A Grand but Dangerous Time : The Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail Presents a Number of Hazards as the Inexperienced and Uninitiated Take It On
Miloslav Hanacek was in good spirits as he and his companions reached the ancient Havasupai oasis of Indian Gardens 3,000 feet below the jagged, ruddy limestone buttes of the Grand Canyon.
It was just after 9 a.m. and the first signs of the devastating summer heat could be felt under the desert sky. But Hanacek was not thinking about the sun that would blast the narrow canyon trail later that afternoon. He was spellbound by the blaze of red and yellow flowers of prickly pear cacti that adorn the Gardens.
As a member of a Czech traveling club, Hanacek was beginning a month-long van tour through the United States. The Czechs had arrived in Los Angeles on June 8, visited Disneyland, then gone to Las Vegas. They reached the South Rim of the Grand Canyon the next night.
Their hike began at 7:15 on a clear, cool morning, according to Coconino County sheriff’s deputies. The group descended into the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail, one of the world’s most popular hiking routes, reaching its destination of Plateau Point by mid-morning.
Hanacek, 66, a financial adviser from Uherske Hradiste near the Slovak border, was dressed for a weekend outing in the city, not the unforgiving Sonora desert. But he and his compatriots heeded the warnings about hiking into the Canyon by drinking plenty of fluids and eating properly.
It was not enough. As Hanacek was nearing the finish of the 12.4-mile journey, his companion, Marie Cagankova, was laboring. Although about 15 degrees cooler than normal for early June, the heat was unrelenting.
As Hanacek helped Cagankova find a shady retreat, he suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack, becoming the latest victim along a stretch of perilous trail that will see more medical emergencies than “ER” throughout the summer.
Last year, the Grand Canyon search-and-rescue team handled 474 calls--there were 11 deaths--making the park one of the United States’ most hazardous wilderness areas. Of those incidents, 372 involved hikers, most of them out for the day, as was Hanacek.
Park officials said that 90% of the incidents occur during the summer in a section of the South Rim where the Bright Angel Trail follows Garden Creek to Pipe Creek, near the muddy Colorado River a mile below.
“You overload the body and something is going to break,” said Cpl. Jim Coffey, a Coconino County deputy who tried to rescue Hanacek.
As the peak season begins and the South Rim turns into a congested, maddening frenzy of activity, rangers are alert for the next major incident. They have a saying about summer hiking here: “It’s for fools and rangers making rescues.”
Although signs in English, German and Japanese along the Bright Angel Trail warn hikers of the risks, many do not take them seriously, said Sherrie Collins, acting ranger for the South Rim District.
Hikers have died of heat stroke after having had their pictures taken next to a sign at Indian Gardens warning them not to go farther. Rangers have found people dead of dehydration who were carrying water in their packs. Rangers lament that many simply expect to be saved when in danger.
“We’ve become such a 911 society,” said Bev Perry, back-country subdistrict supervisor. “Accidents do happen, but people work hard to get into the predicament they are in.”
George Steck of Albuquerque, N.M., author of two off-trail Grand Canyon guide books, said, “It’s not stupidity that kills them, it’s lack of knowledge.”
With five million annual visitors, many without much wilderness experience, the Grand Canyon has become a difficult place to police. Rangers spend so much time during the summer on search and rescue that they neglect other chores in the 1.2-million-acre park.
Most day hikers use the Bright Angel Trail because it is one of the few Canyon routes with water supplies. But Indian Gardens is the last water source until Phantom Ranch, five miles away. So rangers encourage day hikers to turn around at the Gardens or nearby Plateau Point. Still, many hike to the river and back in one day, a round trip of about 19 miles.
So many hikers try the rim-to-river trek in a day that the park service is considering disallowing it.
“The river is a human fly trap,” Collins said. “The gorge sucks you down to it.”
The ranger does not understand the attraction because the Bright Angel Trail reaches the Colorado at Pipe Creek Beach where the currents are fierce.
“They think they are going to go to the beach and have a picnic and go swimming,” Collins said.
Rangers advise drinking a quart of water an hour, almost a gallon to carry for those planning to continue from Indian Gardens to the Colorado and back.
On the day of Hanacek’s tragedy, some day hikers passed through a section of trail near the river called the Devils Corkscrew with little more than a jug of water. It was a common sight during a two-day visit.
Collins’ frustration is understandable, considering the dangers she has witnessed.
Her first major heat-related rescue was of a Swiss hiker who had collapsed with a 111-degree temperature. Rangers somehow resuscitated him. They have only a 50% save rate in treating heat stroke because it is so difficult to reach victims in time.
“There is no tougher place to hike, except extreme mountaineering,” said Perry, in her 10th year at the Canyon.
Heat-related incidents and sprained ankles are typical of the medical emergencies along the Bright Angel, although suicides and accidental falls from cliffs are increasing. A recent malady is water intoxication, known as hyponatremia.
Park interpreter Jonathan Dent told a group at Phantom Ranch about a hiker who took rangers’ warnings about drinking water to heart. The hiker drank eight quarts from the top to Indian Gardens, 4.7 miles down the trail. He drank two more gallons by the time he reached Phantom Ranch, and drank another half gallon there.
“Eighteen quarts in four hours,” Dent said, sounding amazed at his own story.
The hiker suffered water intoxication, which can result in a coma or seizure. Officials encourage taking electrolyte drinks and solid foods to prevent the body’s sodium and other nutrients from being diluted.
Despite the high number of incidents, the Bright Angel is rated as the Canyon’s easiest ascent. It attracts the most traffic because the trail head is near the park’s main lodges and restaurants.
Although rangers welcome Canyon visitors, they often shake their heads at some who attempt to trek into it. Particularly those wearing thongs, high heels and other street shoes. Don’t laugh. One guy once hiked in a tuxedo.
Even the experts face hazards. Perry suffered a broken leg two years ago while hiking in remote Kanab Canyon. She was caught in a storm and slid off a rock. She had to be evacuated by helicopter.
Ken Phillips, 35, acting emergency supervisor at the park, recounted another helicopter incident that stayed with him.
He and his crew responded to an emergency call on the New Hance Trail, landing on a precarious slope, but keeping the craft running for fear of losing it. A medic jumped out to fetch a backpacker in trouble.
Suddenly, the pilot felt the rear of the craft become heavy. As the medic was running down a rock, the “victim” was waving from the back seat of the helicopter.
“People convince themselves they can’t get out and expect us to be a taxi service,” said Phillips, noting that victims are charged at least $1,500 for a helicopter rescue.
Steck, the Albuquerque author, once spent 80 days hiking the length of the Canyon. During the trip, a friend, Robert Eschka, fell and cracked a pelvis. But Eschka was on a year-long journey through the Canyon and was not about to be airlifted to safety.
“He suffered through it,” Steck recounted.
Later, Steck learned that the best treatment for a cracked pelvis was exercising within the limits of the pain.
Other Grand Canyon hikers with emergencies have not been so lucky.
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