Honolulu Fire Department receives nearly a call per day about hikers in trouble. It is always preventable
Izero in on those stories about stranded, lost or deceased hikers. I’m not being morbid. In fact, it’s the opposite. There’s nothing romantic about the notion of “dying while doing what you love,” so I try to understand what went wrong, what fatal error transpired. And the hair on my neck crawls sometimes because I’ve traversed many of the paths mentioned and have found myself in eerily similar situations.
Recently, within a week of each other two young women fell from waterfalls in Palolo Valley, one fatally. She had been trying to take a photo and fell more than 30 feet. I’ve been in that situation, maybe even in that same spot and the only thing holding me back were fellow hikers, whom I listened to even as I laughed off their concerns. Then there was that fatality on the Waianae range above Dillingham Airfield a couple of years ago where an ultra runner was separated from his group and fell to his death. Just two months later a father and son were in the same area when they took a shortcut and found themselves on a steep drop off, unable to climb back up, necessitating a rescue. I’ve been on that trail and nearly took a short cut. Perhaps the fatal one?
Hiking – Mike Algiers
“I have my three ‘ills,'” says Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club past president Mike Algiers, who also heads up HTMC’s trail clearing crew and has led several rescue missions for missing hikers.
“People are either ill-prepared, ill-equipped or ill-informed. What I mean by ill-prepared is they’re either out of shape or they overestimate their abilities or they underestimate the difficulty of the trail. Ill-equipped is they don’t take enough water, they’ve got bad foot gear with no grip. They don’t have simple things like rain gear and flashlights or any kind of rescue or first aid equipment, and a phone or a walkie talkie. The last one, ill-informed – they don’t know about the trail. They have no idea of the length or the time required, they don’t have a map or a GPS and because of that, they get a late start and then they’re surprised when it gets dark.”
The general uptick in enthusiasm for the outdoors coupled with the veneer of paradise can easily lull residents and visitors alike into a false sense of security. Hawaii’s gorgeous topography belies crumbly earth that easily gives way and trees or branches that appear secure but readily break. Add sheer cliffs to that and you have lethal terrain. Jutting roots, falling rocks, flash floods, dog bites and bees all add to the danger.
“The primary cause of major injuries or deaths are falls,” notes Algiers. “I’ve actually witnessed people falling off the trail and even if it’s not that steep, it’s maybe a 45-degree angle, you think, ‘Oh I’d be able to stop, I’d be able to grab these bushes and I’ll be fine.’ But once they start, they pick up speed and start tumbling and there’s no way for them to stop.”
Becoming injured or incapacitated on the trail is dangerous in itself, but falling off the trail can mean landing in a gully obscured by overgrowth. If someone is unconscious, locating the person becomes that much more difficult.
“Unfortunately, most of them aren’t rescue attempts, they’re recoveries,” says Algiers. HTMC only begins searching after about three days, once the Fire Department has moved out. He and his team have personally found deceased hikers, but there are many more out there, he says, who haven’t been found.
Every so often there’s a rewarding case, like in 1999 when two Danish girls found themselves stranded on a cliff above Kahana Valley for eight days and it was three HTMC members who found them. Against all odds they were alive, having sucked water from moss and eaten berries for survival. The girls said having each other made all the difference.
Warning against the all too common “lone male hiker” phenomenon – young, macho male confronting the outdoors alone – Algiers recalls a tumble in the Wind-ward mountains that he prefers not to think about: “I was right on the edge where it got much steeper. I was in an upside down position where I couldn’t move without sliding. One of my friends who was up above was able to toss me a rope. If I had been alone, I don’t know what would have happened.”
As Algiers points out, even the experts get into trouble.
“The thing about falling is a lot of times the edge of the trail is obscured by brush,” he says. “You assume the undergrowth is on something solid, you get too close to the edge and it just gives way.”
To help keep the trails safe, Algiers and a crew of up to 25 head into the woods every Sunday for clearing and upkeep. The crew focuses mostly on backcountry trails, notes state Department of Land & Natural Resources trail and access specialist Aaron Lowe. Lowe, who is with the Division of Forestry & Wildlife, is charged with keeping 43 roads and trails in the state’s Na Ala Hele trail system (hawaiitrails.org, facebook.com/oahu.hele) safe for public use, many of these involving what he calls the “urban interface,” like Manoa Falls or Diamond Head trails.
