Superman syndrome can result in outdoor tragedy

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When BYU students set out on a hiking trail, rappel into a canyon or crawl into a cave, they often return home at the end of the day with great stories to tell. Occasionally, they’ll return feeling shaken or scared by an unexpected challenge they encountered along the way.

Sometimes, outdoor adventures end in tragedy and students don’t return at all.

Proper planning is crucial for staying safe outdoors. Photo by Sakeeb Sabakka (Creative Commons)
Proper planning is crucial for staying safe outdoors. (Sakeeb Sabakka, Creative Commons)

Even with the advent of technology and abundant resources to help people plan safe outdoor adventures, search and rescue officials say BYU students are getting into sticky situations with increasing frequency.

Brian Hill, a professor of recreation management at BYU and president of the Utah County Search and Rescue Team (SAR), said his team participates in multiple rescues of BYU students each year. He speculates that young people’s frequent use of technology may be more harmful than helpful.

“Fifteen years ago, when someone goes off in the woods and they get lost, they have to find their way back,” Hill said. “These days, people will call.”

This is especially true in Utah County, according to SAR data. Utah County had the second highest number of rescues out of all counties in Utah during 2013. Grand County, the home of Moab and other popular destinations for outdoor recreationists, led the state for the most rescues. From 1998 to 2013, search and rescue data shows a similarly high number of reported incidents in Utah County.

The ability to call for help may be why some students feel safe exploring alone without telling anyone where they are going. Hill is currently participating in two studies he hopes will provide academic proof for how technology impacts people’s decision-making abilities in stressful outdoor situations.

McKay Vowles, an insurance agent from Orem who volunteers on the SAR team, said he feels age plays a large role in why some BYU students take risks outdoors.

“A lot of (young adults) have a ‘superman’ complex where they think they are invincible,” Vowles said. “Most do not carry adequate water or food, and their clothing options are not outdoor-friendly.”

Young men are especially vulnerable to the superman syndrome.

“There’s no question in the number of calls that SAR goes out to,” Hill said. “It’s pretty well established that men are bigger risk takers in the outdoors than women.”

With Rock Canyon and Provo Canyon just minutes away from BYU campus, it is not surprising that some BYU students enjoy spending time outdoors. But new risks arise with students from other states and countries. Brett Henry, a real estate broker and a member of the SAR team, said these students may be unfamiliar with some of Utah’s unique natural challenges.

SAR volunteers said they participate in dozens of rescues involving BYU students each year. Photo courtesy Toby Norton
SAR volunteers said they participate in dozens of rescues involving BYU students each year. (Courtesy Toby Norton)

“Most students we rescue are from other states and don’t know any better,” Henry said. “They have had very little outdoor interaction, and they greatly underestimate it.”

In Utah County, recent tragedies have raised awareness about the importance of outdoor safety. In spring  2013, 22-year-old BYU student Tyler Mayle died while hiking on Y mountain. Mayle had experience hiking, camping and hunting in Colorado’s backcountry, but his father, Gary Mayle, said one mistake his son made was going into the wilderness alone.

“Recognize that you’re not the only one taking a risk. There are other people in your life who are essentially taking that risk with you,” Gary Mayle said. “Even if you just get hurt or lost, there’s a ripple effect.”

Due to superman syndrome, SAR team members said students they rescue often are humiliated about having to be saved. Lori Mayle, Tyler Mayle’s mother, said students who find themselves lost or injured shouldn’t be embarrassed to call for assistance if they are able.

“If you do go out by yourself and you get stuck, don’t be hesitant to use technology and call for help,” she said.

SAR team members agreed that with a combination of education and common sense, the number of young people needing to be rescued in Utah County can and will decrease.

“As an organization, Utah County Search and Rescue attends a lot of the local fairs and trade shows in the area. We set up a booth and try to educate people on proper outdoor training and responsibility. But mostly it is just common sense,” Vowles said. “Just be smart, think things through and always let someone know where you are going.”

For students who want to learn more about outdoor safety, SAR officials said taking recreation management classes and joining clubs that participate in outdoor activities are good ways to get started.

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