The Grand Canyon: One Wrong Step and You're Gone May 6, 2019 22:49:20 GMT -5
Post by JoannaB on May 6, 2019 22:49:20 GMT -5
The Grand Canyon: One Wrong Step and You're Gone
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK – The edge – and death – are closer than you think. It sneaks up on you, both immovable and unpredictable. The South Rim cuts and juts and zigs and zags, following no particular path until it appears suddenly under your feet, an invisible line between solid ground and emptiness. It’s a belly-tingling view with a magnetic push and pull: Either you can’t stay away, or you can’t imagine getting any closer.
“That scares me to death,” Towana Jones, a first-time visitor, whispered on a recent Thursday, stopping on the sidewalk west of Mather Point. She tapped her husband and pointed past the rim, at a narrow ledge where two boys posed for photos. “All it takes,” she said, “is one bad step.”
All day she’d worried about the edge. She and her husband, Eddie, came from Mississippi. They awakened before sunrise and climbed onto a tour bus that promised to create the highlight of their trip. But before they reached the park, the tour guide told them news that had filtered through the canyon like morning haze: In one eight-day stretch, three visitors had died.
First, on March 26, the body of a Japanese tourist was found in the forest behind Grand Canyon Village. Two days later, a man from Hong Kong slipped off the rim and plummeted to his death near the Grand Canyon Skywalk, on Hualapai tribal land, which is outside of the park. And on April 3, a 67-year-old California man dropped from the edge near the Yavapai Geology Museum. Details on his death are still unclear.
The deaths drew international attention. Though there were no memorials, no markers of where the dead had fallen, a cloud seemed to hang over the park. Tour guides told their groups to stay on the sidewalks. Grandmothers stood frozen as somebody else’s grand-babies climbed onto ledges. Young men teased each other about becoming the fourth to die.
Once again, America’s greatest natural wonder found itself between two uncomfortable truths: The Grand Canyon is as safe as it’s ever been. It’s also likely as safe as it ever will be.
“There are a lot of places where you can go and essentially be safe,” said Dave Logan, a Grand Canyon guide whose tour company, Four Seasons Guides, operates about 400 trips a year. “But that’s not what these places are about.”
How many people have died at the Grand Canyon? The Grand Canyon can't be foolproofed. There’s simply too much of it. The park covers more than 1,900 square miles of raw nature, encompassing whitewater rapids and impassable cliffs and heat that can dehydrate hikers before they realize what’s happening. Blocking every visitor against danger would be impossibly expensive and time-consuming – and would likely destroy the wilderness that lures them in the first place.
Still, visitors rarely die. According to an unofficial tally by authors Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thoimas M. Mayers, almost 800 people have died at the Grand Canyon. Their number does not include suicides, but it finds danger in almost everything else: People die in the heat. They drown in the Colorado River. They climb into airplanes that smash into each other. And, sometimes, people fall from the rim. In theory, the number should be higher because the Grand Canyon draws more than 6 million visitors a year. That’s almost as many people as the population of all of Arizona.
In an average year, a park spokeswoman said, about a dozen people die at the canyon. This year, three visitors died in just over a week. Yet park officials confirmed they had no plans to add more safety measures. “This incident has not changed the park’s position on adding additional physical safety precautions (railings, etc.) at the park,” spokesman John Quinley said in an email.
Left unspoken was the delicate balance of the National Parks system: Every new piece of safety equipment pulls the canyon a little farther from its natural state. And still people would find their way to danger. “Could we make it 100 percent safe? Well, that’s a big number,” said park ranger A.J. Lapré, who supervises some visitor and safety services. “Could we make it almost foolproof-safe? Sure. I guess we could build a 20-foot wall, a fence of some sort that wasn’t easy to cross over.
But people are still going to do this. After half-an-hour on the ledge, the two young men who unnerved Towana Jones scrambled back to safety. Joey Fritz and Sebastian Ribierio stood on the sidewalk and swiped through a cell phone, looking at the photos they decided were worth the risk. “It’s just a bit different,” Fritz explained. “Not just standing on the rails.” He claimed he wasn’t scared.
Ribierio, however, shook his head. “If I fell,” he added, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” But nothing happened. They shrugged and walked away, off to find another lookout point.
A moment later, the sound of scuffling shoes filled the clearing. A middle-aged man slipped and slid down a rock face toward the edge, where there was no railing to stop him. Onlookers gasped. Panic flashed across his wife’s face. The man stopped himself, then stood sheepishly in a cloud of dust just a few feet from disaster. He brushed his hands and peered into the canyon. “That could’ve been bad,” he admitted.
