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General Safety Guidelines for Hiking around Waterfalls

Please Note:This article about hiking around Waterfalls is not comprehensive and complete. It is designed as a guideline. You should not rely soley on the information for your safety. If you do not feel knowledgeable enough to hiking around waterfalls, we recommend that you hire a licensed guide. It is compiled from several experienced hikers. The methods may work for the authors of this article, but may not work for you. Most hiking deaths in the Catskills occur around ledges and waterfalls. There are many hidden dangers. Even for experienced hikers. It is very easy to get killed around waterfalls. Never underestimate the dangers of hiking around waterfalls.

  • It is important to have the correct mindset when hiking around Waterfalls. We always error on the side of caution, and we are always very conservative. We always feel paranoid about safety. We never take un-necessary risk. If you are not scared, then you don't belong near the waterfall. While surveying Buttermilk Falls, we made over 10 attempts to get to one of the drops. When we felt uncomfortable about our route, we would retreat and plan again for another route. Better safe then sorry.

  • Plan your route out carefully, and do the research on the hike. Use a good up-to-date map. Make sure you bring the map with you on the hike. Determine the total mileage and amount of time it will take. It is important to understand that the more difficult the terrain, the more unreliable maps become. Even up-to-date USGS maps are notoriously unreliable. Map makers often guessed at what the terrain looked like. Rarely did they enter the difficult ravines to get accurate measurements.

  • The Catskill Mountains has some of the deadliest waterfalls and hiking in the world. Kaaterskill Falls has had over 200 deaths since the early 1800's. It is considered one of the deadlist waterfall in the world. Japan also has a waterfall that has had 200 deaths, but some of the deaths are from suicides. And, the Catskills has many waterfalls that are much more dangerous then Kaaterskill Falls. Plattekill Ravine is one of the deadliest hiking areas in the world. There has been in excess of 200 deaths there. It got it's names, Hell's Hole and Devil's Kitchen from the many deaths. Being careful in the Plattekill Ravine is not good enough. There are many hidden dangers that have fooled many people.

  • Proper clothing is critical. Use hiking trail runners on easy to moderate hikes. Never EVER wear flip-flops, sandals, street shoes, or bare-foot. 75% of the deaths at Kaaterskill Falls had inappropriate foot wear. On difficult hikes you should use mountaineering boots. Your clothing should be polyester. Polyester pants will wick out and dry quickly when they become wet. Cotton retains water, and will rob your body of heat and energy 30 times faster then skin exposed to the air.

  • Never hike around waterfalls when the temperature is below freezing. Ice climbing is a very different skill. Experienced hikers do not necessarily make experienced ice climbers. Ice climbers rely on good solid ice, and know what is safe and dangerous ice. Hiking around waterfalls when the waterfall is not covered by solid ice is the most dangerous. You cannot tell what is liquid water and what is solid ice. It is easy to get fooled.

  • We strongly recommend that you hike with at least one partner. You should avoid difficult waterfall hikes with more then five hikers. And, your hiking partners should have the same hiking ability. If you have a hiker who is slower then the rest of the group, the entire group needs to slow down to their rate. Pushing a slow hiker can result in an injury or death. Don't be a jerk! If someone in your group doesn't feel safe to proceed in a region, then your entire group, should not proceed forward in that region. Never EVER break up your group, or allow one or more people to fall behind. Hike together as a group. Groups that break up or allow some people to fall behind have a substantially higher incidence of getting lost, or injury or death.

  • While hiking in remote regions, it is recommended that someone has a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). In case of an injury, the PLB will alert EMS and SAR that you have an emergency. You should not rely on cell phone coverage. SPOT coverage is weak in ravines, due to it's weaker signal. A PLB will get you the help you need quickly as possible. Make sure that you have registered your PLB with NOAA!

  • Write down your route and plans, and leave them with someone close to you. Also place the route and plans on the dashboard of your car in case SAR is called. Let them know when you should be arriving back home, AND what time to call 911 and SAR. In New York State, you can call NYS Search and Rescue at (866) 669-9727.

  • Make sure that your gear is ready for the hike. Check your gear to make sure nothing is broken or damaged. Charge any rechargeable batteries and bring spares. Charge your cell phone just prior to leaving for the hike.

  • Make sure that you have plenty of time to complete the hike early. Schedule extra time for problems. Set a turnaround time. Do NOT deviate from this turnaround time. Many experienced hikers will set a time, like 1 PM, to turnaround if they have not reach their final goal. Make sure that you start early in the day. I personally have turned around less then a 1/4 mile from the summit numerous times. The mountain will be there for another day. No mountain is worth dying for. Make sure you know the time of day when the sun will set. Some GPS units will tell you this information based upon where you are located.

  • If you are hiking on marked DEC trails make sure that you register the hike in the DEC registration box. Put in an emergency phone number and your intended route, along with any optional goals you may or may not attempt. Try not to deviate from this plan. SAR will rely on this information to find you if you do not return. Your life may depend upon this registration.

