Death in the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon National Park is a place of immense beauty on an almost incomprehensible scale. For good reason, it is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. People come from around the globe to see this divine abyss with their own eyes. Too many forget, however, that national parks are not Disney World. They feature Mother Nature, often at her cruelest.

Just this morning, a 70-year old visitor to the Grand Canyon fell to her death–the FOURTH such falling death in the Canyon in the past month.

Based on the foolish behavior we witnessed at the Grand Canyon last week, it is almost surprising that such tragic deaths are not even more frequent. You will not believe what we saw!

The Grand Canyon viewed from the Rim Trail
The majestic Grand Canyon, viewed from the South Rim. A place of both immense beauty and great danger.

HOW TO GET KILLED AT THE GRAND CANYON

Last week, in the span of just ONE HOUR while hiking down the South Rim’s famed Bright Angel Trail into the Canyon, we witnessed three separate displays of foolishness, each of which could have easily killed every person involved.

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1. Mr. Walking Stick

Before we even set foot on the trail, a young man jumped over a barrier fence and, at the encouragement of his family, start walking down the sloped canyon wall to collect a branch that had fallen from a tree several yards down to use as a walking stick.

If you are agile enough to jump over a fence, do you need an imperfect, rotted walking stick so badly that it is worth risking your life to get it?

Steep slope of the Grand Canyon Wall is not the place to go off trail
Not the place to go off trail in search of a walking stick

2. The Trailblazers

A mile or so into our hike at a steep switchback, a family with three young children decided to blaze their own trail. Instead of turning to follow the path, they continued straight off the trail out onto a rocky ledge, where they proceeded to have a picnic. Rule #1 of hiking in the Canyon is STAY ON THE TRAIL. Sliding rocks can literally remove the ground from under your feet. Why expose yourself and your children to that kind of danger?

3. The Instagrammer

To this day, this third one fills me with rage (and incredulity). Let me set the scene: My boys were waiting at a turn in the path for the crowd to clear, so I could take a picture of them. While they were waiting, a woman about 25 feet away proceeded to drape her children over a rock, so they were hanging into the Canyon so she could take a “funny” picture of them.

Say WHAT? Are you insane? It was ultimately passersby who shamed her into stopping. A young man standing near us who also witnessed this display of stupidity (I’m sorry, is there any other word for this?) caught one of the final moments of it on camera and later shared it with us.

Rock at rim of Grand Canyon
Here’s Matthew later standing at that very same rock asking “What the heck was she thinking?”

In his foreword to Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, Ken Phillips, Former Chief of Emergency Medical Services at Grand Canyon National Park writes:

Despite the obvious dangers of Grand Canyon, a frequent observation I have made of many visitors is their tendency to have a “911 mentality”. They often make the assumption that help will always be immediately forthcoming when they place themselves in harm’s way. Such visitors suffer from the misguided belief that a national park is a close cousin to an amusement park. The realities are that Walt Disney did not have a hand in constructing Grand Canyon, and the inherent risks associated with this park are unbelievably real. And all too often, tragically so.

I agree with Ken Burns that our national parks are America’s best idea. They are among my favorite places on the planet. I encourage you to take every opportunity you have to visit them. But please, for the love of all things holy, BE SAFE!

Have you witnessed dangerous behavior in the wilderness? Did you intervene? Would you?

For more national park-related articles, see:

Everglades National Park: Questioning My Parenting

One thought on “Death in the Grand Canyon

  1. A couple fell to their deaths at the Western most point of Europe in Portugal, about 5 minutes away from where we lived and a good place for sunset, hiking, looking to try to see the US. We watched multiple people climb over the fence to pose on the edge. I was so unsettled and generally terrified that I was going to witness someone dying. It is very much a mentality that accidents happen to other people.

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