Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

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Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by jonathan »

I'm on vacation in Chiang Mai, and yesterday finally got my first real herping day in. I booked it to Doi Suthep at 5am and ran myself ragged biking and hiking all over the mountain. I had spent a lot of time on the waterfalls especially, climbing through the water to reach cracks and spotlighting into the cracks. I found several frog species and a number of water skinks that way. At times it was a bit slippery, and I've fallen and broken my hand while herping in exactly that situation 6 years ago, so I was very careful. Thoughts went through my mind of slipping and going down a falls, alone with no one there to see the fall. I didn't take bad risks, and ended up seeing a ton of herps, including two snakes.

But that's not what I'm posting about.

I was coming down a trail on the mountain around 3pm when I got to the top of a waterfall. A white girl was crying and some Thai people were trying to console her. My random first guess was that maybe she had had a close call, looking over the edge of the waterfall, and had gotten scared. But then she called out to me, "Spanish?" as she cried. All my Spanish has been buried by the languages I've had to learn since then, so I said no. And then she cried, "Boyfriend...fell!" and made hand motions.

Oh my God. Crap.

I quickly asked the Thais if anyone was helping him. They said yes, yes, help had already come. I was comforted for a second, then rethought it (this being Thailand), and was worried that there might still be something I had to do. So I hit the trail and ran to the bottom of the waterfall as quickly as I could.

When I got to the bottom, there were a couple foreigners, a number of Thais, and a couple policemen. I didn't see an injured person, so I asked, "Did somebody fall?" The foreigners were confused and didn't know what I was talking about. I asked again, got more confusion...and realized the situation was worse then I thought.

I looked up and saw that the waterfall was multi-tiered, and that the part separating the tiers was away from public access. I told the group, "There's a woman crying on top who says her boyfriend fell! He must be up there!" The police and a couple of the Thais who seemed to be official appeared to know what I was talking about, but no one had gone up there yet. They seemed to be waiting for official rescue personnel...but I know in these situations that minutes can be everything.

I started up the hill to try to reach the 2nd tier, and two Thais who seemed to be official stopped me. They said, "no, no, don't go, help is coming." I got their concern (they don't want to see a second foreigner fall), but I didn't really care. I headed down the trail a bit and then ran up a back route. The slopes were steep and the soil was very loose, so it was a bit frightening at times, but I think I kept myself safe. Within a few minutes I was over the second tier.

And I couldn't see anything.

The slope that the guy must have fallen down was right above me. About 75 feet or so, no straight drop but a perfectly smooth, very steep rock face. If he fell, he would have glided down that slope at a high speed and then hits the rocks below. But I couldn't see anyone in the rocks! There was a little catchbasin below me just out of my field of view and just above the final straight-drop down into the pool below. But the sides were straight on both sides, and the only way down was to actually enter the water flow on slanted rocks with no real hand grips, something that I knew I shouldn't do. I went back and forth over the options, trying to find a way down, but I couldn't see it.

Meanwhile, I could see that the girl had made it down to the bottom, and a crowd had formed there who could now see me up above. A young man was next to the girl holding her hands and she looked like she was doing better. Wait, could that be the boyfriend? Was this all a misunderstanding? I tried to communicate with hand signals over the roar of the waterfall. I got the impression that everything was okay now, but I wasn't exactly sure. I made hand signals showing that I couldn't see anything, and climbed back up out of the tier and then back down the hill.

When I got down to the bottom, I found that things were not okay. The guy comforting the girl was just another random tourist. No one knew where the man was still. More official-people had arrived (police, soliders, medical), but no one was mounting a rescue yet. Two arab guys (one from Jordan, one from Syria) had also gone up trying to search for him, but they hadn't located him either. I was the only one who had been as close to the falls as I was.

Eventually some rescue personnel arrived. They took the more direct route up the side of the mountain (still a bit touchy) and got to where I had been, but they too were stymied by the situation. They had a rope, but the sides were so steep and the anchors so few that they had trouble figuring out how to use it. 20, 30 minutes went by and they still hadn't even seen the man or gotten any closer than I had 15 minutes after the incident.

Myself and the two arab dudes kept fretting over the slowness of the effort, the large number of people doing nothing, the failure of the rope. But there was little to do. My best appraisal of the response was simply that the authorities assumed that the fall had killed the man, and were mounting a careful body-recovery operation rather than a medical evacuation. It is true that even if they had taken significant risks to reach the man, it would still be quite difficult to get him out of there, and the medical attention that could be given in that space would be minimal.

