Thursday, July 5, 2007

Book Review--Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon

In the hottest part of the summer of 1985, the future Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I loaded our camping gear into my ’78 Ford Fairmont (no air conditioning) and drove to the Grand Canyon on a journey that would have made Chevy Chase proud. The trip included a busted alternator, a night spent in the parking lot of the high school in Checotah, Oklahoma, an encounter with a friendly but incompetent police officer, a trip to the auto repair shop at Grand Canyon National Park, and finally a hike to Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the Canyon, where I got in an argument with an snippy ranger named Lorne. The hike to the bottom of the Canyon, a nine-mile walk, took 11 hours. By the time we reached a shade-free series of switchbacks suggestively named “The Devil’s Corkscrew,” temperatures had reached 100 degrees. Like many first-time hikers in the canyon, we didn’t carry enough water or food. By the time we made it to the last part of the hike—two miles or so of thick sand alongside the Colorado River—we were completely exhausted and near heatstroke. We collapsed into a cool creek near the campground, then set up our tent. We slept fitfully in the heat—thanks Lorne—then got up about 4 a.m. to begin the return hike. The hike up the canyon wall took only eight hours. Because we started earlier, we avoided much of the heat, but each step we took came with increased altitude, and as we neared the top, we had to stop every 100 yards or so to catch our breath. We were unprepared for the heat and altitude of the Grand Canyon, and it was a wonder we didn’t have to be evacuated out by the National Park Service.

Last month I accompanied a group of students to the Grand Canyon. While shopping in the bookstore at the North Rim, I happened across a book titled Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon. I flipped through the pages, and was hooked. The book is a discussion of every recorded death that has occurred in and around the Canyon since Americans began visiting in the 1800s. There are lists of every careless slip, every fall from a rubber raft, every heat-assisted heart attack, and every forlorn leap from a mile-high ledge. The book includes chapters on falls, heatstroke, flash floods, rafting accidents, plane crashes, freak accidents, suicide, and murder.

Here is the story of a priest who led two teenaged boys into the crazy heat of the canyon, and fell to his death; one of his charges died of heatstroke, but the second boy miraculously survived. A few pages later is the story of United Flight 718, which strayed a bit from its flight plan so its passengers could have a better view of the canyon; unfortunately, the pilot of TWA Flight 2 had the same idea at the same time. All 128 people aboard both planes died, and it took many days of dangerous canyon-climbing to retrieve their remains. One cocky fellow, admonished by his son to be careful, told him “you have to take some chances in this life,” then stepped into an unsupported snow bank and fell 500 feet to his death. Three members of the first expedition of John Wesley Powell—the one-armed explorer who first mapped the Canyon—split off from the group, and climbed the canyon walls, only to be met and murdered by Mormon settlers.

It becomes clear early into the book that the main killer of visitors to the Grand Canyon is stupidity. This fact was not lost on me as I recalled the hike that my wife and I made 22 years ago. Our story was very much like that of many of the victims recounted in the book—we were stupid, but unlike the folks in the book, we were lucky. Hikers in the canyon underestimate the effects of heat. They wander off maintained trails. They ignore posted signs warning of the vicious currents in the Colorado River. Tourists climb over guardrails, and roughhouse on the edge of a 5,000-foot deep abyss. River rafters fail to properly scout rapids, or ride through whitewater without life vests. The canyon is not forgiving of carelessness.

The authors—Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers—are experienced river runners and hikers who ostensibly use the stories in the book to analyze the fatalities for common threads. They claim to be—and try to be—respectful of those who have died, but occasionally it becomes difficult for them to hide their astonishment at people who skip along retaining walls before plunging to their deaths, or at a fellow who is struck by lightning and survives while a bystander dies, or the unfortunate soul who is crushed by a falling mule. Their analysis is fruitless except to demonstrate that the depth of human stupidity is greater than that of the canyon. The book is generally well-written except for the last chapter, a rant against personal injury lawyers whom the authors apparently think are ruining the Grand Canyon by forcing the Park Service to install guard rails on every rim and trail. This goofy—and baseless—diatribe feels as if it was added at the behest of editors to give the book a purpose beyond rubbernecking, but gawking at disastrous missteps is what this book is about. That, and being glad that my wife and I aren’t in the index.


Keifus said...

I was a sensitive kid, but I did a healthy share of outdoor stuff. I remember how the various warning safety videos I'd occasionally encounter used to deeply disturb me. Man confidently walks out with his family, gets lost, they all die. Eep!

I question the logical processes involved in these kinds of reports though. Yeah, everyone who gets killed out there was doing something monumentally stupid, but that doesn't mean that acting like a dumbass will necessarily get you killed. Sure, caution is warranted, and you don't go about tempting fate, but the odds may not be that bad. Like the drug war, eh?, but obviously, the odds are worse than that in the canyon.

I liked the review, and I liked the anecdotal way you presented it. Nicely done.

Archaeopteryx said...

Thanks, Keifus, for the kind words. The anecdotal style was pretty much suggested by the book itself, which was just story after story about different ways to shuffle off this mortal coil.

You're right, of course, about the odds of getting killed by doing something stupid. For instance, over half a million people have floated the canyon commercially, with only a handful of fatalities. One seems more likely to die while changing the hoses on a mini-van...

Sona said...

