Ways to Die at the Grand Canyon

My friend and guide told the story. He was leading a small group of people out to see Grandview Point, a fantastic outlook on the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, just about year or two ago. He observed an Asian tourist, jumping from spot to spot at the edge, in a dangerous area. The man wanted a better view, choosing the edge of a precipice which could easily provide a mile-long fall to an unthinkable death!

“Dang, that guy’s gonna fall” were the last words uttered as my guide and his guests watched in unbelieving horror as that Asian fellow fell carelessly and foolishly to his death. The point was closed for the normal “recovery” process, mounted by the local Search and Rescue team. No rescue was needed; this was recovery; it is unsightly to watch the Turkey Vultures, which roost on the pine trees at evening time, dining on human carcasses. The Asian landed on a fairly visible ledge way below.

People jump purposefully, or perhaps they decide to drive the car right over the edge for convenience. Hey, there’s no sense getting-out, right? Small children go unmonitored and the unthinkable happens. A little ice slicks-up the path in winter on the normally safe “Rim Walk,” and, oops, away we go. Or, like that unthinking Asian tourist, we assume that it isn’t that risky. We play games, do handstands at the edge on a dare, wear high heels to walk out on a precipice with a sign that says “keep away,” or pretend to fall (one fellow pretended, as the story goes, then really did fall).

Casual day hikers underestimate the Canyon. Hyperthermia or dehydration or hypoglycemia or cramps occur when hikers meet the unforeseen challenges of what is presumed a simple “day hike.” They die or must be rescued (hand carried by Search and Rescue on a litter…and at great cost!) all the time. So many visitors come unprepared, believing that a hike down a Grand Canyon trail is just a simple hike. A 6,000 ft. descent over many miles of steep, often dry trail is not simple.

Statistics, from “Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon (Ghiglieri & Myers, 24th edition, 2001, Puma Press), suggest we have several deaths each year, but not just from falling. (In 1993, there were seven, and this seemed a rather harsh year.)

Flash floods occur all the time with monsoonal rains which hit from July through September, mostly. There are hikers caught in the unexpected torrents from side canyons, which flow downhill, and to death.

Things get muddy in the rain. A person could slip and….oops… Perhaps there’s a rafting problem and one or more unfortunate white-water rafters are injured or die from injuries.

“To be, or not to be…” There’s a story about a fellow determined to end his life. He’d purchased (for cash) a front row seat in the helicopter. He kept trying, as he couldn’t get the front seat the first few times, but he finally got “lucky” and got that front seat. Our persistent passenger popped the door as they flew out over the edge. The pilot (I am told) grabbed him, lost the grip, and this fellow lost his life and traumatized everyone else in the copter, including the pilot.

But there is one way to die that involves the largely unexpected. I saw it yesterday morning, graphically displayed in Hwy 64, around mile post 202, to start my day. A new automobile, a nice white compact, sat at the side of the road, still pointed northbound. Someone, perhaps the driver, stood to the side, looking somewhat dazed, as I slowly passed. The DPS officer and cruiser were behind, cruiser lights flashing.

Just a hundred feet behind the white compact lay a fully-antlered bull elk, perhaps around 900 lbs., quite dead.

The “new car” was totaled, without any semblance of a front end remaining. The presumed driver was still there. If there was a passenger, well, that person may well have been killed or med-evac’d.

This morning, another 900 lb. bull elk was standing in the road, at that same spot, at around 5:45 A.M. The thing was invisible until I was literally right on it; fortunately, I was driving slowly, knowing the 65 mph speed limit was unsafe at that time of the morning. I thought to myself, “not again!” He was in the other lane of the two-lane highway, and was absolutely unwilling to move.

I went safely past him, and warned the vehicle coming at him from the opposite direction. I hope that driver got my message!

Elk strike is a frequent problem around the Grand Canyon. Along Hwy. 64 and 180, and even on I/40 we see the evidence too often. Fatalities amount to about 150 nationwide, with 1.5 million collisions annually (click here for an interesting article on these numbers and ways Arizona is trying to reduce elk strikes), and I’m aware that we lose several people annually in the area due to this problem. 900 lbs of elk vs. an auto: both lose.

As I researched elk strikes, and the article referenced above, I was surprised to learn that these animals are apparently/reportedly owned by the State of Arizona. Hence, our state appears to be financially responsible when an elk strike occurs. All I could say was “wow.”

Visit the Grand Canyon, (read my “Indispensable Guide” for planning purposes here) by all means, but use common sense at the rim, when hiking, and when driving (especially at night, when the elk are hard to see!).

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