darwin’s playground

falling signI learned to swim in the Pacific ocean and one of the first things I learned (and the one thing I really remember) was to never turn my back on the ocean.   This is literally and figuratively the  most basic advice for swimming in the sea, literally because waves can come out of nowhere and knock you flat, and figuratively because even a momentary lapse of attention can be fatal.

Several hundred miles away from the sunny sands of Pismo Beach you can buy a book that tells you all about what happens when you turn your back on the Grand Canyon.  Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon is on prominent display in the Park’s bookstores and from what the store employees told me it is one of their best selling items.  It’s not hard to figure out why.  Despite the unbelievable beauty that stretches out before you in every direction when you stand on the rim, the first thing that comes to mind is “how many people fall off this astonishingly unfenced precipice that is hundreds of feet high and right next to the parking lot?”  Literally.  You can get out of your car, take a few steps, and hit air.  The stone fence between you and eternity is about knee high.

Easily one of the most morbid books I’ve ever read, Over the Edge is also one of the most fascinating.  The authors are a professional naturalist (and long-term river raft guide) and a physician who between them have dozens of years witnessing and treating accidents in the canyon.   It was originally published in 2001 but has been somewhat updated to include deaths since then (up to about 2006).  The book covers every known incident of death in the present-day National Park environs (some 500+), and there are a truly astounding number of ways you can go: falling (either accidentally or deliberately), murder, suicide, car accident, flash floods, plane/helicopter accident, lightning, drowning, hyperthermia, hypothermia, falling rocks, drug overdose, dehydration, snake bite, and the occasional freak accident.  There’s enough to fill a pretty good sized book and it’s a hard book to put down.

Overall the stories tell themselves.  The first chapters are the best, both because after a time the novelty of reading about one death after another wears off, but also because the first chapters cover the most immediate impression that most people have of the canyon.   After all, relatively few people hike into the canyon or fly over it or raft down it and death via dehydration or drowning or air crash seem fairly abstract.  However, everyone who comes to the Grand Canyon stands on the rim looking out over  hundreds of feet of empty air.  We can all see ourselves falling.   So those chapters that deal with falls from the rim or from places below the rim seem the most vibrant.

The writing style is a little cludgy and repetitive and the authors occasionally appear a bit flippant, which is possibly not the best tone to take when one is writing about real people who have died, even if its their own fault.  I understand their frustration with dumbasses who risk the lives of park personnel through their stupidity and selfishness but they are talking about real tragedy and it just comes across as unnecessarily callous.  The chapter on suicide is particularly bad for this and given that one of the authors is a medical doctor the lack of understanding of mental illness is surprising.

If the authors lapse into occasional preachiness it’s hard to blame them.  After all, one of the lessons one takes from this book is that dying in the Grand Canyon is physically and mentally really, really, REALLY hard on the people that have to haul your sorry carcass out.  They are the ones who have to hike in, rappel down, or land a chopper, sometimes in bad weather or at night, risking their own lives in the process.  Some of the stories of their successful rescues are just amazing; the unsuccessful ones are occasionally heartbreaking.   It’s pretty creepy how often the raft tours come across drowning victims, sometimes months after death and it’s really impressive how often these men and women go the extra mile to help visitors who’ve fallen into the river.  The book has also given me an abiding respect for park rangers.

The authors of this book do have a purpose and that is to demonstrate that nearly all deaths in the Canyon are due to people being stupid.   Whether due to fairly simple issues of failing to follow the copious and prominent warning signs or take enough water on long hikes, or the relatively complicated issues of pilot error or basic life choices, nearly all deaths that occur in the Grand Canyon need not have happened.   It’s actually surprising, given human nature, that more deaths don’t  happen there.  On my own recent hike below the North Rim I saw several people on the trail who were considerably out of shape, obviously carrying no water, and wearing ludicrously inappropriate shoes.   Every single one of these people risked being an entry in the next edition of this book.

I enjoyed this book (if that’s the right word) and recommend it to anyone who has been to the Canyon or plans a trip there, to anyone who enjoys wilderness adventure in general, and to anyone  fascinated by morbid true-life tales.  The authors’ love and respect for the Grand Canyon is obvious throughout and after reading the book I’ve made two decisions, at least one of which is probably counterintuitive. The first is to always pay attention to Mr. and Ms. Ranger; they absolutely know what they are talking about when they tell you that you don’t have enough water for a day hike in 120 degree heat.

The second?  Someday I am going to raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

Score:  w00t!

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~ by gun street girl on June 21, 2010.

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