  • The best views are almost always at the base of the waterfalls. The view at the top is often lousy. Some hikers become obsessed with getting to the top. Once on top, they discover that it was a waste of time. Sometimes they even take un-necessary risk to get there.

  • Never EVER cross a waterway at the top of the waterfall. Waterways often have algae and they can be very slippery. You can end up flowing off the waterfall to your death. Always go well up stream to cross waterways.

  • Never cross the waterway when the water is running fast, or if the water is deep. With clear mountain water, the water may not appear deep, but might actually be much deeper then you expect. Always remember that rock in the waterway has been ground smooth, and it much more slippery then regular rock.

  • Always be very careful standing near the top of waterfalls. Sometimes the rock may appear dry. But, humidity from the water can settle on the rock, and actually make it very slippery. It is easy to get fooled by rock that looks like it is dry. Sometimes you can see a waterline, and the rock can still be slippery on the dry side of the waterline on the rocks. Never assume that dry looking rock is actually dry.

  • Never stand on the edge of a ledge or waterfall. As the water goes over the waterfall, it pushes the air down. As the moving air gets near the bottom, it will turn 180 degress and start to move up the sides of the waterfall. As air moves up past the top of the waterfall, it creates a suction 90 degress to the movement of the air. This moving air can actually suck you off the ledge/waterfall. Even on a calm day. This effect is call the Bernoulli's Principle.

  • Some hikers believe that if they fall off the top of a waterfall they will fall into the basin of water at the bottom. Water generally falls at an arc. This is because the water is moving at a rate that propels it outward. People generally fall straight down. When you fall straight down, you will often hit the rocks below instead of the basin of water. Kaaterskill Falls is a perfect example of this. When people jump (or fall) off a ledge into water, they generally cannot survive with drops more then 100 feet. The upper part of Kaaterskill Falls is 167 feet high. Over the last 200 years, only one person has survived the fall.

  • Some waterfalls have conifer trees around them. Usually walking around on pine needles is safe and the grip is good. But, if you fall down on pine needles on an incline, you can very quickly slide off the ledge to your death. Polyester hiking pants slides over pine needles at alarming rates. It is like falling on ice. This is how Hell's Hole and Devil's Kitchen got it's name. The ledges around this ravine are sloped, and many people have slid off the ledges when they fall down on the pine needles.

  • Stream beds often have algae growing in the stream bed. Algae sometimes is not always visible in the water. Algae can be on significant inclines, or on the waterfall itself. Even in the Spring and Fall. Walking where there is running water is risky.

  • Any rocks or ledges around streams or waterfalls can very slippery. Even if it looks dry, it can be very slippery. You can never trust rocks around water.

  • Some waterfalls have created deep ravines. Getting into the ravines and and down to the water can very dangerous. Often times. the walls are lined with loose rocks. Other times, you have to be concerned with mud slides. Loose rocks can be very difficult. Walking on the rocks can trigger a rock slide. So, you must pick your footing very carefully. Sometimes, you will move at an incredibly slow rate of speed. Sometimes the rocks are moss covered to add to the danger. Often times the ravine walls are very steep. Typically around 45 degrees. If you fall, you can tumble down the steep walls and get seriously injured or killed.

  • Some ravines and waterways can be littered with old trees and branches. Sometimes it can make it very hard to move around. One other danger is that he trees start sliding downhill when you try to get over them. You can cause an avalanche of rocks and trees. You can easily be killed if you are caught up in a slide.

  • Often times when you hike into a ravine that has many rocks, there are often hidden holes between the rocks. Often times they are covered with leaves and debris. When you step on top of what looks like solid ground, you can fall in 1-2'. If you are moving quickly or fall off balance it can break your leg. Sometimes these holes can be 30-40' deep and wide enough for a person to slide down into. If you get wedged in a narrow hole, you can suffocate to death. And, it is possible that you will never be found. These hidden pocket holes can be small, large, shallow, or deep.

  • Sometimes to get to the base of a waterfalls you have to hike up the stream to the base. You can encounter pools that can be 5-10' deep. Especially when the waterway is narrow.

  • Using hiking poles in difficult ravines is recommended. It can help keep you stable when your footing is questionable.

  • Sometimes when you approach a Ravine, you can approach it too quickly. Sometimes when you pull away some branches, you will discover that a ledge is 2-3 feet in front of you that can drop 100 feet or more. You can easily walk off the ledge if you are not careful. There are places in the Plattekill Ravine like this.

  • Snakes like to sit on the edge of streams. Timber Rattlesnakes have been seen in the Kaaterskill Clove and the Plattekill Clove. Always keep in mind that this is a favorite hunting ground for snakes.

  • There are so many hidden dangers with waterfalls. What seems logical can be wrong. It is always best to be paranoid and extremely cautious. If you are having a difficult time accessing a waterfall, sometimes it is best to retreat and come back another day.

  • Links and References:

    Find a Guide: New York State Outdoor Guides Association
    Rock and Canyoneering Guide: Alpine Endeavors
    Ice Climbing: Northeast Ice

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