Rope swing deaths could mean new rules

May 8, 2013

In a five-week period two men have died near Moab who were engaging in a new extreme sport, back country rope swinging. As a result, the Bureau of Land Management is studying whether stricter rules should be in place. UPR's Jon Kovash reports.

The first death was on March 24, when a West Jordan man perished while rope swinging under Corona Arch, down river from Moab. On Sunday, Adam Jason Weber, also from the Salt Lake City area, died while rope swinging in nearby Day Canyon. Grand County Sheriff’s deputy Brent Pace was on the search and rescue team that responded  Sunday.

"A group of people wanted to do the world’s largest rope swing, which they call extreme swinging," he explained. "So they stretched a cable across Day Canyon. They thought it was five or six hundred feet across; it’s not quite that long, maybe 450. Then they had a pulley on the cable. Then they took a 70-meter rope and hooked to that pulley, and then people would harness in on top of the cliff, and jump off and swing."

Pace says two helicopters were involved in the attempted rescue.

"We had a couple, who had done Corona Arch swing before, decided to go together, and I don’t think they had enough training. They made the swing fine, and when they tried to ascend, they didn’t get it right and eventually the male unclipped himself and was just holding on to the rope with his hands and legs. ‘Course you can only hold on so long, and then he slid down and picked up momentum and landed on a rock. His girlfriend was still carabinered into the swing rope, so she didn’t fall."

Rescuers were unable to stabilize Weber, who died on the canyon floor after a 200-foot fall. Extreme swinging has become popular since a video placed on YouTube in February, showing swinging under Corona Arch, which, along with Day Canyon, is on state school land. This spring the state declined to allow commercially guided rope swinging, but both subsequent deaths were not under an official guide. Deputy Pace thinks it might be time for more rules on extreme back country adventures.   

"Well I’d like to see it more of a permitted activity, so the people setting it up know what they’re doing, and you’re not having people that just want the adrenaline rush doing the swing and not knowing how to get out of trouble," he added.

This spring the Moab area also saw one death related to BASE jumping, and three apparent suicides in the back country. Grand County Sheriff Stephen White says it’s a big drain on local resources, and permitting may be in order to ensure public safety.

"It seems like we’ve had a sudden pickup of accidents and injuries just this year around here. It’s a huge question to be asking right now. I think you have to bring all the players to the table, from the land management, to the public safety, to the groups that are doing it."

Since the first swinging death at Corona Arch, the Bureau of Land Management has been “poised to address” whether new rules are needed for extreme sports, according to Aaron Curtis, a recreation specialist at the state BLM office.

"We’re obviously monitoring very closely all of these unfortunate incidents down in Southeast Utah. Guided rope swings, these types of high adrenaline sports, what happens when a commercial operator comes in and requests to provide those services to the public?"

Curtis says federal law gives the BLM authority to make new rules to protect the environment, preserve public safety, and ensure compatible uses, but rules can only go so far.

"Part of our niche in the outdoor recreation market is that we don’t have a lot of rules and regulations on BLM land," said Curtis. "In a lot of ways it’s a choose your own adventure type of experience out there."

Curtis says the BLM expects guides to teach its customers environmental ethics and safety, but ultimately extreme sports participants proceed at their own risk. But new rules could keep the sports out of popular areas, and discourage pounding bolts into arches.  Sheriffs say the group at Day Canyon on Sunday was trying to establish a new world record. This is Jon Kovash reporting from Moab for UPR News.