At first, the drizzle that fell on Andrew Griffin and Thomas Dieker on Friday’s hike up the Bell Canyon Trail felt like rain. Then they realized it might just be spray from the lower falls. His roar had served as a siren song of sorts for most of the second half of the 2 1/2 mile hike, drawing her in. And when it finally came into view, its ferocity was impressive.
“It was a lot stronger than I expected,” said Dieker, 29.
Runoff from this winter’s record snowpack has amplified the falls in the area, making them bigger, more stunning, and if possible, even more alluring than usual. But it’s also made them more dangerous, say Sandy City officials, who called a news conference last week to draw attention to the risks of hiking near Bell Canyon Falls this summer.
Fast-flowing rivers, cold water temperatures, mossy rocks, slippery trails, and dams created by floating debris can pose hazards to hikers not just in Bell Canyon but across the state.
“We really just want to make people understand,” said Jeff Bassett, Sandy City Fire Chief, “that right now is not the time to be near bodies of water.”
Bassett said his agency hasn’t had to rescue anyone from the creek so far this spring. Still, at least four people have died in Bell Canyon in the past decade. Bassett said they all died after trying to jump over Bell Canyon Creek at the top of the lower falls. The creek is little more than two feet wide at this point, but the slippery riverbanks on either side make it more like a six-foot jump and can be deceptively dangerous.
“It looks like a little creek,” said Rob Friel, who works with the Sandy Fire Department’s technical rescue team, “but it’s like walking on greased bowling balls.” Many don’t make it.”
Those who don’t make it will be washed down by the waterfalls. Right now, the cascades are not only fierce but very cold, and Friel said hypothermia is almost certain. Once they get to the bottom, he said, they would most likely hit something, like a fallen tree or a boulder. There’s also debris washed down the creek by the myriad avalanches that swept through Little Cottonwood Canyon in early spring.
At least ten rescue workers are required to rescue a person who falls into the stream, Friel said. A helicopter is often called. This year, Bassett said the fire department has been attempting to equip as many city workers and vehicles as possible with emergency ropes in preparation for what he predicts will be a particularly busy summer. The hope is that a nearby park ranger or even a maintenance worker will be able to toss a person to a person trapped in a creek or river, rather than waiting helplessly for firefighters or search and rescue to arrive.
Bassett noted that often not only does the person who fell in need to be saved, but everyone who tried to save them as well. Rather than putting themselves at risk, he advised potential rescuers to follow the person downstream along the bank and call 911. Plan to stay online with 911 operators to help rescue teams locate the person, he said. If you fall in, position yourself with your feet downstream, leaning towards an embankment and trying not to panic.
Stream hopping may historically be the riskiest activity in Bell Canyon, but given the high water levels that already exist in this area and other waterways near the mountains, hikers need to be aware of the other hazards along the trail.
Trails can be wet and slippery at this time of year and it takes one wrong step to slip into the creek, said Tom Ward, public utilities manager at Sandy. He also found that the level of the creek can rise towards evening or when a debris dam breaks further up the creek.
“It only takes 3 inches of water to knock your feet off,” he said. “And if you’re 8 feet from a ledge that jumps 50 feet, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in a morgue.”
That’s the danger at Bridal Veil Falls near Provo, according to Spencer Cannon, spokesman for the Utah County Sheriff’s Department. He said the falls themselves — as well as Horsetail Falls, Stewart Falls and Grotto Falls, all also in Utah County — are mostly benign, even during times of peak discharge. However, the Provo River, where Bridal Veil and Stewart Falls flow, is a different matter altogether.
Near the river, which flows quickly and coldly, Cannon advises against wearing sandals or shoes with worn or slippery soles. He also asked hikers to pay attention to the closure of hiking trails. The path to Bridal Falls is currently closed, he said, because an avalanche left what appeared to be a snow bridge across the Provo River. The bridge is melting from above and below, and branches and other debris are piling up inside.
“So if you think you’re standing on 20 feet of snow, you might be standing on 2 inches of snow and going where there’s exactly the weight needed to break through and you’ll fall 20 feet or more onto those below Rocks or the river below,” Cannon said.
“It is no exaggeration at all to say that falling into the Provo River now is potentially fatal.”
During Friday’s hike, Griffin and Dieker weren’t overly concerned about falling in Bell Canyon Creek. Griffin said he might have been a little more cautious if he’d had his kids with him. As it was, they hardly had any problems, although they encountered a few slippery spots along the way and although Griffin hiked in sandals – which, according to Dieker, probably actually made the few water crossings more pleasant.
Most hikers won’t have any problems, Cannon said, adding that his agency did not conduct any water rescue operations this spring. Still, those who don’t may wish they had done things differently.
“I hope we don’t do that and neither do other counties [problems],” he said. “But as a realist, not only is it possible, I think it’s likely that another tragedy will happen somewhere else in Utah because of runoff-related issues.”