While Grand Canyon’s Search-and-Rescue team went through routine drills on the South Rim early last week, there has been nothing routine about this year’s numbers on fatalities.
Grand Canyon National Park rangers go through an in-service exercise east of Mather Point last week. From left, Bonnie Taylor, Hunter Bailey, Marc Yeston and Ken Phillips. The litter subject (unseen) was Joe Williams.
As of this past weekend (see editor's note below), Grand Canyon has had no fatalities anywhere within the park. That includes falls on either rim, inner-Canyon accidents and river operations. Within the village, there have been no deaths either, from heart attacks or any other reason.
"It’s unusual, we usually have 12 to 15 fatalities a year," said Ken Phillips, Grand Canyon National Park’s SAR coordinator. "We average about a dozen inner Canyon fatalities. Here it is in August and there hasn’t been a fatality yet."
SAR crews have still been busy providing services for various mishaps through helicopter operations, from river passengers coming down with that mysterious gastrointestinal illness to hikers who find out just how rough in can be in the Canyon.
Phillips and others in the rescue business hope they can make it through the rest of a busy August and the year without any fatalities.
"I’ve never, ever seen it like this," Phillips said. "I don’t measure everything by fatalities, but it’s an indicator of a lack of serious calls. We’ve had fewer serious calls by the river."
Various factors could come into play when it comes to prevention. It’s been a hot year and visitors have died in the past from heat exhaustion. The Preventative Search and Rescue program appears to be a positive as those volunteers give hikers advice before descending into the inner Canyon.
The park’s visitation numbers have also been down again this year, but there are still plenty of folks around. Lower visitor numbers usually translate into lower incident numbers.
Phillips, however, believes there’s another reason for the lack of fatalities.
"My personal thought is I wonder that in the post-9/11 (Sept. 11 attacks) world, people are being more cautious," Phillips said.
SAR crews performed a couple of rescues early this year. A 72-year-old woman from Missouri was rescued in March after she somehow catapulted herself over a rock wall. The woman slid about 10 feet down before catching hold of a small tree, which saved her life. SAR workers rescued the woman, who escaped with only minor injuries.
Another rescue also occurred in March when a 34-year-old man from Oklahoma walked below the rim and couldn’t get himself back out. That also had a happy ending with a smooth operation and no injuries.
"Those are the only short-haul rescues we’ve done," Phillips said. "Both of those people were incredibly lucky. There was the potential there for those to be fatal falls."
SAR personnel had in-service training on Tuesday of last week, something that Phillips said occurs several times a year.
A focus of last week’s training was the "vertical litter edge technique," which allows rescuers to bring up a patient in that fashion without traumatizing the victim. The exercises were conducted off the unpaved Greenway Trail section between Mather Point and the Twin Overlooks.
"We have a number of new rangers on the park staff, so it’s important to provide them with some training to sharpen their skills as well," Phillips said.
Although there have been no fatalities, the NPS obviously still urges visitors and residents to use caution when near the rim and to be prepared and know limits when going on hikes.
In a late-breaking news after this story had gone to press, a 44-year-old Gallup, N.M., was killed Monday in a 25-foot fall along Havasu Creek about three miles from its confluence with the Colorado River.
Sabra L. Jones was a crew member on a commercial river trip conducted by Tour West Inc., one of 16 outfitters that provide raft trips on the Colorado River in the park.
At 3 p.m., the National Park Service received a satellite phone call reporting that someone had fallen in the Havasu Creek area. NPS rangers responded by helicopter to the site, a remote area in the inner portion of the Grand Canyon in a side canyon by the Colorado River.
First bystanders and then responding rangers provided emergency medical assistance, however, Jones died at the scene.
It's the first fatality at Grand Canyon this year.
The NPS and Coconino County Sheriff's Office are conducting an investigation.