Selecting outdoor guides a matter of 'buyer beware'
Aug. 16, 1997
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Every year, tourists flock to the West to run wild rivers, climb mountains and hike its cathedral-like desert canyons, counting on outfitters and guides to see them safely through.
But in an industry where oversight varies from state to state, nothing guarantees wilderness guides are the savvy outdoor veterans they claim to be.
``It really is an example of the old adage, `Let the buyer beware,''' says Terry Messmer, a Utah State University extension wildlife specialist. ``You need to check their level of experience, whether they're fulltime, halftime or just moonlighting for a few extra dollars.''
Investigators hope to learn whether inexperience may have been a factor in the drownings last week of 11 people on a TrekAmerica expedition deep inside northern Arizona's Antelope Canyon.
Only the guide, Poncho Quintana, 28, survived the flash flood that swept hikers away at the Navajo Nation site.
Quintana, a former welder who lives in Los Angeles, had received 21 days of guide training from TrekAmerica and had led tours through steep, narrow Antelope Canyon two or three times, says Jack Aakhus, the company's Los Angeles-based personnel manager.
But Aakhus says no training could have prepared Quintana for such a sudden, fierce flood, or helped him keep his hikers from being swept away.
Messmer argues that uniform regulation is the best way to weed out pretenders in the industry. ``There's really not regulation (of outfitters and guides),'' he says. ``A lot of it is on-the-job type training.''
The National Park Service requires all its concessionaires, including outfitters and guides, to meet safety, health and liability insurance standards. But state agencies vary widely in their oversight of the industry.
Utah neither requires minimum training levels nor registers guides and outfitters. Neighboring New Mexico requires background checks, exams and state registration.
Colorado mandates first-aid certification, liability insurance and registration but does not spell out specific training requirements.
Wyoming guides must be employed by a licensed outfitter and pass an open-book test on wildlife laws and first aid. Outfitters must have insurance and approval of a professional board.
But in Arizona, the state Fish and Game Department exercises no regulatory oversight of excursions.
That's fine with most who make their living outdoors.
Instead of regulation, Jerry Mallett, president of the Inglewood, Colo.-based Adventure Travel Society, recommends a healthy dose of common sense when venturing into the wild.
``Anyone from this area knows that this time of year you can get monsoons down there,'' he says, referring to the narrow corridors of Antelope Canyon. ``Those storms really come up quick.''
Pat Buccello, a National Park Service investigator at southern Utah's Zion National Park, emphasizes the need for hikers to be constantly aware of their surroundings _ and willing to question their guides' qualifications.
She suggests wilderness explorers check out guides' expertise and equipment rather than relying on the guides' or outfitters' self-assessments.
Buccello served as an expert witness in litigation arising from the 1993 drowning deaths of two adult leaders on a Mormon Church-sponsored outing in Zion's flooded Kolob Canyon.
Still, she questions the need for more extensive, formal controls on the outdoor industry.
``How do you write a regulation that can make sure someone has experience in hiking in a narrow canyon?'' Buccello asks. ``Then you'd have to have them predict the weather, too.''
Antelope Canyon was within a widespread region under warning for extreme thunderstorms about two hours before the flood hit Tuesday. The wall of water was caused by a storm that dumped heavy rain 15 miles away but on a plateau 2,000 feet higher than the canyon.
No more than a trace of rain fell in the Page area, and TrekAmerica officials said Quintana reported the weather was fine as he led his group down ladders into the canyon.
``If you look at nature there are probably 50 different elements of nature that one could study that could turn into a disaster,'' Aakhus says. ``What we focus on is general safety. We don't specifically define what a thunderstorm is.''
Bill Dvorak, an outfitter based in Nathrop, Colo., who's been in the business since 1979, has done several river trips for TrekAmerica.
Safety is the top priority of legitimate outfitters, Dvorak says. He requires guides to have current first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation cards, along with 50 hours of river-running instruction.
Still, nature is ultimately unpredictable _ and no amount of regulation can change that.
``You have very little notice. All you can do is try to get as high up as you can,'' Dvorak says. ``It's literally a wall of water moving down the wash. It's an awesome force.''