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Risk-takers head to Moab to balance thrills and spills

Published: Wednesday, March 27 2013 4:45 p.m. MDT

Jack Nielson gets a bird's-eye view during an Easter Jeep Safari trip at Moab, Utah.

Jack Nielson Family Photos,

SALT LAKE CITY — John Beall is a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie. Having shredded  terrain across the country in his souped-up Jeep, the Texan was thrilled to be wheeling up The Metal Masher, an appropriately named four-wheel drive trail in the backcountry of Moab this week for the 2013 Easter Jeep Safari.

“I come together with those who share a love of the thrill and the challenge of meeting nature’s obstacles,” Beall said. “But we try not to be stupid."

Beall is one of more than 3,000 off-road sports enthusiasts rolling into red rock country for the 47th annual nine-day event. And they are not the only people taking advantage of Utah’s mecca for extreme sports. As the weather warms up, hikers, rafters, bikers, campers and rock climbers alike flock to Moab, sharing a love of the thrill, as well as a keen awareness of the risks involved with adventure.

Those risks came clearly into focus last weekend with the death of 22-year-old Kyle Stocking, who hit the ground from his rope swing mounted atop Corona Arch, a thrill-seeking plunge turned fatal because the swing rope was too long.

Kody Seibold, who swung from the arch this past winter, said he was saddened but not surprised to learn of the death.

"It wasn’t that shocking,” Seibold said. “People miscalculate things all the time.”

Such tragedies, Seibold said, needn’t keep people from taking safe risks. But determining safe risk is a skill born by experience say those involved with the Jeep Safari.

“We’re like Disney on dirt,” said Marian DeLay, Director of the Moab Area Travel Council. “Moab offers an outdoor landscape that pushes you to your limits and challenges even the most active of individuals.”

And the number of wheeled enthusiasts in Moab is on the rise, according to Michelle Hill, an information specialist coordinator with the Moab Area Travel Council

For DeLay, the only way to justify the risk is to be 100 percent confident that there is no error allowed.

“There have been so many people who have done it and done it successfully,” DeLay said. “But without guides, proper equipment, a proper background and enough experience, you will be taking a risk that makes the thrill not worth it."

Jeff Neagle, a four-wheeler rider for 35 years who will attend the Jeep Event on Friday, said accidents are most often a result of impulsive acts: “You have to think things clearly through. You can’t just do it on a wing and a prayer.”

Neagle said he can look at most of the trails and recognize they are or aren’t navigable: “I know my level and I know what risks I can confidently and safely take. Stuff can happen, but accidents can be avoided.”

In Neagle's view, a person can never be too careful.

“Hiking Angel’s Landing in Zion’s National Park can be more dangerous than four-wheeling in Moab,” he said. “I’ve ridden mountain bikes and motorcycles on some extreme mountain trails down there and, at times, felt more at risk than four-wheeling.”

Tai Weaver, a four-wheeler who has attended the Jeep Safari for 19 years, agrees.

“I installed seat belts, a full cage, a cutoff switch for the engine and fuel, in case the Jeep rolls,” Weaver said. “I keep tabs on the degrees of difficulty on the trail and make sure I don’t push myself beyond what I know I can handle.”

Weaver said going with a group and having designated spotters to warn the driver when the four-wheeler might roll ensures safety.

For Beall, following park regulations is important.

“I follow a line on the rock and stay within the guard rails placed along the edges of cliffs,” Beall said. “Under such circumstances, I see little room for risk, beyond the chance that a rock may fall from the mountain.”

Those attending the Jeep Safari tend to know their limits, said Andy Smith with Grand County Emergency Medical Services.

Smith said he gets about five emergency calls from Jeep Safari participants each year.

“Jeep week is actually pretty mellow for us,” Smith said. “Jeepers are very good at taking care of themselves and come fully equipped with first aid kits and safety equipment.”

Ultimately, DeLay said, those doing things outdoors must know their limits and be content to realize that there are challenges we cannot overcome.

“And with such a mindset, the rugged terrain of Moab can be a fun, safe playground,” DeLay said.

For Seibold, the benefits of the thrill — even on a rock swing — are worth a calculated risk.

"I was able to look at the rigging they had set up," Seibold said. "They explained how they set it up, and why they did what they did, and where they learned to do what they did."

And he said he would do it again. "It's exhilarating. There's no way I was going to pass up an opportunity like that."

E-mail: rlowry@deseretnews.com

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