Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon
Last April I had the opportunity to travel to the Grand Canyon one again, this time with my two oldest children, ages 11 and 10. Every year we make it a point to visit the Canyon for least two large day hiking trips. One of those is usually to the river and back in the same day; about 20 miles, with some downhill running. I guess I start them young!
After logging about 45 miles in the canyon in five days, both with the children and by myself, I stopped briefly at one of local gift shops and noticed a rather prominent display of the brand-new book, Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon. At first glance I doubted I would be interested in such a macabre title, but upon further investigation found this book to be more analytical than titillating. After a few pages of skimming, I realized I had to buy this book.
The book’s authors, Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers, are a national park ranger and an emergency room physician working out of Flagstaff, Arizona, the nearest city to the Canyon. Between the two they have seen their share of fatalities and near fatalities caused by every kind of canyon mishap you can imagine. The book’s chapters cover every type of violent—and not so violent—death the Canyon dishes out. One chapter is devoted solely to deaths from exposure or extreme environmental conditions. The authors retrace the slow and agonizing process that overtakes victims of heatstroke or hypothermia. Another chapter is devoted to the more violent (and sometimes shocking) demise by flash flood. Yet another is devoted to aircraft crashes. Every type of mishap you can imagine, from rock falls to falling off the edge to river drownings to lightning strikes, are covered in this book.
The book is not for the squeamish. One can sense the touch of the physician in the sometimes eerie clinical description of victims’ final moments. But that is only right, since the authors’ ultimate objective is to teach, not tell grisly tales. Scattered throughout the chapters are the authors’ observations as to what went wrong and how to prevent such mistakes in the future. They also provide some remarkable statistical analysis of Canyon fatalities. For example, the authors have compared the frequency and type of air crashes in the canyon with places such as Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. They have concluded that all things being equal, the Canyon is a very dangerous place in which to fly, especially in a piston engine aircraft. Perhaps less esoteric, they have also determined that being a young male and hiking (or running, I would suppose) alone greatly increases the chances of one dying from a fatal fall, either from the edge of the canyon or from one of its many inner precipices. They make this conclusion not based upon the higher likelihood of a lone hiker making a misstep, but rather by making a bad judgment that a companion might discourage. It is remarkable then, that having logged some 700 miles in the canyon myself, I have not yet fallen.
What gripped me most about this book are the accounts of experienced canyoneers meeting their fate in ways that make no sense given their assiduous avoidance of risk. It is the one unguarded moment, or the one time they departed from their normal protocol, that deals them fate’s final blow. It was these lessons that were especially humbling to me, since I am very risk-averse and take many precautions whenever I go into the Canyon. For example, I usually carry too much water, and always take my ham radio with me, checking beforehand to make sure the ham radio repeater on Hopi Point on the South Rim is working properly. Based on the accounts in the book, simply having the radio decreases by about a thousand-fold my chances of dying in the Canyon. But what if one time I’m just going on a short run and decide to forego the radio to spare the weight? I don’t think I will ever do that, since I don’t want to be written up in the second edition of this remarkable book.
Conditioning and (generally) our experience places ultrarunners in the 99th percentile among park visitors and, simply said, we operate under our own set of rules. (How many of us have literally mocked the warning sign telling hikers not to go to the river and back in one day, having just done so in four hours?). But we still have rules—the rules that govern life and death. They apply to us like anyone else. As interest in the Grand Canyon continues to grow in the ultrarunning community, I have seen numerous write-ups of the Grand Canyon double cross in UltraRunning in the last several years. I have written my share of letters to the magazine either excoriating the glib treatment given by some reviews, or hailing the more detailed efforts of others. The bottom line is that even though our rules are different, we still have them, and the Canyon can kill us if we let it. If you ever even consider running in the Canyon, get this book to make sure you enter with the proper frame of mind. Being ultra fit like we are is no excuse for being ill-prepared. Indeed, this is true for any wilderness running experience, and the lessons taught in this book about good people making bad choices apply to nearly every wilderness running experience. For this reason the book transcends running the “Big Ditch,” thus providing lessons for all ultrarunners everywhere.
Review by Phil Lowry