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Pumped up kicks: Death in the Grand Canyon

The author takes a break on the initial trip down the South Kaibab Trail.
The author takes a break on the initial trip down the South Kaibab Trail.
R. Hinton

Our national parks are a place to reflect, relax, and take in a preserved sanctuary of how the United States used to look back in the day. They are also a place to die!

A mule train treds carefully in the Grand Canyon
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The granddaddy of death by misadventure would have to be hands down Grand Canyon National Park. And the paranormal by association with these deaths? It has all the ingredients for a good haunting.

The book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon is an eye opener for anyone who has ever slung a pack across their back and marched into the wilderness for peaceful reflection. I picked up a copy just recently at Half Price Books. Authors Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, both veterans of Grand Canyon exploration, chronicle just how many people (600 as of its printing in 2001) have perished in one of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders; I’m confident that figure has significantly increased since their research 13 years ago.

With nearly 5 million visitors a year to the Grand Canyon, these deaths seem a rather small ratio overall, yet it is disturbing in the fact that people are offing themselves there, and under the stupidest of circumstances that is of their own creation. The park rangers can only do so much, and it will always be impossible to save us from ourselves.

We humans are a stubborn, yet proud lot!

Many of these deaths are by misadventure. Many are a result of those “Duh” moments that define our final seconds on this earth. Some are more “Duh” than others, but ultimately in deciding the matter of our own mortality, it becomes our own personal choice in the end. I guess you would have to be there….

Deaths in the Grand Canyon generally fall into two categories: one, temperature related which leads to lack of water (it’s dry country down in the interior), ultimately dehydration, then the phase where the mind is not firing on all cylinders; the Colorado River appears obtainable, even though you might be perched on a cliff 300 feet above it. No matter…let’s get that water! The temperature in the Grand Canyon falls into wacky realms: there might be snow on the rim, yet in the interior during the daylight hours one would be wearing a tee-shirt and sweating.

Or two, how close can I get to the edge to impress my buddies, girlfriend, significant other, or complete strangers? Or, for a magnificent photo opportunity? Yes…people are tumbling off of the edge of the Grand Canyon and probably wishing they hadn’t in their few seconds plunge into bedrock and darkness.

These are the two significant contributors to death in the Grand Canyon National Park, and the cycle continues on unabated. It would appear that folks just do not learn. Park rangers just shake their head sadly and wait for the next group to arrive. Folks are ill prepared—whether it is gear or mental state—for the surprisingly harsh environment just below the comfort of the rim. Everything changes once you take those initial steps downward into a world you didn’t realize still existed. The interior of the Grand Canyon is true wilderness! There are no comfort stations, no phones, flush toilets or drinking fountains. You are on your own. You will have to carry yourself through the journey.

My first glimpse of the Canyon was from a terrace at the rear of the El Tovar Lodge. It produced a slack-jawed stupor that everyone seems to experience their first time. The vastness…the colors…the quiet which emanated from below! I didn’t know much of the history, but couldn’t wait to get on the trail. I was not aware, until recently reading this book, that people had died—literally just days before my arrival, and continuing on after I had left.

My companions and I had bluffed the park rangers into believing we were experienced canyon hikers; we were not. A rookie mistake was getting our hike on the South Kaibab Trail started much too late in the day, resulting in blindly stumbling into the Phantom Ranch Campground under the cover of pitch black darkness; stupid, yet lucky! It was Halloween night.

The second day on the Tonto Trail taught us about heat and how lips crack open when not kept moistened by continual draws of water. We sought shelter until the evening hours which brought cooler temperatures. We continued our hike towards Hermit Creek.

This became our pattern and it worked: rest in the heat of the day and make miles at night.

Those night hikes became my moments of solitude as I pulled far out in front of my husband and wife cohorts and enjoyed my own personal canyon as the moonlight and stars illuminated the thin sliver of trail between rock and cactus. I didn’t use a flashlight. Up on the bluffs canyon donkeys—descendants of the mining days—would watch silently. I was ready for anything. Over each rise I would expect to meet the specters of prospectors from the past, phantom hikers, the pink tinged canyon rattlesnake that comes out in the cool of the night, or even the occasional alien spacecraft with an agenda all their own. It never happened, but nevertheless, whispers of the past engulfed those arroyos and desert plains as the canyon slowly gave up its secrets.

On our first trip to the Grand Canyon we made some stupid moves, yet no one died as a result. On the second trip stupidity once again reared its ugly head, yet no one perished; only the agony of a twisted ankle on the climb back up to the rim.

The Canyon quickly puts one on a crash course of rationality (if you choose to pay attention) which leads to your survival. And with each and every trip, gives a little more of herself in return for your respect.

I don’t know how people continue to die there, but sadly they still do.

Sudden unexpected deaths are said can be harbingers for spirits to remain behind at the place of their demise. If this is the case, then the Grand Canyon National Park has a continuing supply of new recruits to join those from the past who once had a personal interest in etching out a living in the rocky and hostile environment.

On the last day of my second backpacking excursion into the Canyon my friend Chuck and I encountered a young couple—boyfriend and girlfriend—just making their way into the interior. It was already midday, yet their goal was to make it down to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch, rest for a short spell, then continue their trek up the North Kaibab Trail to the more secluded north rim. And to do this all in one day! The girl was doe-eyed and new to hiking. Her boyfriend had done day hikes in state forests, yet little else. They wore shorts and tennis shoes, did not have a tent or sleeping bags, any coats or hats, and carried a small daypack containing a quart of water and a single bag of trail mix. We tried to get them to rethink and alter their plan. They smiled, told us they would be fine, and moved down the trail as we moved up.

Even to this day I think of them and whether they had accomplished their goal, or instead become a statistic….

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