South Mountain Park

Hikers use trails at South Mountain Park early Wednesday morning July 27, 2011 Darryl Webb/AFN

Darryl Webb

A Phoenix Fire Department spokesperson said the reasons people get stuck on local mountains is failing to stay on the hiking path and not being prepared.

The department reported it had 177 mountain rescues in 2011 and 180 mountain rescues in 2012. There have been 72 mountain rescues so far this year.

There is a significant increase in mountain rescues typically starting around March 1, according to Phoenix Fire Department Public Information Officer Troy Caskey.

“Every time the weather warms up people like to get out,” Caskey said.

City of Phoenix Park Ranger Dan Gronseth said the number of hikers is starting to pick up, but that they encounter more injuries during the winter months.

“We get a huge influx of people during the cooler months, but a lot of our year-round residents know better than to go out,” Gronseth said.


Who’s hiking?

Phoenix resident Voltaire Ojastro, 36, said he has hiked Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak, but usually during the cooler months.

Visitors are more likely to get into trouble in the summer months than local residents who know it’s just too hot for a hike, Caskey said.

Scottsdale resident Danielle Henson, 28, is not originally from Arizona and would probably go hiking in the middle of the day. She said she would be worried of getting half way up her hike and realizing that it wasn’t such a good idea.

Mountain rescues occur when hikers underestimate the heat of the Phoenix sun or venture off the trail, Caskey said.

“We get out-of-town visitors and they take a day hike and they don’t know what they’re getting into,” he said.

People who venture off the trail will have a significant risk of being in danger as well as people with medical conditions, Caskey continued. A sprained ankle, broken leg, or a bad fall may cause someone to be stuck on the mountain.

A sprained ankle or a knee injury is the basic injuries Gronseth also encounters. Most happen on Camelback Mountain, he said.

“They don’t have the proper footwear and are not prepared to deal with such a challenging trail,” Gronseth said. “It’s not necessarily the heat, it’s more of not being prepared physically or mentally, not admitting to themselves that they need to turn around.”

Depending on the situation, the Phoenix Fire Department will send a team to locate and assess the situation, he said.

If possible, the rescue team will assist the person in hiking back down the mountain, Caskey said. For more extreme or life threatening injuries, he noted that victims are flown off the mountain using the helicopter and hoist team.

“What we find will determine what is the safest way to get them off the mountain,” Caskey said.

Not only is it a dangerous situation for the hiker but for the rescuer as well, he said.


Danger zone

“The rescuers are taking a calculated risk,” Caskey said. “All of that is a dangerous situation.”

He cannot recall any major life threatening injures to any firefighter during a rescue and said they are highly trained to handle these incidents.

When firefighters do have to go out on a rescue, it takes a lot of resources and a lot of money, Caskey said.

The cost is a significant amount when a helicopter rescue is involved and police are called out to assist with the situation, he added.

The Phoenix Fire Department does provide information on its website about hiking safety,

“Our website has information and if we can, we put out publications and fliers,” Caskey said.

The Phoenix Fire Department has the highest number of mountain rescues than any other agency in the United States, according to the Phoenix Fire Department website.

The website provides people hiking maps, information on heat-related injuries, and the symptoms to those heat-related injuries.

On average, two or three deaths are caused every year because people did not take proper precautions when climbing trails, the website said.

Caskey gave a few safety tips for hikers: wear appropriate shoes, wear proper clothes, let someone know where you will be at and when you will return, stay hydrated before, after and during your hike, and carry a cell phone.

When asked if he takes any hiking precautions, Ojastro said one tip listed on the Phoenix Fire Department hiking safety brochure, “Oh yeah! I always take my cell phone. You can’t Instagram without your cell phone.”

Caskey said the Phoenix Fire Department tries to educate the public and does stories with the media when they can.

“When people get off the trail and get stuck, then we end up having to track them down,” he said. “We are trained to do that and we are more than willing to do our job.”

Gronseth said people push themselves farther than they should at times.

“Any activity in the summer time, you should be prepared to say, ‘I’ve had enough,’ and not be embarrassed or ashamed about it,” he said.

• Meenah Rincon is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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