The good news is that Hongkongers are taking to the great outdoors in larger numbers, fighting the coronavirus-pandemic blues by heading for the city’s numerous nature trails.
The bad news? Many have got into mishaps in recent months, with a sharp rise in mountain rescues and people getting injured. At least two deaths have been reported.
Experienced hiking enthusiasts have a plea for city slickers who feel the urge to clamber up hilly trails: stop posing for selfies at risky spots.
Regular hiker Alex Chow, 32, a logistics worker, said that on several occasions, he had seen people perched precariously to take selfies on Kowloon Peak, a steep rocky slope in Ma On Shan Country Park dubbed “Suicide Cliff”.
“I once saw two girls dancing on the big rock as they took selfies. I felt like my heart was about to jump out of my chest,” he said.
Fire Services Department figures show there were 140 mountain rescue incidents from February to April, up from 55 incidents over the same period last year. The number of injuries also soared to 65, from 26 over the same period last year.
Those who needed rescuing included hikers who got lost among the hills, as well as those who fell from a height. Depending on their location, most had to be carried away on stretchers by the fire services team, while some needed to be rescued by helicopter.
When planning a trail, they should make sure there are escape routes, in case they feel exhausted along the way
Samuel Chow, founder, Hong Kong Emerald Hiking Team
The spike in hiking incidents comes as Hongkongers take to the outdoors to fight boredom during the pandemic. Large crowds have been hitting the city’s popular trails, such as those in Sai Kung, Lantau, Tung Chung and the Lion Rock hike between Kowloon Tong and Sha Tin.
Two deaths were reported in separate incidents last month.
A 42-year-old woman fell 50 metres to her death at the most popular hiking section of Sai Kung’s High Island Reservoir. She was trekking with a friend when she left the main route to take a short cut, grabbed a loose rock and fell as she was scaling a steep rock wall near the reservoir’s East Dam.
In another tragedy, a 52-year-old woman died after falling 20 metres off the notoriously steep “Suicide Cliff”. She was with a group of about 10 who set off from Clear Water Bay Road in Choi Hung for Kowloon Peak, also known as Fei Ngo Shan. She fell when the group reached the steep slope.
Shum Si-ki, 62, founder of Hong Kong Hiking Meetup, said the 25,000-strong hiking group had been attracting 300 new members a month since the pandemic began, twice as many as before.
“I’ve never seen such a high accident rate as this year,” he said. “I believe it has something to do with the growing trend of social media which encourages people to take selfies while hiking.
“Many people are attracted by photographs on social media showing the city’s beautiful mountains. I’ve seen many people taking selfies at some dangerous locations without heeding the risks. This can easily result in a fall.”
He said beginners needed to know that hiking had its risks, and they should stay vigilant at all times, as varying weather could be hazardous in different ways.
“Hot weather may trigger heatstroke, rainfall causes slippery surfaces, while strong winds make for unsteady strides,” he said.
Hiker Alex Chow said in recent months, he had noticed more beginners running into difficulty at Kowloon Peak’s “Suicide Cliff”.
“Once I saw a group of five or six young people who were dressed like they were going shopping instead of hiking. They were all gasping as they used their hands and feet to crawl along the steep slope,” he recalled.
“One of them, a man in his 20s, told me he felt weak in his legs and that he had a fear of heights.”
Chow said he helped the group descend slowly to the main trail. “They seemed to have had no idea of their physical abilities, or the risks they faced,” he said.
Samuel Chow Shu-ching, 73, founder of another outdoors group, the Hong Kong Emerald Hiking Team, advised hikers not to overestimate their ability and put themselves in dangerous situations.
“Some people, especially youngsters, enjoy taking risks at dangerous spots just for excitement, and they venture off the designated trails. This is very risky,” he warned.
He advised hikers to check the difficulty ratings for various trails, and choose one that was suited to their physical ability, usually a trail no longer than 10km.
“Hikers should understand their limits and avoid overstretching themselves just to complete the journey. When planning a trail, they should make sure there are escape routes, in case they feel exhausted along the way,” Chow said.
He also suggested setting off in groups of at least four. “It’s very dangerous to hike alone. If there are at least four people hiking together, there will be sufficient helping hands to rescue an injured person if there is a mishap,” he explained.
I started with easy hikes to get myself familiar with the process and progressively joined more difficult hikes … You want to challenge yourself, but you should not do dangerous things
Alvin Lim, Malaysian banker in Hong Kong
Tommy Nam, 36, a tree surveyor, is among those who started hiking in recent months. “Because of the pandemic, I have more spare time, but many shops and recreational facilities have been shut,” he said, explaining his new interest.
He joined the Hong Kong Hiking Meetup group in February, and is aware of the risks outdoors. “I think it’s safer to hike in a group with hiking leaders. They offer us a lot of support,” he said.
Nam said he was taken aback by the sight of many people who were inappropriately dressed for trekking, and even parents carrying toddlers along hilly trails.
“I have seen women wearing a bra top or dresses. They looked like they were going to a party. Once, I saw a man in leather shoes, shirt and trousers,” he said.
Recent news reports of hiking accidents have made him more cautious. “I avoid going to dangerous spots and I definitely won’t take risks just for the sake of a selfie,” he said.
Malaysian Alvin Lim, 45, who recently relocated to Hong Kong as regional head of open banking at HSBC, said he followed the hiking dos and don’ts strictly.
“I started with easy hikes to get myself familiar with the process and progressively joined more difficult hikes,” he said.
To ensure his safety, he considers the difficulty rating of various trails, makes sure he has the right gear, and checks the weather before setting out.
“I learned it is very important to stay absolutely focused on each step you take as you hike, and invest in good gear such as shoes, a sun hat and a GPS watch. You want to challenge yourself, but you should not do dangerous things,” he said.
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