Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Death in the Utah Desert

         It’s a glorious summer day, seemingly perfect for hiking among the folds and formations of Utah’s Red Rock deserts.  But the temperature has climbed past 100 degrees and you’ve run out of water on the return to the trailhead.  And the sun—a warm blanket wrapped around your shoulders this morning—has by afternoon become an iron smelter encasing your body in a pot of molten ore.  You feel headachy, your pulse and respiration rise, you lose coordination and your pace slows.  You’re suffering from heat exhaustion and, if your body temperature continues to rise and the body’s cooling mechanism collapses, heat stroke will result.   Delirium, organ failure, convulsions, and coma will lead to death.


       Six people have died while hiking in southern Utah this summer, five of them on trails I’ve hiked and blogged about.  While my blog posts are filled with the wonders these trails have to offer, it’s only fair to point out that Utah's rugged wilderness can be as deadly as it is delightful. 
        Below is a brief synopsis of this summer’s tragedy on the trails:

The Wave (Coyote Buttes) on the Utah-Arizona border. 
         A husband and wife, ages 70 and 69, were returning to the trailhead when they suffered the effects of dehydration and heat stroke.  Their bodies were found 250 yards apart.  One week later a 27 year-old woman, on a fifth anniversary trip with her husband, lost the trail for two hours, then collapsed from heat exhaustion.  Her husband hiked out for help; by the time rescuers reached the woman she had died.

The Wave.  Notice the water bottle at the side of my pack.
I carried two 32 oz. bottles—and it was a January day.

Horseshoe Canyon (Great Gallery) in Canyonlands National Park. 
        A 73 year-old man, hiking alone, failed to contact his family at the designated time and a  search party was launched.  His vehicle was found at the trailhead and his body was found along the trail.  Heat stroke and dehydration were determined to be the cause of death.

The black arrow points to me as I hike into Horseshoe Canyon.
Notice the total lack of shade and water along this trail.

Spooky and Peekaboo Slot Canyons in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
        A 35-year-old woman, hiking with a friend, struggled in the heat on the way back to the trailhead.  According to the Salt Lake Tribune she had packed three liters of water and a 32 oz. bottle of Gatorade.  She and her companion became lost for two hours but eventually found the trail and were within a quarter mile of the trailhead when the woman couldn’t go on.  Her friend ran to the trailhead and called 911.  When she returned to the trail the woman had no pulse and was not breathing.  The friend performed CPR for an hour until medics arrived.  The victim was transported to a hospital but did not survive.

Tim and his friend Mark descend into Spooky Gulch.
Our destination is the trees at the canyon's bottom.
This was one hike we did complete in the summer
—with plenty of hydration.

Brimhall Double Bridge Trail in Capitol Reef National Park. 
        A 56-year-old woman, hiking with her husband, became ill on the trail.  Her husband hiked out for help but by the time emergency personnel arrived the woman had died.  Heat exhaustion/stroke is the presumed cause of death.


Of the four trails mentioned above, Brimhall Double Bridge is the only trail I haven’t tried.  Having previously suffered the effects of beginning hyperthermia I tend to avoid desert trails in the excessive heat of summer.  If summer is the only time you have available to hike Utah’s deserts I recommend drinking at least a gallon of water, and hiking in the early morning or early evening.  
Enjoy the eternal beauty of the desert but please... be careful out there, and prevent a dreamy summer day from turning into a nightmare.


  1. First of all, I love that photo of "The Wave". Such interesting and "other-worldly" scenery you have out West!

    And now onward to the crux of your report . . . Wow! There's a lot to be learned from those tragic vignettes that are presented in this blog posting.

    Should I ever have the good fortune of hiking in your part of the country, it's quite clear that I need to quickly adopt a different strategy in terms of hydration. Here in New England, if I should run out of the water that I've packed, I can usually be assured that there will be a water source (brook, etc) relatively nearby. Ideally, it would need to be purified in some manner, but at least there would be life-sustaining H20! Whereas in the desert environment, it appears that you don't have that "luxury".

    Thank you for sharing this very interesting information about desert hiking.


  2. Hi John,

    You're right that one needs to adopt a different strategy for desert hiking. Many of the trails in southwestern Utah pass through terrain with nary a drop of water and dehydration is a constant threat. As you point out, the "other-worldly" scenery makes the Utah desert a worthwhile destination. But it's important to stay well-hydrated and to recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion, or to time your hikes to avoid the excessive summer heat.

    I'm glad that you found this post interesting and informative. Thanks for your comments and compliments!

  3. Hi Rita,

    A sobering reminder of the need always to prepare - not just for the hike, but for the temperature, altitude (which can be dehydrating), and the possibility of getting lost.

    The best part about all this natural beauty is sharing your experiences and great photos with your friends afterward!

    Thanks for the reminder to be safe out there.

    1. Hi Vickie,

      You're right about being able to share all these wonderful adventures with friends through photos and stories—just one more reason to make sure to come back alive.

      Thanks as always for reading and commenting!