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Teen's death on Mount Yonah showcases dangers of hiking in the wilderness
The granite summit of 3,156-foot Mount Yonah in White County features steep slopes leading to a vertical drop-off. Officials urge hikers to use extreme caution and stay away from the edges of cliffs. - photo by The Times file photo

The death of a young hiker Saturday on Mount Yonah near Cleveland was a sobering reminder that the wilderness can be unforgiving.

Elena Rae Shaw, 18, of Sautee, was with three teenage friends early that afternoon as they explored the sheer granite cliffs that have made 3,156-foot Mount Yonah the most recognizable landmark in White County.

She reportedly slipped and fell, plummeting about 600 feet into the Chattahoochee National Forest below. About two hours elapsed while a friend ran down the mountain to seek help and rescuers searched through the woods to locate where Shaw had fallen.

Remarkably, the teen was still alive when emergency personnel reached her. But her injuries were described as "massive," and she died before she could be taken to a hospital.

Officials stressed that Shaw didn’t do anything wrong. She had hiked Yonah a number of times and knew the area. She and her friends were not consuming alcohol or drugs.

But longtime hikers say the teens may not have had something that can help save lives: anxiety about heights.

"I just think teenagers have no fear," said Beckie Hilton, a former high school teacher and president of the Clarkesville-based N.E. Georgia Mountain Hiking Club. "They don’t see the dangers that we see, because they don’t have the experience to draw upon."

Hilton said her club has a scheduled hike Saturday on Mount Yonah.

"It’s one of our favorite hikes," she said. "But when we take groups up there, we caution people that they need to stay back. When you’re hiking near a steep drop-off, you have to be careful not to get too close to the edge."

How close is too close?

Dawsonville resident Frank Wright, a member of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, said the distance should probably be greater than a person’s height.

"I’m not comfortable getting less than 5 or 6 feet from the edge," he said.

Wright emphasized that walking atop Yonah requires a different mindset than ordinary hiking.

"If you’re on the Appalachian Trail and you trip, usually all you’ll do is skin your knee. You don’t fall off a cliff," he said.

"In Georgia, there are just a few places where you encounter a precipice with a drop-off of that magnitude (like Yonah). You’ve got to be extra cautious, because there’s no margin for error."

Larry Luckett, recreation and engineering staff officer for the Chattahoochee National Forest, said the official trail to Yonah doesn’t include the cliffs, so hikers are in no danger as long as they stay on the trail.

However, people are free to wander just about anywhere in the national forest, and it’s understood that they accept the risk if they choose to do that.

"We probably average a death a year off our (water)falls or high cliffs," Luckett said. "We do not prevent, nor is it illegal, for somebody to take a cross-country route and go to the top of the falls. One reason people like to recreate on national forest land is the openness."

Wright said most hikers don’t want their wilderness retreats to be "tamed."

"You’re going to hear both sides of this argument," he said. "There will be a group who says put up a cable all around the mountain (for people to grab onto). Then you’ll have an equally vociferous group who says, Don’t you dare destroy that beautiful view."

Officials say the point of outdoor recreation is to give people the opportunity to explore the natural environment, even if it may be hazardous.

However, there are some measures hikers can take to minimize the risks. First and foremost, treat any rock face as if it’s icy pavement.

Both Hilton and Wright said hikers need to move slowly and assess the area they’ll be crossing.

"Identify the places where it looks safest to place your feet, and plan what you’ll grab onto if you start to fall," Wright said.

The right footwear is critical. Hilton said many people try to hike in shoes with slick soles that provide no traction.

"Shoes must have a tread that’s made for hiking," she said. "They need to be able to grip the rocks."

But unless you’re Spider-Man, even the best shoes will not enable you to cling to the edge of a cliff without ropes. Mount Yonah’s rock walls are so challenging that they attract rappellers and climbers from all over the Southeast, and the U.S. Army uses the cliffs as a training ground for its Ranger teams.

"Yonah is a spectacular area, but it’s very treacherous," said Bob Bolz, chief of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ statewide search and rescue team.

Bolz said his team responds to about 135 wilderness emergencies each year, with "maybe a dozen fatalities." He said less than 5 percent of those incidents involve falls from great heights.

"It’s usually people trying to get somewhere they shouldn’t be," he said. "A lot of people want to get a little better view or take a better picture."

Bolz said people underestimate how severely they could be injured in a fall.

"You can die from falling 30 or 40 feet," he said. "And in an environment like (Yonah), you’re probably going to be hitting things such as rock ledges and trees on the way down."

But considering the number of people who come to North Georgia to hike and enjoy the mountains, Bolz said it’s surprising that more visitors aren’t hurt, and that fatal incidents like the one that occurred Saturday are extremely rare.

If everyone would just be careful, he said, maybe the number of fatalities could be reduced to zero.

"This was a tragedy that hopefully people can learn from," he said.

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