Red Rock, Valley of Fire, and Bowl of Fire at Lake Mead are all areas of astounding beauty with their mesmerizing red and marbled Aztec sandstone formations. These petrified sand dunes draw crowds every year, and those who lay eyes on the glowing rocks of fire often cannot but also lay their hands on it.
Scrambling at these places is quite common, and many hiking trails lead visitors through the sandstone playgrounds – tempting all who pass. Though certainly not against enjoying these thrills of nature that our wonderful state has to offer, caution is urged to all who do engage in non-equipped climbing. Safety should always be the priority, every year people die during such escapades.
The following are some safety points to keep in mind whenever participating in sandstone scrambling:
1. Buddy system
This should be employed for all hikes; it entails informing other parties (family, friends) of your destination, estimated return time, and bringing a buddy along with you. If one of you gets injured the other party may be your only way out. If the party becomes compromised – either by injury or becoming stranded – who knows where to send the search party?
2. Spatial awareness
Applying spatial awareness means breaking the route up into individual pieces – pick a backstop to climb to and wait at, allowing individual scrambling along that segment. This prevents the dangerous traffic jams that can occur in tight spots where a mishap from the lead climber causes all those below to be in danger. If one falls, then the domino effect can be devastating – observed personally, this is one situation that is entirely avoidable by smart scrambling.
Another reason for spatial separation is the danger of rock slides; one can knock a rock loose that threatens those below. If this does occur, even if alone, get into the habit of yelling ‘Rock!’ This is a climber’s warning of a falling mass that can cause injury (not necessarily always a rock), it alerts those at lower elevation to be aware and take cover. It is the climbers’ equivalent of yelling ‘Fore’ in golf. Personal experience attests to this being an essential safety warning.
Be patient and smart, this method of scrambling will allow proper assessment of each scrambling segment and can help prevent summit fever that oftentimes overtakes visitors and can cause rash action that may turn into an unfavorable situation.
3. Retrace your steps
Always return the way you came, you have already familiarized yourself with the terrain along that route. Attempting to return a different way can lead to a precarious perch where descending safely is impossible and re-ascending is equally improbable. Many scrambling routes can look easier than they really are, perspectives from above prevent proper assessment of difficulty – there can be many blind drops.
4. No climbing in the rain
As slippery and fragile as sandstone is anyway, add rain and it is perilous. Add to this the dangers of flash floods. The slot canyons that have been eroded into the sandstone can make a hazardous highway for fast moving water.
5. 3 points of contact
Class 1 may be the only exception, since this is just flat land hiking, but when scrambling around Class 2, 3 and 4 routes one should maintain at least one extra point of contact with the ground/scrambling surface to help prevent slipping. This means use your hands when crawling over those large boulders, lean into the walls if there is exposure. Always try to maintain your balance, counterbalancing with your arms, knees, and other appendages comes into play for many Class IV scrambling routes.
6. Always have a 'backstop'
When scrambling without proper climbing gear falls are all too common an occurrence, to prevent this and their severity always monitor how far you are from the nearest safety point. In example, ask yourself, if I were to slip here how far would I fall? Try to maintain a nearby flat ‘backstop’ that will prevent that little slip from turning into a lethal plunge. Sheer cliffs should obviously be avoided, unless one is attempting free-solo climbing – one of the more dangerous adrenaline-junkie pastimes.
7. Stay calm
One of the best pieces of advice for scrambling safety is to stay calm – the adrenaline from climbing can be addicting, causing some to rush. Haste can cause accidents. Also, stay calm if finding yourself in a tight spot, assess the situation and find an easier way. Above all, if you feel unsure about the position you are in readjust until you feel comfortable.