Both Arab guys and one Thai wife of an American did a good job of trying to keep talking to the girl and comforting her as much as possible. The language barrier was tough though - her English (at least in this stressful situation) was almost non-existent, and no one in the group spoke any Spanish.

Over 45 minutes after the first authorities had arrived on scene, they finally managed to rope a guy down to the catchbasin. They found him there, and it was pretty clear that they were declaring him dead immediately. It took an additional 20-30 minutes for guys were real equipment and gear to finally arrive, and at least 1.5 hours after the first authorities had arrived on the scene, they were finally able to begin pulling his body out. That took a significant time in itself, from what I've heard.

I didn't see it, because I just had to leave by the time it got to that point. I had left the scene about an hour after I had gotten there, just in time to see the cars with the professional rescue personnel arriving in the parking lot. I had plans for some bike cruising and other stuff to herp through the evening, but the motivation was just gone and so I headed home. I slowly biked out on a route that I usually love flying down. When I got to the main road I managed to flag down two girls on a scooter who spoke Spanish, and was able to send them up to the waterfall to help out the poor girlfriend.

Be careful out there. The number of people who die from falls, especially on waterfalls and cliff-side trails, is not insignificant. No photo or check of a herp spot is worth your family missing you for the rest of their lives.

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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by SlitheringHuman »

Made me think... Thanks


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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by Chaitanya »

Being a trekker, I have seen people die for strange reason. Last year one of the senior herpetologist from India died falling from a cliff in Western ghats. While trekking to forts around western ghats wearing shoes or thick pants is a must. There are ton of vipers around and there are tens of cases of snake bites from these areas. Also they are quite remote so bringing the patient to hospitals is a big undertaking and a time sensitive task. Taking proper precautions is a must when visiting such places.

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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by mtratcliffe »

That is a haunting story. Good advice to keep in mind - our lives are worth more than any shot. This also applies to other thrill-seeking activities that are inherently more dangerous than herping.

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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by nhherp »

A similar incident occurred here just last week in the Sandia Mtns. east of Albuquerque. A young lady about 17, slipped on the ice near the edge of the crest while trying to get a better view and fell a couple hundred feet.


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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by dthor68 »

What a sad story!

Last fall I nearly got nailed by a fallen Hemlock branch. For those of you who live in the Southern Appalachians thousands of dead Hemlocks are starting to fall throughout the area so make sure you pay attention when hiking/biking/driving.

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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by stlouisdude »

Falls are probably one of the most dangerous things for a field herpers, probably right behind driving. I've fallen twice, both times while wearing "snake boots". The first time I was climbing up a steep hillside to check out a power line cut on the top when I went down in an unstoppable fashion. It must have looked insane and fortunately I was far from any trail and alone so no one witnessed it but it's amazingly hard to stop once inertia is working against you. The second time at snake road, it was a terrible day there and we only saw 3 snakes and no cottons, well I fell down one of the rocks and landed right next to a cottonmouth that was in full display lol Amazing that I landed within 6" of the only one seen that day! I did get the photo but not without a few bruises. Lesson learned for me, I need good, comfortable footwear!

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Noah M
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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by Noah M »

Waterfalls are dangerous.
I've heard on more than one occasion people getting too close to the edge, losing their footing, etc and going over. It is just better to play it safe.

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Mike VanValen
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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by Mike VanValen »

This is why I prefer herping on flat land, and that's no joke. I'm not as flexible as I used to be and trying to boulder-hop and other such exercises is not such a good idea to me anymore.

Jon, I commend you for sticking around and trying your best to help the situation.

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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by BillMcGighan »

Sad story.
Here in the U.S. Appalachians, waterfalls are a big draw and casualties are common.

One of the worst we visited was Crabtree Falls in Virginia, where the forest service used to have a death counter at the trail head.
The count is >20 now.

As an indicator of our nature-challenged times, we have a waterfall near us that a local litigious group tried to sue to have a fence put around it.

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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by JakeScott »

A sad story and one to learn from.
I know I always feel like a surefooted person. But that all changed when I slipped on a rock and fell pretty far down a waterfall. Luckily only a few stitches, but that makes me double think things a bit.


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Re: Man dies on the trail - be careful out there

Post by Ribbit »

Mike VanValen wrote:Jon, I commend you for sticking around and trying your best to help the situation.
Hear hear.

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