ST. GEORGE – A 62-year-old California man is recovering from injuries sustained during a hike to the Wave in the Coyote Buttes North area of Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs National Monument where he spent two nights until rescued through a cooperative effort of the Bureau of Land Management, Kane County Sheriff’s Office and Search and Rescue volunteers. Richard Ong’s survival and rescue are characterized by those involved as luck and even miraculous. It provides watchwords for the wilderness hiker that, followed, could prove lifesaving.
Richard Ong’s experience
Richard Ong, 62 of California, entered the BLM-managed Paria wilderness area under backcountry day-pass permit on Friday. At 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, BLM Visitor Information Assistant Cara Hand out of the Kanab Field Office was at the Wire Pass Trailhead conducting a routine safety patrol.
While checking vehicles at the trailhead, Hand noticed several red flags that caught her attention, she said. First, she noticed an expired permit placed in the window of a vehicle; an expired permit indicates either a hiker is in violation of the permit or long overdue. Next, she contacted BLM colleague Taylor Linton, who checked the permit and tracked down Richard Ong’s emergency contact information.
In an attempt to locate Richard Ong on the ground, Hand started hiking to the feature and spoke with hikers seeking Ong’s whereabouts. None of the 14 hikers she contacted had seen him. Hand continued her on-the-ground search until midnight Saturday.
When Richard Ong’s wife Alice received Hand’s phone call, she said she hadn’t assumed anything out of the ordinary. Her husband is an experienced hiker, she said; he summited Mount Whitney in 2011 and was aware of the potential hazards of hiking in the Paria Wilderness. He had hiked other backcountry areas.
After speaking with hikers, Alice Ong and searching the area, Hand activated a Search and Rescue effort to which the Kane County Search and Rescue team responded and located him about 11:45 a.m. Sunday after conducting search on the ground and by helicopter Saturday night and Sunday.
“Cara’s call was critical,” Alice Ong said of Hand’s contact. “If she didn’t call, we wouldn’t have started the search at all. If the Search and Rescue had been delayed it would have complicated matters further.
Richard Ong was found on a kind of trail into the Wave from the Arizona side in an area called Notch Pass, said Sgt. Alan Alldredge, Director of Emergency Services for the Kane County Sheriff’s Office. It was an area that is not usually included in the search area for people lost at The Wave. It is possible that he thought he was on his way back to the Wire Pass Trailhead where his car was parked, but he had actually gone the wrong direction.
It was a miracle, Alldredge said. Search and Rescue member James Holland, who works as a BLM geologist with the Kanab Field Office, was with the search team and as the rest went one way, he thought, “I’ll go this way,” and checked the area. Holland just happened to turn around at one point and saw something like a little pink ribbon, tied to a backpack, flapping in the wind. Richard Ong was laying there in a bush.
“It was totally 100 percent such a luck that (Holland) happened to turn around and look right then,” Alldredge said. “The night before another BLM person had come down and hiked that trail and so had probably been within 100 feet of him and he wasn’t able to call out.”
Richard Ong’s wife, Alice Ong, said: “He thought he was gone. He was unconscious — he did not know people were looking for him. He never saw the search lights from the helicopter Saturday night.”
“We think he had fallen,” Alldredge said, estimating about 20-30 feet. “When you see where he was laying it was at the base of a cliffy area. He told his wife, ‘no, he didn’t,’ but every inch of his body was beat up … the guys said it wasn’t like he had been thrashing around in the dirt, he was just there where he laid.”
Richard Ong was hurt, he had one empty hikers-type water bottle and whatever he had with him he had eaten and drunk – probably on his first day, Alldredge said. On top of that, Richard Ong was mildly diabetic and though he wasn’t in diabetic shock by the time he was found he was incoherent in a somewhat unconscious state, unable to talk but able to respond by squeezing the rescuers’ hands. He was transported by Life Flight helicopter to a hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“I spoke with his wife yesterday,” Alldredge said on Tuesday, “he is still in the hospital, his kidneys have shut down and he is on dialysis but he’s expected to make recovery just fine. It’s just going to take some time.”