The conflict between maintaining wilderness and protecting visitors. At the Grand Canyon, even safety can be scary. There’s a small clearing near the Yavapai Geology Museum, with stone benches where visitors borrow shade and eat foil-wrapped sandwiches. No picnic table in America can compete with the view. The only obstruction is a guardrail that rises a couple of feet from the edge, with four thick pipes running horizontally to keep visitors from a sharp drop. But the railing doesn’t stretch all the way across the clearing. It stops just past halfway. When visitors want to get a closer look, most of them walk past the railing and peer down into the canyon, with nothing separating them from the edge.
Louise Robitaille couldn’t look. It was her first time at the park and she’d marveled at the beauty. But she’d also felt a secondhand vertigo when she saw two young women practicing yoga near the edge. “It’s beautiful,” she said, turning away from the edge. Her words dripped with a French Canadian accent. “But, it’s a little bit dangerous, no?”
Less than an hour into her first visit to the Grand Canyon, Robitaille had discovered the National Parks Service’s central conflict. The agency’s primary responsibility is to keep the parks beautiful. Congress directed the Parks Service to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
But those generations must also be kept safe. And those goals don’t always work together. “The park is charged with two somewhat incompatible, conflicting responsibilities,” said Ghiglieri, the author. “Their mission is to protect the resource and also to protect the visitor and enhance the visitor experience. Inherently, there’s a conflict there,” he continued. “Sometimes a gargantuan conflict.”
The canyon’s wonder is in its wilderness. So instead of fences and signs, park officials have attempted to soothe the conflict with subtlety. They’ve focused on prevention and education, teaching visitors how to spot danger before it’s too late. Trailhead signs remind hikers to bring extra food and water. The park’s lauded “Hike Smart” messaging covers water bottles and tubes of sunscreen. Rangers lead informal classes on safety and careful exploration. Guides are recommended.
Most days, a team of rangers and volunteers wander the trails, making sure hikers can answer a simple question: Are you prepared? “It’s not an enforcement program,” Ken Phillips, a retired park ranger who developed what’s known as Preventive Search and Rescue, explained. “They’re counseling people, trying to keep them from making bad decisions.”
But people still make bad decisions. They head down Bright Angel Trail with a single bottle of water. They feed rock squirrels and throw coins off the rim and lean half their bodies over fences. And they run around railings, crawling onto slivers of rock to dangle their legs over the edge. “You can put up protective barriers,” Phillips continued. “But again, it’s a self-initiated action.”
In pursuit of a photo. Phillips attributed some canyon accidents to what he called “distractions.” Cameras and cell phones, he said, have pulled people’s attention away from their surroundings.
Ghiglieri chastised “the epidemic of selfie obsession.” A piece in Outside magazine declared, “Selfie Deaths are an Epidemic.”
But the Grand Canyon has always attracted daredevil photographers. It owes part of its popularity to the Kolb Brothers, Emery and Ellsworth, who arrived in 1901 and opened a thriving photo studio. It’s now a small museum, filled with images of the brothers hanging from cliffs and leaning over ledges, risking their lives for the perfect shot. A biography calls Ellsworth “foolishly daring.” A century later, the canyon is one of the most Instagrammable places on earth.
The canyon’s most heavily-trafficked areas are crawling with amateur photographers. At Mather Point, the park’s busiest area, they cluster around the best spots and wait their turn to pose. Sarah and Julia Bove wanted a better shot. The sisters moved a few hundred feet west and scurried onto a ledge. A third woman in their group stayed behind. But they disagreed on whether they thought it should be blocked off. “I do,” Sarah said. She considered it “shocking” that anybody could walk so close to the edge.
Julia disagreed “I actually don’t,” she admitted. “I mean, if the picture’s worth that much to you, go ahead. It’s your life.”
Four days later, a 69-year-old woman stepped off a trail near Pipe Creek Vista. She was alone. The woman, later identified as a Peoria resident, moved a few hundred feet off the path onto a rocky point near the canyon’s edge. She couldn’t get back. The lady was stuck on the edge, somewhere between safety and a 200-foot cliff.
A call for help reached park rangers just after 1 p.m., and search-and-rescue crews rushed to find her. They were well-trained, well-practiced and prepared for the worst: New hires at the canyon are often warned they might see traumatic, life-or-death situations. Now they scrambled across the park, headed toward yet another hiker who made yet another mistake. But before they could reach her, she fell.
Source: Alden Woods, The Arizona Republic, May 2, 2019.