 1,000 feet down the chute."
Cannon said that Timpanogos Cave personnel were working to bring the victim's body down from the trail by reaching it from a higher point around 6:30 p.m.
Park staff working with Walker said earlier that day they had all begun a rock-scaling operation on the cliffs above the trail where they worked to remove loose rocks that can be potential overhead hazards to visitors walking the cave trail below.
Walker had been acting as a spotter by holding cave tour groups back from the work zone until it was safe to pass on the 4- to 5-foot-wide paved trail. He left to address some lighting outages in the cave when something happened and he drove off the trail, Davis said.
The incident is still under investigation, but this is the second time someone fell off a cliff within less than two weeks of the trail opening.
Just one day before Walker fell, an 11-year-old girl from Taylorsville took a 100-foot plunge off the same trail but escaped without serious injuries. She fell after she made a misstep about a third of a mile up the trail and fell almost straight down. She complained of neck and back pain, but police say she suffered only minor cuts and bruises. She was still flown to Primary Children's Medical Center as a precaution in case of any internal injuries.
The chute that Walker fell down was the same place where a monument visitor fell to his death about four years ago, Davis said. The man had tried to help a small girl who had slipped off the trail, when he somehow fell off the cliff.
The superintendent said the park emphasizes safety for monument visitors with signs along the cave trail to remind them of the steep slope below and the potential for rocks to fall from overhead.10 comments on this story
"We just emphasize those messages constantly," Davis said. "The message is even printed on the cave admission tickets."
The scaling project that Walker was assisting with has been suspended while the park service and the Utah County Sheriff's Department continue their investigation.
A neighbor of Walker in Pleasant Grove said he was an incredible person who used to work in health care and loved gardening with his wife.
"He was a good man, one that anyone could count on," Leanne Brumage said. "He was an incredible neighbor, a very loving man."