BLM Public Affairs Officer Rachel Tueller communicated with Alice Ong Tuesday morning, who told her: “He is improving he was transferred out of ICU Sunday, we are very blessed to have an army of prayer warriors.”
How to prepare to hike safely and to be found when lost or injured
Preparation by the wilderness hiker including knowing one’s own limitations is the most effective measure to avoid mishaps, keep from getting lost and to ensure being found when things go wrong.
- Develop a knowledge of reading maps and wayfinding using landmarks
- Setting cairns (piles of marker rocks) can be helpful but beware that another’s cairn may misdirect you; note: setting cairns on some public lands may be prohibited
- Prepare for and maintain proper hydration and fueling (water and food) – even hydrate and load up with fuel foods days in advance
- Leave an itinerary with relatives or friend
- Read all available materials on the area prior to hiking
- Consult with BLM staff and other outfitters and guides on recreating in the area
- Know your own limitations, health conditions, abilities, and body’s reaction to extreme heat and other weather conditions
- Wear bright clothing that can be easily spotted, not camouflage or muddy colors: Bright blue, bright or fluourescent lime greens and oranges, even reds are more easily spotted
- Carry or wear a bright handkerchief or scarf that you can wave at a search team and helicopter
- Carry a small flashlight, even in daytime a small flashlight can deliver a glint that catch attention
- Carry a small mirror or anything that will reflect a glint that can catch a helicopter pilot’s eye
- Carry a GPS tracking device; these may operate where cell service will not – if you set a waypoint at the trailhead, even at points along the way, you can follow the device’s arrows to find your way back using the device
- Those who hike often might consider using a Spot Locator device and service, when injured or lost you press a button which signals the company, which notifies the nearest Sheriff’s office of your exact location
“There’s no greater experience than to venture into the backcountry and make great memories with family and friends. But nothing’s worse than getting caught in these remote places unaware and unprepared,” said Kevin Wright, BLM Vermilion Cliffs National Monument manager. “It’s an awe-inspiring place and we want nothing more than for visitors to be able to enjoy an unforgettable trip and return safely home. The best way to accomplish that is to make sure you’re well prepared for the landscapes, terrain and temperatures you’ll be recreating in.”
BLM safety action plan for the Paria Canyon area
The Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs wilderness area was made a national monument by Congress in 1984. It is managed by the Bureau of Land Management Arizona and Utah. It is a remote and fragile area with extreme conditions that can emerge without forewarning: heat exposure, dehydration and flash floods, among others.
Nearby services are about 40 miles away in either direction. The Wave in the Coyote Buttes North area of the Paria Wilderness is a day-use only recreation area. There are no water sources and its features can be visited roundtrip in a day’s hike – but for those unprepared, its hikes about 6 miles roundtrip can be deceptive. See video below.
The number of visitors allowed in the Coyote Buttes North area is limited to 20 per day. For details on the permitting process, click here.
In August 2013, in response to fatality incidence in the region, the BLM announced a number of measures it would take “to enhance visitor safety messaging.” Those actions, and implementations are:
- Translate informational/safety brochures and video into the major languages of foreign visitors – brochures have been translated into German, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish
- Revise the BLM Arizona and Utah webpages to put greater emphasis on safety (such as emphasizing the difficulty of the hike to the Wave) – see the BLM’s plan and prepare Web page here, last updated February 2014
- Develop a new safety interpretive sign at the Wire Pass trailhead – safety kiosks have been installed at all trailheads accessing the area, according to a BLM press release Monday
- Produce a condensed version of the current safety video to be shown at the Kanab Visitor Center and featured more prominently on the BLM websites – condensed video production is still in progress, the video below was published on YouTube April 9, 2012
(report continues below)
Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.
- BLM responds to deaths at The Wave – August 2013
- Woman dies from suspected heat exhaustion at The Wave – July 2013
- California couple hiking The Wave found deceased – July 2013