Phoenix Warns Hikers to Prepare for Heat After Recent Tragedies

A visitor relaxes at a ramada at Echo Canyon Park.EXPAND
A visitor relaxes at a ramada at Echo Canyon Park.
Ray Stern

The furor over the death of an English hiker, among others during intense heat, has forced the city of Phoenix to step up efforts to promote safe hiking in mountain parks this summer.

The "Take a Hike, Do It Right" program was launched after several recent heat-related tragedies in Arizona, including the July 7 death of a the British visitor on Camelback Mountain's Echo Canyon Trail, Ravinder Takhar, 48, of Solihull, England. Her tragedy followed the deaths of two young out-of-towners last year in apparent heat-related incidents on the same trail.

Rangers have made themselves more visible at Piestewa Peak and Camelback Mountain, which together receive hundreds of thousands of hikers annually. Most haul themselves up the steep summit trails; Camelback has two, the west-side Echo Canyon Trail and the east-side Cholla Trail. The rangers are handing out ice and water bottles, observing visitors who might be poorly prepared and chatting with people about the pitfalls on the trails. 

As part of the program, city and Phoenix Fire Department officials have met with representatives of the tourism and resort industry. Hotel staff were blamed in the past for recommending the mountain hikes to visitors who might not understand how difficult the short trails can be, though it's unclear whether that potential problem is widespread.

Gregg Bach, spokesman for the city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, says the city is working to get the safe-hiking message into visitor guides.

Hiking the mountain parks can be safe, even during summer heat, "if you follow a checklist" of preparations, he says.

"The locals, for the most part, they understand that," he says. "We need to educate the uneducated hiker...We've kind of tightened up our safety message."

Echo Canyon gets more than its fair share of mountain rescues because of its particularly steep terrain. It gains more than the height of the Empire State Building in just under 1.5 miles on a trail that sometimes resembles an extreme obstacle course.

Closed in 2013 for a $4.5 million renovation to the Echo Canyon Parking lot and trail-head, the trail reopened in January 2014 with twice as many parking spaces and, for once, permanent restrooms instead of portable toilets.

Enthusiastic visitors swamped the new parking lot, which still was relatively small at 135 spaces. The traffic situation now is as bad as, or worse than, before the upgrade. That's partially because visitation to Echo Canyon appears to have increased this year, officials say.

No wonder: Camelback received heightened attention and rave reviews when the Valley hosted Super Bowl XLIX on February 1.

The Wall Street Journal published a well-written article on January 31 about Phoenix's "Vertical Central Park." Time listed Camelback Mountain as number-two on a list of the top-seven must-do activities for Super Bowl fans to consider while in town. Pop superstar Katie Perry, who put on the event's halftime show, mentioned the mountain in an interview with the Arizona Republic: "I have hiked Camelback Mountain. You are talking to a Super Bowl performer who has hiked your mountain. So I know about you guys a bit."

The scenic, brutal mini-hike is everything people say it is, as we covered in our January 2014 feature article about the beauty and danger of Camelback. The Echo Canyon side is two amazing geologic features in one: the cliff-heavy "Head" area, a pink-tinted conglomerate of prehistoric mud related to the nearby hills of Papago Park; and the camel's body and hump, the main part of the prominence made of ancient, reddish granite. Camelback's been considered posh real estate since Phoenix's early days, and Native Americans used the site as a natural religious temple and gathering place. Technical rock-climbing has been an important part of the park's culture since the 1940s.

Like many natural wonders, Camelback's unique beauty has suffered because of the many people who love it. And though one of the great things about the place is its ability to deliver true adventure, that has lately come with a horrific cost in human life. Like Yosemite National Park or the Grand Canyon, visitors of varying levels of fitness, experience, and preparation try the difficult hike, sometimes with disastrous results.

Camelback Mountain has been having its worst streak of fatalities in its modern history. Its most deadly year seems to have been 2014, when four people lost their lives in three different accidents:

* In September, a 22-year-old Arizona State University student from Brazil, Emanuel Rodrigo Biana Costa Bezerra, collapsed and fell about 10 feet on Echo Canyon Trail after showing signs of heat exhaustion. Bezerra was flown off the mountain with signs of dehydration and died later in the day. He had just moved to the Valley to attend ASU's engineering school.