It is amazing how people take chances with their lives. I recall hiking with my husband and we came across a cliff - complete with guardrail (!) - and some teens were climbing over it to get closer to the edge. Ever few years someone falls to their deaths. Stupid people.

hipparchia said...

killed by a falling mule?! good lord. i've always wanted to take the mule ride [we hiked part-way down years ago], and would have trusted one of those sure-footed, level-headed creatures with my life.

i'm living proof [as are many of my friends and family] of keifus' hypothesis. stupidity really is what will kill you in these situations, but most individuals survive a life-long pattern of committing repeated bouts of stupidity with nary a scratch.

speaking of surviving, i'm awfully glad y'all did.

TenaciousK said...

Sonia: Every day, I strap myself into a ton and a half (or so) of sheet metal, plastic and glass and hurl myself down an artificial surface by means of a series of small detonations of a highly explosive/flammable liquid. To make matters worse, I'm often surrounded by people of dubious coordination and judgment on all sides, engaged in a similarly suicidal venture, any of whom could twitch, or tic, or fall asleep, or succumb to the chemicals they never should've imbibed before embarking. Direction is dependent on the relationship between certain rubberized materials, asphalt, physics and questionable judgment. A breakdown in ANY of those factors, and you might as well have been dancing on top of the guardrail at the Grand Canyon [which would at least be a novel way to die].

It's amazing how we ALL take chances with our lives. I just try not to think about it so much. I've a friend who used to ice-climb [the real deal - frozen waterfalls hundreds of feet tall]. Sometimes I have the sense that he was a lot safer up there, in his harness, with his crampons and axe and helmet, than I am down here.

Hi Hipparchia, Keifus, Arch!

I don't want to be killed by a falling anything. If I must, however, it strikes me that a mule has a certain degree of random class.

Especially if I brake the mule's fall.

Or an anvil or falling safe, but only for all the right reasons [makes a statement of sorts - or maybe the statement is made on you. Either way.]

Favorite Darwin Award [might have been an honorable mention]: the guy demonstrating the safety of the glass on the umpteenth floor by running into it.

Some people still don't wear motorcycle helmets. I mean, talk about insanity. Scads more lightening deaths than shark deaths every year, but guess which people think about more?

People are inherently irrational. Risk assessment is one of the places that is most starkly obvious.

PS. I wonder how the statistical likelihood of falling from a high place in a national park [Grand Canyon etc.] compares with the likelihood of being struck by lightening in those same places [red rock - very exposed].

Archaeopteryx said...

Hi, all! Thanks for the comments.

TK, the book listed all the deaths by lightning (2, if I recall correctly) and by falling from a high place in the Canyon (over a hundred). So it seems as if your chances of being killed by a falling mule are roughly half that of being struck by lighting. Oddly, no recorded deaths from snakebite (or shark). (Welcome, all, to Small Sample Size Theater!)

I, too, sometimes worry about hurtling down the road at 75 mph in a wad of plastic and glass, at the mercy of the drunken, cell-phoning, make-up applying teenagers in the other lane. I also worry about being eaten by a bear (especially when hiking in Utah). In both cases, the less stupid I act, the better my chances of survival. Remember, the guy who's frozen waterfall climbing is inviting great risk, then, when he gets done, he jumps in his car and gets on the freeway with the drunken teenagers.

TheVillageIdiot said...

I have been backpacking in the G.C. since 1968. I go below the rim about 3 - 5 times a year, for an average of 5 days each trip (31 days being the longest).
Ignorance and foolishness is obviously a major cause of mishaps and serious injury, however, that can be said of actions just outside your back door.
Your review of this book is nicely done and makes valid points. Keep in mind, readers . . the laws of chance and the principles of "Risk vs Reward"
There are many web sites to gain practical advice on how to stay safe in the G.C.
The negatives are many.
It's misery HOT in the late spring through monsoon August. All trails and "routes" (not exactly trails) other than the 3 maintained "Corridor" trails are brutal at times and almost impassable at others. You have to pack water at 8.5 lbs. per gallon. Unlike most hiking, you go DOWN first and have to hump UP when exhausted.
If you solo, like I do, there is the chance that a minor mishap will grow into real life ending danger.
All that is true . . .
But a MULE falling on you!? getting hit by LIGHTING!? Come on . . . 4.5 million people a year visit the G.C. Over 100,000 go below the rim. Very few people get hurt, much less are a death statistic.
Just ask the rangers and volunteers lots of questions. TAKE more water that you need (you'll need it) Remember that it takes twice as long to go up & out as down & in.
STAY on the itinerary for the first 10 or so hikes . . and go see where God calls home.
ps, don't fail to go to the Grand Canyon before you die.

Archaeopteryx said...

Thanks for the kind words VillageIdiot. You're right--the point of the book is that you have to act pretty stupid to get killed, and even then you have to have bad luck. And you're right, everyone should see the Canyon before they die--just not both at the same time.

Catnapping said...

My next door neighbor climbed to the top of his roof one snowy January in 1962, dragging a trashcan lid with him.

He set down the lid at the top of the gable, sat down in it, and slid off the roof, on purpose. Broke both his legs.

But what I found really entertaining was his mother yelling nonstop (in Korean) at his father for a good 20 minutes.

But then the next-door neighbor on the other side of their house, MSGT Ebers, interrupted her to ask the dad if it would be okay to take his son to the hospital...