Adventure Tales

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How To Avoid Death In The Grand Canyon

Death in Grand Canyon

Most people who visit the Grand Canyon are so excited by the parks breathtaking views they forget just how dangerous this place can be. As they peer over the edge of the cliffs from thousands of feet above they’ll innocently question “I wonder how many people have fallen from up here?” The fact of the matter is too many people have perished in the Grand Canyon unnecessarily. Many of these deaths could have been avoided by simply using common sense. However, some deaths were a result of bad luck or bad timing. The Grand Canyon is a beautiful place where you can enjoy a leisurely family vacation or a tough rugged adventure. In either case, there are certain risks you should be aware of in order to keep everyone on your trip safe from harm and avoid any possibilities of becoming another one of the canyons unfortunate fatalities.

When I visited Grand Canyon National Park for the first time, I too was blown away by its grandeur and beauty. Not only did we walk along the South Rim to marvel at the various viewpoints, but we also hiked down the canyon in extremely hot weather to view the Colorado River below. It wasn’t until the trip was coming to an end that I spotted a book in a gift shop called “Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon“. The subtitle on the cover read, “Gripping accounts of all known fatal mishaps in the most famous of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders.” The book was thick and looked very interesting so I purchased it for the 8-hour drive home. They say ignorance is bliss. That’s exactly how I felt when I was in the Grand Canyon, totally blissful and completely ignorant of the amount of tragic accidents that have occurred there over the years. But after I read that book, I wondered if some of those deaths could have been prevented had those people read a book just like this. After all, education can be your best defense.

Over The Edge: Death in Grand Canyon
Incredible tales of all the ways people have perished in Grand Canyon

It’s no surprise that one of the most common questions asked by canyon visitors is “How many people die here each year?” Authors Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers went through decades of records, news stories, and sometimes conflicting accounts to write this book and even they can’t come to a definitive answer to the question. The reason is that there are some mishaps that are known and many others that are never reported or confirmed. The book’s chapters are separated by categories such as heart attacks, dehydration, flash floods, lightning strikes, Colorado River drownings and so on. Each chapter discusses the known accounts of people who have perished in these ways. The end of the book even has a table of every known fatality and details of the victims deaths like date it happened, name, age, and how they died.

Goofing Off Can Be Dangerous

Some of the stories in the book are of people who decided to stupidly goof off near the rim of the canyon. One of the more memorable stories was about a dad who was playing a practical joke on his daughter. He pretended to fall backwards off the rim onto a hidden ledge below. Trouble was he missed the hidden ledge and instead fell to his death. There are similar accounts of men who were killed while “hamming it up” for tourist cameras while jumping between rock ledges. All visitors that experience the canyon get tempted to get closer to the edge to take pictures. Guard rails and fences are placed in the park for a reason, mainly to protect people from themselves. Avoid the urge of climbing over them just to take a silly picture. It’s just not worth it. A majority of the Grand Canyon’s rim have no rails or fences. Be especially careful here because people die doing stupid things.

Don’t Just Bring Water With You, Use It!

I was shocked by the stories of people who hiked into the canyon with only one small water bottle. But you know what shocked me more? The people who were found dead from dehydration that still had water in their backpacks! This is just crazy, but apparently it does happen. Moral of this story is figure out how far you will be hiking and bring enough water. And don’t wait till your ready to die before you drink it. Drink often to keep your body hydrated. Common sense people!

Your Not Superman So Don’t Attempt To Hike The Canyon In A Day

There are lots of people that overshoot their goals and deny their physical limitations. That usually spells disaster. When I hiked the Bright Angel Trail there was a big sign at the start of the trailhead that warned of the dangers of hiking beyond your means. It had a picture of a girl that had recently died after trying to hike with a friend twenty something miles in a single day. Although she was a marathon super athlete she was no match for the canyons unrelenting heat. In elevated temperatures, it’s so easy to suffer from heat stroke. Set reasonable goals for yourself and know your limits. If your going to attempt a long hike, make sure you’ve trained for it. Even if your the most fit person in the world, your still human. There will be a limit to what you can do in a day.

Use A Map And Don’t Get Lost

Yep, there are also stories of people who attempted to navigate through the canyon and got lost on the way. Most trails are well kept and marked with signs, but people still manage to stray off of them. There are some stories in the book that describe people who tried to navigate the canyon on their own and never made it out. Other stories describe people who ran into trouble with extreme heat and attempted to hike to the river for water. Only they didn’t exactly know how to get there. A few people died with only 100 or so vertical feet in distance from the river below. What a shame. Have a defined plan for your hike or adventure. Know where your going, how far it’s going to be and try to avoid rash decisions that might get you lost.

The River is More Powerful Than You Think

Ken Klementis Life Magazine 1970
Rare river mishap photo captured by Ken Klementis featured in Life Magazine – 1970.

The picture above was on the back of the “Death In Grand Canyon” book and is what grabbed my attention when I first decided to buy it. A fun rafting trip gone terribly wrong. Just look at those faces frozen with fear of what is about to happen. A truly “Oh Shit” moment if I’ve ever seen one. Miraculously no one was injured from this flip, but many have perished by falling out of a raft on the raging Colorado River. Some bodies were never found again. The river can be around 42 degrees Fahrenheit and at this cold temperature hypothermia can set in within 15-30 minutes of being in the water. Also there are many boulders and rocks that can break limbs should your body get flushed onto them. Not to mention the river is so powerful and wild, drowning can become a serious threat. These kinds of accidents are sometimes not preventable and has nothing to do with common sense. They just happen. I’ve done river rafting and am aware of the dangers that exist. If your attempting to raft the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, you have to accept the risk factors that you absolutely can die if you fall into the river. Hopefully this will never happen to you, which is why you should know what your getting yourself into when you sign that release waiver with your rafting tour company of choice.

Sometimes Mother Nature Can Be A Bitch

The point I want to make here is that you never can predict what mother nature will throw at you. I remember a story of mountain climbers on the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park that were climbing on a bright warm day in June. Suddenly the weather changed and a snowstorm poured down from the skies above. All those unfortunate souls froze to death on the side of the mountain. But that’s just how fickle the weather conditions can be. One minute it’s cool, the next it’s a scorcher. The weather is not the only natural phenomenon that can be dangerous. Sometimes flash floods will occur with no or little warning. People have been swept away to their deaths while hiking through the canyon floor. If your planning on hiking in the canyon in the months of July, August, and September be aware that this is monsoon season and there is a higher potential for flash flooding to occur.

After reading this post I hope you don’t think I enjoy scaring people out of enjoying a trip to the Grand Canyon. On the contrary I want people to enjoy all that nature can provide. The authors of the book also wrote it not with the intention to shock people, but to help future travelers use others unfortunate experiences to learn from.

I’ve only touched on a few of the stories from the “Death In Grand Canyon” book. There are many more and it could make you a much smarter and safer adventurer if you read it for yourself. After reading the book it was very clear to me the Grand Canyon is certainly no Disneyland! You must treat this place with respect and remember that it is still a very natural and wild place which can be both a privilege and a curse. The canyon will show you no mercy so tread with care. You can still enjoy yourselves and have great safe adventures, but just use precaution and common sense when your out there!

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