Monday, September 10, 2007

Sad, but Not Necessarily Necessary

I’m very grateful that family and friends of Camille Cleverley now have some closure (see D-News and SL-Trib articles). Those outside of Utah probably haven’t paid much attention to this story, although, it has made national news (see AP story). Although police are still investigating, surface appearances do not seem to indicate foul play. Rather, Cleverley appears to have fallen while climbing in the Bridal Veil Falls area. This whole sad affair might have been avoided had basic principles of outdoors activities been followed.

Cleverley was about to start her senior year at BYU in Provo, Utah. She was last seen riding her bike on Thursday, August 30. Records indicated that some sports drinks and donuts were purchased using Cleverley’s debit card on Friday, August 31 from a convenience store, and that her PIN was used to authorize that purchase. The store clerk remembered a young lady, but could not confirm whether it was Cleverley.

By the next day, Cleverley’s roommate had notified Cleverley’s family that she had not been to her apartment for a couple of days. A search was soon initiated. Police and volunteer searchers investigated every lead and the story became the headline in Utah news reports. Searchers looked in the area where Cleverley’s body was later found, but they apparently missed it because the area is very rugged and wooded.

This whole thing might have been solved days earlier had not some dirtbags stolen Cleverley’s bike from a bike rack at a trailhead near Bridal Veil Falls on Sunday, Sept. 2. Late last week the evildoers came forward with the bike, which police were able to verify belonged to Cleverley. Searchers concentrated their search in the area where the bike had been stolen. They were about to call it quits for the day yesterday when one team came upon Cleverley’s body in dense brush at the base of the cliff down which they were rappelling.

A question that has been on people’s minds has been whether the Aug. 31 purchases were made by Cleverley or by someone that had stolen her debit card. That question now seems to have been answered, since Cleverley’s debit card was found with her body, and her backpack contained some of the items purchased.

What now seems to have happened is that Cleverley engaged in a risky outdoor activity and ended up falling to her death. Not only do her family and friends have closure, but the entire BYU community and the Utah news viewing audience also have some closure.

This is particularly important, because people expect college campuses to be relatively safe places for young adults. Colleges and universities depend on an image of safety to attract students. Since BYU is a religious university that restricts certain risky behaviors associated with moral teachings, parents anticipating sending their young adult children there seem to have a somewhat higher expectation for their safety. Rarely does a BYU student simply disappear without a trace. Police and searchers necessarily were required to consider the possibility of foul play with Cleverley’s disappearance.

However, this whole episode might have been avoided had basic rules for outdoor and back country activities been followed. The first rule is to be prepared for the type of activity in which you will be engaging. For example, hikers frequently find themselves in trouble when they fail to bring adequate water, food, or outerwear.

The second rule of outdoor activities is to let someone know your plan. You don’t have to kill off all spontaneity, but you should have a general plan that includes the general area into which you are headed, the types of activities in which you expect to engage, and a time range for when you expect to return. If you don’t have someone that lives close by with which you feel comfortable leaving this information, call a responsible friend or family member and let them know this information and tell them you will call when you return. That way, if you don’t call, they can assume you are in trouble.

If this second rule had been followed, Camille Cleverley’s disappearance might not have become a major news event, family and friends might have had closure eight days earlier, an entire university’s faculty and student body might not have unnecessarily have been put on alert, and a great deal of resources (law enforcement, volunteer, etc) might have been saved.

A final rule for outdoor activities is to implement proper risk management. This is closely related to the first rule of proper preparedness. But the point of this rule is to properly mitigate the risks of the activities in which you engage. For example, about the same time Cleverley went missing, a high school exchange student drowned in Causey Reservoir while trying to swim across the reservoir (see here). Signs posted in the area prohibit swimming there without a personal flotation device, however, nobody in the student’s group was using one. While free swimming might be perceived as more fun, no one would have drowned had the swimmers been wearing PFDs.

Many will say that no one should ever go hiking alone. While this would likely have mitigated much of the problem with Cleverley’s disappearance, I am reluctant to make this a hard and fast rule for everyone in every situation. Much depends on the terrain and remoteness of the area, as well as the training and preparedness of the hiker. I sometimes hike alone, but I follow the three rules stated above and I am careful to avoid unnecessary risks. Frankly, not many hikers are as gutsy and resourceful (and insane) as Aron Ralston, who amputated his own arm that was pinned by a boulder when he was hiking solo in 2003. After cutting off his arm with a dull pocketknife, Ralston rappelled down a slope and hiked out until he met rescuers. Valient? Yes. Unnecessary? Absolutely.

Utah County search and rescue teams are quite familiar with the Bridal Veil Falls area, since it is popular for hiking and climbing. It is not uncommon for them to be called out to rescue the victim of a climbing fall or to rescue someone stuck on a ledge.

Climbing can be a relatively safe sport if you follow safety precautions, such as climbing with a buddy, using proper gear and techniques, and avoiding climbs that are out of your league. Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of free climbing. While free climbing does not preclude the use of safety ropes and equipment, many solo climbing enthusiasts avoid such for the exhilaration of pitting themselves against nature. This kind of thing might be exhilarating, but it is extremely unwise, especially when one is alone.

It’s great to have fun engaging in back country and outdoor activities. It can be done relatively safely. All you need to do is follow three simple rules: 1) Be prepared. 2) Have a plan, let a responsible person know what your plan is, and check in when you get back. 3) Properly manage risks.

For those of you in the “I don’t need no stinkin’ rules” crowd, please consider your family and friends. You might not care if you die, but someone else out there does. Don’t leave them in the lurch by your selfish actions. Even if you don’t care for your own safety, follow these simple rules so those that care about you can have peace of mind.


y-intercept said...

The Wasatch is wicked in that the trails near the mouths of the canyons are often steeper and more dangerous than those higher in the mountains. Here is a picture of the area just below Bridal Veil Falls. People who want to ride their bikes into the mountains for a hike will end up in the most dangerous parts of the canyon.

Scott Hinrichs said...

This is true. However, there are many trails that are relatively safe. These would be the more traveled trails. If you want more solitude than these trails offer, you need to be well prepared and equipped for dealing with them. In any case, it's important to let someone know where you're headed and when you plan to be back.