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The Kolob Creek hike in north Zion National Park is one of the most spectacular - and dangerous - anywhere in the park.

"You have to know what you're doing in there," said assistant superintendent Larry Wiese. "But that's true of any hike down here."Zion National Park officials have been criticized by some for allowing hikers into the canyon during a high-water year. Last week, two Salt Lake men - both experienced hikers - died in Kolob Creek during a church outing that also stranded five teenagers and one other adult.

Danger is an inherent part of hiking Utah's most popular national park. In many respects, it's part of the intrigue that draws 2.6 million people a year.

But even if park officials had known about the high-water conditions in the canyon, Wiese cannot say they would have discouraged the group from going in.

"We never have," he said. "We try to assess the trail for different groups based upon their experience and give them alternatives to a particular trail we think is dangerous. But we don't try to discourage them from going on a trail.

"If a group showed up with a shopping bag of groceries and wanted to hike the Narrows, we would be asking them a lot about their experience and offer them a lot of information to make rational decision. But they take on the personal responsibility. We allow the opportunity for people to be challenged."

Despite the millions of people who visit Zion every year, the park has a remarkable safety record. The deaths of Kim Ellis, 37, and Dave Fleischer, 24, were the first deaths in the park since last October.

Two people died in the park in 1992, one in 1991, two in 1990 and one in 1989. Those fatalities included heart attacks and car accidents, as well as a child who drowned in the campground. One of the fatalities was a park ranger leading a nature hike. About half of the fatalities were hiking-related.

While fatalities remain relatively low, park service personnel are being called out on an increasing number of rescues of injured and lost hikers. Last year, the park conducted 28 major searches; there were 30 in both 1990 and 1991. By comparison, there were 15 in 1989 and 14 in 1988.

Those rescues included 12 serious injury accidents in 1992, 17 in 1991 and 20 in 1990. By comparison, there were seven in 1989 and nine in 1988.

Wiese attributes the rise in searches and rescues to the overwhelming increase in visitation and the increasing number of visitors who go into remote back-country canyons. For example, five years ago, about 150 people a month hiked the back-country area known as The Subway. Last fall, park service personnel counted more than 15,000 people over a six-week period.

More people in the back country has meant more injuries, many of which can be directly attributed to a lack of proper foot gear, water and equipment.

"We find there are many different experience levels of hikers," Wiese said. "Some are very experienced and never unpack their backpacks, while the average backpacker goes out once or twice a year and does not think about all of the conditions he might encounter. Which is why we recommend everyone research the area and know their limitations. Only with experience do you know what those limitations are."

Wiese notes, however, that the ill-fated expedition into Kolob Creek was as prepared as any he has seen in Zion. They had plenty of supplies, wet suits to guard against the cold and they had trained for months.

"They met every criteria of being prepared," he said. "They had done their homework. They had a leader who been through at least two times before and could prepare the others. They had the equipment to technically get through there. They should have been able to do that trip. What went wrong on this trip is very difficult to say."

If you are thinking about hiking Zion's back country, Wiese is emphatic: Contact park rangers first. "It's a personal decision whether or not to go, but we can give you information about the trails and current conditions," he said. "It's best to make informed decisions."

And don't skimp on foot gear. Most injuries that occur in Zion are ankle and knee injuries related to tripping or slipping, particularly while walking in the rivers and streams. Wrist and shoulder injuries are also common as people people stick out their hands to stop a fall.

"We don't want to discourage back-country use," Wiese said. "We just want people to be prepared for what they encounter there."