Spencer Stewart was climbing Stewart Falls last summer with a group of high school students attending a Chinese language summer camp when he made a risky decision to get a closer look at the falls. While climbing up an undesignated trail, his foot slipped and he fell several feet onto the rocks below.
Unconscious for a time and unable to walk on his ankle, Stewart required the assistance of more than a dozen rescue workers to carry him down the mountain to where he could receive medical attention.
“They put me on a helicopter and life-flighted me out,” Stewart said. “When I got to the hospital it turned out that I just had a sprained ankle so they gave me crutches and sent me home.”
Stewart, a 24-year-old student at BYU from Sandy studying Asian studies and Chinese, became somewhat of a celebrity that weekend as several news outlets covered the story. Some said he was a rock climber that fell 30 feet. Some described him as being much older, many reported he had a severe concussion and a few, even, went so far as to report he had broken several bones.
Despite the many inaccuracies and hyperboles, all of the stories had one common thread: hiking safety.
Sharon Brussel, the supervisory program assistant in the division of interpretation at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, said sprained ankles are one of the most common injuries hikers suffer while hiking in Utah. According to Brussel, hikers often suffer ankle and knee injuries while climbing because they don’t pay attention to what is under their feet.
Hikers need to be more aware and better prepared, Brussel said.
Many hikers these days set off into the mountains or canyons thinking a GPS and a cell phone is all they need to be prepared, but according to Brussel, relying on technology can get hikers in trouble.
“Being prepared with maps and knowing the routes is becoming a bigger and bigger safety issue,” Brussel said. “With the terrain we have it’s often hard to get GPS or cell phone coverage.”
A GPS and cell phone may not save you in an emergency while hiking in the mountains, but there are several things that can help keep hikers out of dangerous situations.
While these items are extremely important, Brussel said, water is an absolute necessity.
Phil Kelly, the instructor for the introductory course on outdoor recreation at BYU said there isn’t too much to know about hiking safety, but if there is one thing every hiker should consider, it’s water. Hydration is something he said he preaches to all of his students.
“I think most of us really are not well hydrated and it impacts our energy and our ability to think clearly,” Kelly said. “You just make a bunch of bad decisions when you’re dehydrated.”
When hiking in Utah, a 12-ounce water bottle is not going to cut it, Kelly said. Hikers should plan on carrying as much water as possible.
“One of the biggest challenges in Utah is that it’s an arid place,” Kelly said. “Most of the time in the summer months in northern Utah, generally the humidity level is 30 to 40 percent. In southern Utah the humidity is 10 to 20 percent.”
The body often loses water while hiking in a dry climate without any noticeable perspiration. If hikers don’t drink water on a constant basis, dehydration can set in quickly. Stewart experienced the dangerous effects of dehydration during his accident.
“I think I was dehydrated because I hadn’t been drinking water so I got really light-headed and passed out,” Stewart said. “So everyone thought I had a concussion, but I didn’t.”
According to Kelly, accidents like this commonly happen because of poor decision making due to dehydration and an overestimation of ability.
“I think we think that we have more strength and more ability than we really have so we bite off more than we can chew,” Kelly said.
Despite suffering minor injuries and perhaps a greater blow to his pride, Stewart still laughs about the experience and all of the media hype that accompanied it.
“I was actually kind of OK that they glorified it a little bit,” Spencer said. “They made me sound like I wasn’t as much of an idiot as I was.”
Possibly the only person to ever climb into Stewart Falls without climbing back out, Stewart said he hopes to go back someday so he can actually experience both sides of the hike. This time, however, he plans to watch where he steps.