Mt. Olympus warnings issued as rescue season starts
MT. OLYMPUS — It's one of the most recognizable peaks in the Salt Lake Valley.
"It's such an iconic mountain; everybody in the valley has grown up looking at it as our backdrop. There's this great desire to climb it," said Steve Scheid, environmental coordinator at U.S. Forest Service for the Greater Salt Lake City area.
But even though climbing to the summit of Mt. Olympus is a tradition, officials say the public needs to know it's not for everybody.
"It's a steep, strenuous climb. It's one of the most strenuous climbs in our whole district. And people go up there unprepared, maybe outside their ability level, and on the way down — especially if they summit — they make wrong turns or they get injured and it requires search and rescue. And that's been our ongoing dilemma," Scheid said.
"I think the real issue is people underestimate the mountain."
The Salt Lake County sheriff's search and rescue team responds to an average of 60 incidents each year. A third of those are for search and rescue operations in and around Mt. Olympus.
It's not only dangerous for lost and unprepared hikers, but it puts members of the search and rescue team who are called to assist stranded hikers at risk. Last June, Utah Highway Patrol trooper Aaron Beesley fell off a cliff to his death while helping with a search and rescue operation for two teenagers.
In July of 2012, search and rescue crews were called to help a 32-year-old father and his 10-year-old daughter who got lost and ended up in the more rigorous Heughs Canyon and "cliffed out," meaning they couldn't go up or down. Less than 24 hours after completing that rescue, searchers were called back to the same area for another missing hiker.
"It attracts people who in many cases don't have the skill or the endurance or the knowledge to really attempt that type of climb," Scheid said.
The problem isn't people going up the mountain — it's coming back down. Specifically, it's a quarter mile stretch and 400 vertical feet from where the main trail ends to the summit.
"It's a rock scramble," he said.
The main trail is clearly marked. But there's no way to mark the rock face to the top. The majority of people who get lost, do so on the way back down the mountain. Many never find the main trail again, Scheid said, and end up in Neffs Canyon or Heughs Canyon.
The other problem that searchers typically find is people who aren't prepared for the challenges Mt. Olympus presents. Scheid the entire trail is less than four miles, but it climbs 4,000 vertical feet. It can often be a very hot and dry hike in the summer because of how it sits in position to the sun.
But Scheid said there are still people who will attempt to start up the mountain in the middle of the day.
"They're setting themselves up," he said. "An experienced hiker would likely not have a lot of problems. But what we find is a lot of folks just aren't comfortable or experienced in this environment. And they're tired. They've used 90 percent of their day's energy or more than that just getting to the summit. They're low on water. And when people are tired, exhausted, their mental capacity is diminished. People make mistakes, they make bad decisions partly because of that."
If inexperienced hikers aren't getting lost, they're getting injured coming down the mountain, either suffering from heat exhaustion or rolling an ankle.
Last year, the Unified Police Department attempted to come up with a plan to increase the signage around the trail to better educate the public. But because of vandals, many of the signs were torn down as fast as they went up.
Now that a new summer season of hiking the trail has arrived, Scheid said his office will look in the coming weeks at what can be done to prevent another season of constant search and rescue operations in the Mt. Olympus area, and do an assessment on possible trail definition.
One idea is to increase signage or rock cairns in the area. Scheid acknowledges that there is "minimal signage" along the Mt. Olympus trail, mainly to keep the wilderness area as pristine as possible.
Continuing to educate the public to be both physically and mentally prepared before they set out to climb the mountain is another area the Forest Service hopes to continue working on.
"We know that signs everywhere aren't the answer. They come down or people don't read them. So we're going to go up there and take a look and figure out how to define a route," he said.
Increased signage at the trail head warning hikers about the potential hazards of the route is also being considered.
"We need to do a better job down at the trail head," Scheid said.
Hikers also need to remember to carry enough water with them, and a cellphone, in case an emergency does arise.
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