Upkeep – Aaron Lowe
“The trails equal about 100 miles of jurisdiction,” says Lowe who has been relying on sparse crews, including prison inmates, to repair washouts or downed trees and to weed whack. “We have high labor-intensive projects, which require a lot of skill, moving rocks that are half a ton, for example, and chainsawing big trees and rigging them off the trail using ropes and cable.”
Vegetation grows so quickly in Hawaii, that the trails must be weed whacked often. The labor, which necessitates hiking in with machetes, chainsaws and other equipment, is so challenging that a single person is only able to cover a quarter of a mile per day. With 80 of the 100 miles cleared four times annually, Lowe’s crew covers 320 miles a year.
“We’re getting way more use on our trails than any of the other islands,” notes Lowe. “At Manoa Falls, we get about 300 people a day – that’s 100,000 people a year. Seventeen years ago, we’d be lucky to see 30 people a week, so use has gone way up.”
Lowe says that with the advent of the internet, trail use has also gone up in areas that are privately owned or unimproved where no signs or maintenance are provided for public safety. Those are generally the areas where adrenaline seekers run into trouble, sometimes fatally.
This is where both Algiers and Lowe weigh in on the dangers of blogging about these unsafe areas and the happy-go-lucky, extreme hikers who read the blogs and decide to tackle or even try to one-up their predecessors.
“If you sprain your ankle or need to be flown out, even though it’s a rescuer’s job to rescue people, mountain or back country rescue missions are dangerous,” says Lowe. “The first responders are having to put themselves at risk.”
Rescue – Capt. Terry Seelig
Together, neophyte and expert hikers accounted for 350 rescue dispatches – nearly one every day – last year, says Honolulu Fire Department Capt. Terry Seelig. Fortunately, not all of the calls result in need for a rescue, but clearly a staggering number of people are subjecting themselves to an adventure they haven’t properly prepared for or they are in areas that are inherently dangerous. Coincidentally, an emergency call comes in even as we speak. It’s for Diamond Head, which tops the list at 60 calls last year.
Mountain rescues are the most involving, requiring 12 to 15 rescue personnel and often a helicopter. The most difficult part of the mission is extraction, where rescue personnel use a sling, basket, or if the person is injured, a metal stretcher to lift the hiker to safety. Weather conditions, such as low clouds or wind, visibility issues because of forest canopy, as well as power lines or lack of daylight make maneuvering a helicopter in proximity to trees and mountains incredibly dangerous.
Also perilous are situations where rescuers need to be dropped off via helicopter to hike to a location and descend to a trapped hiker. Using a rope system, they then must either help the person climb out or rappel further down.
“Whether people are emboldened because of knowledge or a lack of knowledge, they want to enjoy the outdoors not realizing how dangerous it is,” says Seelig. “It’s a challenge because people come here for non-traditional tourism opportunities – eco-tourism or recreational activities that are a bit more robust and dangerous.”
Nevertheless, for those who are prepared, trekking in Hawaii can be safe and informative:
“It all starts with a trail,” says Lowe. “Because we have so many people coming to our trails, we have the opportunity to do some great outreach about Hawaii, about invasive species. Visitors can leave with a broader understanding of the environment.”
The message to all outdoors enthusiasts novice and expert is by all means, get outside, but as Algiers says, “know your limits and respect the terrain.”
Safe Hiking Guidlines
HAWAIIAN TRAIL AND MOUNTAIN CLUB GUIDELINES FOR SAFE HIKING:
File a flight plan with someone who knows where you’re going, who’s going with you and when you’re expected back. Get information about the trail. Wear adequate clothing and hiking boots. Check weather conditions. Know your capabilities. Gear: Bring a cell phone, whistle, rain gear, first-aid kit, flashlight, space blanket, something brightly colored and 2-3 liters of water.
Always stay on the trail and look where you step. Stay together or regroup and watch the time. Monitor everyone’s condition, monitor the weather and avoid undue risks.
When finished, let the person holding your flight plan know that you have returned safely.
In an emergency:
* Call 911 – ask for Fire Rescue
* Be visible – use the brightly colored jacket
* Be audible – use the whistle
* Stay calm – keep a positive attitude
* Stay put – increase your chances of being found
* Stay warm – use the space blanket, stay dry and out of the wind
For more information, go to htmclub.org.