* Last August, Phoenix firefighter Gary Johnstone and 15-year-old Trevor Crouse died, and another teen was wounded, in a rappelling session gone wrong. Johnstone apparently had failed to tie an anchor knot properly.

* Eric Fernandes, 23, of Seattle went missing for three days in 2014 while hiking to the top of Echo Canyon Trail. After a search by city officials criticized as not robust enough, his body was found on June 3, 2014, by hikers in a rugged area below the trail. An autopsy showed he had died of hyperthermia.

Ravinder Takhar's death made headlines across the country and in Europe. She and her family had begun their hike up Echo Canyon at 10:15 a.m. on July 7, well into what would be a typical scorching summer day. After reaching the summit, Takhar reportedly felt ill and told her son and husband to continue heading down without her. A search was launched when she failed to show up in a reasonable amount of time. Her body was found about five hours later in a ravine. Like Fernandes, Takhar apparently had become disoriented because of excessive internal temperature and had wandered off the well-defined trail.

The same week, a Tucson man and his 12-year-old grandson from Prescott Valley were found dead of apparent heat stroke on a remote desert trail south of the Valley, and a Texas woman died after a few hours of hiking at Picacho Peak Park off Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson.

Despite the tragedies and predictable line of questioning in news reports about whether reckless hikers ought to be charged for their own rescues, Bach confirms that Camelback will remain a place where, for the most part, visitors define their own limits. Though the rangers will take more notice of people who appear unprepared, they won't presume to know whether hikers can make it or not, and they won't try to stop anyone from hiking, he says. 

Clearly, anyone going to the parks needs to realize that at Camelback, Piestewa, South Mountain, and other parks in the Valley that capture a slice of what the craggy desert used to be like, the dangers are real. Our unofficial view from looking at the statistics is that out-of-town visitors are especially at risk for heat-related illnesses, although the problem can strike anyone exercising or working in the heat. As our January 2014 article related, we're aware of two other heat-related deaths of hikers at South Mountain Park in recent years that involved people from other states — each had died within four hours of beginning their hikes.

If you're not used to the extreme heat of metro Phoenix and other parts of Arizona, acclimatize yourself by pre-hydrating, and consider taking on less-intense outdoor workouts for the first couple days of your stay. Veterans of summertime Valley hiking know to take sufficient water. They exude disgusting amounts of sweat, allowing them to hike safely at temperatures higher than 110. Our trick is to pack two Nalgene bottles with water and ice — more than enough — and to avoid the hottest parts of the day, when the sun is directly overhead. Sunscreen and a hat are mandatory. Make sure your cell phone is charged in case you need to call 911 for yourself or others.

A flashlight should also be in your fanny pack if there's a chance you'll be at parks in the dark. Many rescues have occurred to save unprepared hikers at night, and last year a city official told the NPR affiliate station in Phoenix that the city might start ticketing people who use the park before sunrise or after sunset, the official park hours.

A BASE jumper descends under his canopy last fall after a successful jump in Echo Canyon Park.EXPAND
A BASE jumper descends under his canopy last fall after a successful jump in Echo Canyon Park.
Ray Stern

We asked Bach about this, considering the overlapping issue of hiking in the heat. We wanted to know if the city planned to start busting people who are trying to escape the heat by hiking in the cooler parts of the day, like late evening. While hiking at night is against city rules (and it ticks off area residents), Bach confirms that it's perfectly acceptable to park at the Echo Canyon lot just before sunset, which means the vehicle would be there after official closing hours. He also says it's fine to start hiking before the gate opens in the morning, though vehicles aren't permitted to enter until just before sunrise.

The safety program isn't about enforcement or handing out tickets, and no more citations will be issued than in previous years, Bach says. Rock-climbing access, even BASE-jumping, will continue as in the past.

Legally, the participant is liable for any mishaps, whether due to killer bees, rockfall, heat, or other factors.


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