American Fork Canyon • The winter that won't end pushed back the traditional Mother's Day opening of Timpanogos Cave National Monument, but officials are wrapping up trail safety and electrical improvements in the series of caves and plan to open for the 2011 season Friday.
A result of investigations by both OSHA and the National Park Service, the extra safety work comes just over a year after both the death of monument employee Rex Walker and an accidental fall by an 11-year-old girl on a school field trip within a 24-hour period. Walker plunged off the trail in a steep area while riding a small motorbike to assist with an electrical problem at the cave. The young girl survived, but suffered serious injuries.
The locations of both incidents have been included in safety work this spring. A rock wall was extended 15 to 20 feet in the area where the girl fell on May 19, 2010, and a four-cable/hard-plastic barrier was placed in the stretch where Walker went off the trail less than 24 hours after the girl.
"We took a thorough look at the safety issues at the park and implemented all the improvements we felt were needed to address those concerns," said John Wessels, director of the National Park Service Intermountain Region out of Denver. "You can never eliminate all risks, but we believe we have taken the steps necessary to reduce the risks to an acceptable level while keeping the trail and cave open."
Denis Davis, superintendent of the monument, said about 500 feet of plastic fencing, augmented by four strands of cable, have been installed in a stable but temporary fashion in four areas to enhance visitor safety. He said he had been considering the safety improvements recommended by the two investigations for years.
"We walked the trail and came across areas where the obvious solution would be a rock wall, but we couldn't get those up before we opened," Davis said.
The monument averages 87,000 visitors each season, typically mid-May to mid-October, but the number of people using the trail is higher as tickets are required only to tour the cave system, and many access Mount Timpanogos itself via the trail.
There have been three deaths at the cave since it was designated as a national monument in 1922, according to Davis. There have been five serious falls in the past seven years. A Russian visitor died while attempting to help a toddler who had strayed off the trail and fell near where Walker perished.
Workers cleared the trail of snow and other obstacles in time for Walker's family to hike to the site of his fall on the anniversary of the accident.
"We granted them permission to visit the site," Davis said. "It was important to them to be there on the anniversary."
Visit Timpanogos Cave National Monument
Timpanogos Cave National Monument in American Fork Canyon opens for the season May 27, with the trail and cave open daily from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday and until 5:30 p.m. on the weekends. Construction on the cave exit shelter is scheduled to start Aug. 1 The cave trail will be closed Monday-Thursday through Oct. 16. Tickets to tour the cave (the trail is free) are $7 for adults, $5 for ages 6-15 and $3 for ages 3-5. Children under 2 are free. Tickets can be purchased up to 30 days in advance by calling 801-756-5238. Visit http://www.nps.gov/tica/ for more information.