Death By Canyon

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So many ways to get yourself killed

I recently picked up a copy of Ghiglieri and Myers’ “Over The Edge: Death in Grand Canyon.” in a used bookstore in Flagstaff. When you come to the Canyon you’ll see this for sale everywhere. I thought I’d skim it for Canyon trivia and pop it back on the shelf. I found it difficult to put down. As awful as these accounts of Canyon fatalities are, some hit close to home. Anyone who has spent significant time hiking in the Canyon and has not subsequently questioned some of the decisions they have made are probably not being fully honest with themselves.

Some years ago in mid-summer I hiked Rim to River and back on the Tanner trail, about 15 miles round trip, (not recommended). That hadn’t been my plan! I was aiming for the top of the Redwall just beyond Cardenas Butte. When I got there it was still early and still relatively cool. I thought I’d get to the river and back above the Redwall before the hottest part of the day. I was wrong. I got to the river in about 2.5 hours. Spent some time there cooling of and replenishing calories. It wasn’t enough. As a result of dehydration, heat exhaustion and cramps, it took me 9.5 to get back to the rim. I had the luxury of that becoming a lesson and not a personal tragedy. I might write it up some day when I get over it. I’m not there yet.

The book

The odds are in your favor

According to you have a 1:400,000 chance of dying in or around the Canyon when you visit! Good odds for most of us it would appear, 6.25 million of us visited the park in 2017. In fact it’s not something most of us would even consider, at least not for ourselves.

The first question most Park Rangers get is “How many people die by falling into the Canyon?”. There is no answer to this, it varies year to year. On average around 12 people die, (from all causes), in the National Park each year. This figure includes traffic accidents, medical problems and suicides as well as falls and heat and cold related deaths.

According to Ghiglieri and Myers’ the odds of you dying on your visit are increased considerably if you venture into the Canyon itself. In their excellently researched, written, and surprisingly readable book you’ll find everything you ever wanted to know, and probably didn’t want to know, about death and dying in the Grand Canyon

Sorry guys!

By far the the biggest cause of death in the Canyon is being Male. Being young also helps. Of course there are fatalities among both genders and a wide age range but being young and male increases your likelihood of death considerably. Many of the fatal falls from the rim of the Canyon result from an apparent disregard for safety: climbing the barrier; goofing around; posing for photos; and jumping across rocks have caused almost all rim fatalities.

The Disneyfication of the Park in the minds of visitors appears to lead us to assume an illusion of safety that does not actually exist. If millions of people visit then it must be safe, if thousands hike it it cant be dangerous. This attitude is probably more prevalent amongst those visitors who stay on the rims that in those who hike into the Inner Canyon, yet their are enough reports from accidents occurring in the hiking fraternity to recognize that an underestimation of the dangers inherent in an environment like the Grand Canyon is not uncommon in those of us who drop below the rims. This is a major misconception.

Of the causes of fatal falls from the Canyon rim and within the canyon “Bad judgement ranks at the top”, (Ghiglieri and Myers). Nearly all victims have demonstrated a serious lack of judgement prior to their accident. Again more so amongst younger males than other groups.

Stick to the plan

Taking shortcuts off the main trail to try to reduce the mileage or the effort require to get to a destination has resulted in hikers getting lost, disoriented, further from their destination, and getting themselves into climbing situations they are neither equipped for nor able to manage.

Seriously, how hot can it get?

Slips, trips, and fatal falls may grab the news but the desert environment of the Canyon can be a killer. In winter it can get extremely cold and in summer unbelievably hot. Since most hikers visit in the summer months lets focus there. Heat is a killer, dehydration and heatstroke are major causes of death in the Canyon in summer.

While a summer morning temperature on the rim may be a pleasant 70f it can get to 120f in the Inner Canyon a little later on the same day. For those who have not experienced that heat, it is almost impossible to imagine. It is surrounding, you feel it all over not just from above. Even though shade will provide some relief the temperature can still be astounding and debilitating. As surprising is the quantity of water required to function in this environment. It would not be unusual to sweat a quart, (close to a liter), of fluid and electrolytes each hour hiking in the heat of the Canyon. Hiking uphill you can double that. Hikers should carry (and drink) upward of 2 Gallons of water and electrolyte mix with them for each day’s hike (around 17 lbs or 7.5 kgs in weight). That weight puts a lot of people off, it shouldn’t.

Upside down mountain

Most hikers are used to hiking hills and mountains. You get the hard work over on the way out. The price you pay for a good lunch with a good view is the effort you put in to get there. You then hike back down with your hands in your pockets and whistling Bob Dylan tunes. Those not fit enough to make the summit, in general, turnaround where they need to and get back down. Hiking from the rim into the Canyon is the opposite. You do the whistling on the way out and pay the price on the way back. As obvious as this would appear, it catches thousands of hikers out each year. Hikers often underestimate the water required, effort required, and impact of the heat on their performance. As a result suffer heat related illnesses such as dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke and in some cases death!

Good point…

You’re on your own

Most hiking related deaths in the Canyon happen to Solo hikers. Partly this is because there is no one there to help or raise the alarm if you get into trouble and partly it would seem that when there is no second voice in the conversation we are more likely to make dumb decisions. On our own we are more likely to try the shortcut, hike down the wash, scramble up the ridge, than we would if there is a critical or questioning companion with us.

So how do we minimize the likelihood that we’ll appear in future revisions of Ghiglieri and Myers’ “Over The Edge: Death in Grand Canyon” ?

  • Make a Plan and stick to it
  • Know how far, how hot, how steep etc.
  • Take enough water and electrolytes
  • Know your capabilities and stay within them
  • Train for the trail
  • Keep to the trail
  • Hike in the morning and evening
  • Hike with others where possible

What the hell next?

I haven’t even mentioned lightning, flash floods, mountain lions, or snakes

Podcast on hiking the Canyon safely

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