As raging waterfalls draw hikers, Utah rescue agencies prepare for the worst

“Now is not the time to be near any water” officials warn as waterways near Bell Canyon, Bridal Veil Falls run fast and cold.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Search and Rescue crews secure themselves as they work to free the body of a man who fell into the runoff-swollen waters of Bell Canyon Creek in June of 2017. “Now is not the time to be near any water” officials warn this year as waterways near Bell Canyon, Bridal Veil Falls run fast and cold.

At first, the drizzle falling on Andrew Griffin and Thomas Dieker as they hiked the Bell Canyon Trail on Friday felt like rain. Then, they realized it might just be spray from the lower waterfall. Its roar had served as a sort of siren song for most of the second half of the 2 1/2-mile trek, drawing them to it. And when it finally came into view, its ferocity was impressive.

“It was a lot more powerful than I expected,” Dieker, 29, said.

Runoff from this winter’s record snowpack has beefed up area waterfalls, making them bigger, more breathtaking and, if possible, even more alluring than usual. But it has also made them more dangerous according to Sandy City officials who called a news conference last week to spread the word about the risks of hiking near the Bell Canyon falls this summer.

Fast-running rivers, cold water temperatures, mossy rocks, slippery trails and dams created by floating debris can all create hazards for hikers, not only in Bell Canyon, but throughout the state.

“We really just want to help people understand,” Sandy City Fire Chief Jeff Bassett said, “that right now is not the time to be near any water.”

Bassett said his agency has not had to rescue anyone from the creek so far this spring. Still, over the past decade, at least four people have died at Bell Canyon. Bassett said all of them died after trying to jump across Bell Canyon Creek at the top of the lower falls. The creek is little more than 2 feet wide at that point, but slick river rock banks on both sides can make it more like a 6-foot jump, and 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. A lot of people don’t make it.”

Those who don’t make it get swept down the falls. Right now, the cascades are not only violent but also very cold and Friel said hypothermia is almost certain. Once they reach the bottom, he said, they’ll most likely slam into something such as a fallen tree or a boulder. There is also debris that has washed down the creek from the myriad of avalanches that rushed through Little Cottonwood Canyon earlier this spring.

It takes a minimum of 10 rescue personnel to extract a person who falls into the creek, Friel said. Often a helicopter is called in. This year, in preparation for what he predicts will be a particularly busy summer, Bassett said the fire department has tried to outfit as many city workers and vehicles as possible with emergency throw ropes. The hope is a nearby park ranger or even maintenance worker will be able to toss one to a person caught in a creek or river instead of helplessly waiting for the fire department or search and rescue to arrive.

Often, Bassett noted, not only the person who fell in needs to be rescued, but also anyone who tried to save them. Instead of putting themselves at risk, he advised would-be rescuers to follow the person downstream along the bank and to call 911. Plan to stay online with the emergency operators to help rescue teams locate the person, he said. Anyone who falls in should position themselves with their feet downstream, angle toward an embankment and try not to panic.

Creek hopping may historically be the riskiest activity in Bell Canyon, but given the high water levels that area and other waterways near the mountains are already seeing, hikers need to be aware of other dangers along the trail.

This time of year, trails can be wet and slippery and all it takes is one false step to slide into the creek, said Tom Ward, Sandy’s director of public utilities. Also, he noted that creek levels can surge toward the evening or when a debris dam farther up the creek breaks loose.

“It just takes 3 inches of water that can sweep your feet out from under you,” he said. “And if you’re 8 feet away from a ledge that goes off 50 feet, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up in a mortuary.”

(Sandy City contributed photo) The lower Bell Canyon waterfall has been especially big this year and Sandy city officials are warning people to use caution when hiking to and around it and the upper falls.

That’s the danger at Bridal Veil Falls near Provo, according to Utah County Sheriff Department spokesperson Spencer Cannon. He said the waterfalls themselves — as well as Horsetail Falls, Stewart Falls and Grotto Falls, all also in Utah County — are mostly benign, even during times of peak runoff. The Provo River that Bridal Veil and Stewart Falls feed into, however, is another matter entirely.

When around the river, which is running fast and cold, Cannon recommended against wearing sandals or shoes with worn or slick soles. He also implored hikers to heed trail closures. The trail to Bridal Falls is currently closed, he said, because an avalanche left a snow bridge of sorts across the Provo River. The bridge is melting from the top and the bottom with stacks of tree branches and other debris inside.

“So if you think you’re standing on 20 feet of snow you might be standing on two inches of snow and you walking there could be just the weight that it needs to break through and you fall 20 feet or more down to the rocks below or the river below,” Cannon said.

“It’s not hyperbole at all to say that it’s potentially deadly if you fall into the Provo River right now.”

During their hike Friday, Griffin and Dieker didn’t worry too much about falling in Bell Canyon Creek. Griffin said he might have been a little more wary if he had his kids along. As it was though, they had few issues even though they encountered a few slick spots along the trail and even though Griffin hiked in sandals — which Dieker pointed out probably actually made the few water crossings more comfortable.

Most hikers won’t have any issues, said Cannon, who added that his agency has not performed any water rescues this spring. Still, the one that’s not the case for may wish they’d done things differently.

“I hope we don’t and other counties don’t have [problems],” he said. “But being a realist as well, it’s not only possible but, I think, likely that somewhere else in Utah a tragedy will happen again because of runoff-related issues.”