Recreational deaths soar this summer

Grand Canyon and Colorado rivers have record year for deaths.


On August 2, Marc Buckhout, a 36-year-old from Glendale, Arizona, went hiking on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. He never came back. Four days later his body was discovered near where he was last seen, hundreds of feet below the rim (cause of death was not yet available). It was the 21st death recorded in the national park’s boundaries this year, already nearly twice the average of 12 deaths annually.

It is the season of play, when folks get out into the great outdoors to raft rivers, hike, climb mountains, swim in reservoirs and BASE jump. It's also the season of dying while at play. They’ll fall off a cliff, or their parachute won’t open. They’ll get struck by lightning or have a heart attack on the trail. Heat will kill some; others will succumb to the cold in an alpine storm or a river. Many will drown. Friends and family will inevitably seek comfort in that old platitude: At least they died doing what they loved.

This summer’s tragic tally of outdoor recreation fatalities has grown daily, and in the Grand Canyon, on Mount Rainier and on Colorado's rivers, it's been an especially fatal season. While there are databases that keep track of climbing accidents or whitewater deaths, there is not one that tracks recreational deaths in general across the region, so it's impossible to know whether the Western death toll is higher than normal. But there's no doubt that Western outdoor playgrounds have seen their share of death this summer.

And for every fatality, there are deaths avoided, sometimes narrowly, often thanks to search and rescue teams putting their own lives on the line to rescue someone who has fallen, collapsed or got himself stuck on an exposed ledge. Here are some of the fatal lowlights and rescue highlights, of the summer. Hopefully we can all learn something from them.

Grand Canyon: In addition to Buckhout, at least two other men died while hiking in the national park. Heat can be a killer. Temperatures on the rim regularly reach into the 90s on a typical summer’s day, and the mercury climbs some five degrees for every 1,000 feet one drops into the canyon, which is thousands of feet deep, and a long, steep, mostly unshaded hike with few water sources in between river and rim.

Meanwhile, at canyon’s bottom, the water in the river (entering the canyon from the bottom of Lake Powell) is unexpectedly frigid, which can contribute to drowning deaths. In March, a 31-year-old expert paddler from Oregon died in the waning miles of a private Grand Canyon trip. A few months later, a 43-year-old German kayaker on a commercial trip capsized in Badger rapid, a mere eight miles into the trip. He drowned. Victor Tseng, a 68-year-old from Phoenix, apparently fell off a ledge while on a river trip; his body was found several days later.

In March, a Texas man fell 350 feet to his death on the South Rim, and a few weeks later a 45-year-old Flagstaff woman was killed after falling 400 feet near the popular Mathers Point overlook.

Colorado Waterways: Rivers in Colorado have been similarly perilous. The Colorado Springs Gazette reported at the end of July that there had been 15 boating-related fatalities in the state thus far, already matching the record high for an entire year set in 2009. Nine were on the Arkansas River, where whitewater rafters are plentiful, five were on other rivers and just one was on a reservoir. A possible factor in the uptick of deaths was this year’s quick-melting, above-average snowpack and resulting big spring runoff. Sections of river that had been mellow during recent drought-stricken Mays and Junes were suddenly far bigger and more hazardous. Then there are the freak accidents: On August 6, a microburst on Dillon Reservoir flipped 13 sailboats at once. All the occupants escaped alive, but cold and wet.

Lake Mead: Speaking of storms and reservoirs and rescues: On July 8, rangers at Lake Mead National Recreational Area had to rescue a number of boaters thanks to a storm that created five foot waves. And on a single day in May, more than 15 were rescued on the reservoir, from near-drownings, disabled vessels and medical emergencies. A 12-year old boy nearly died while swimming without a life jacket; he was rushed to a hospital in critical condition. A five-year old girl was rescued after she was playing on a knee board, sans lifejacket, and a gust of wind carried her 200 yards from shore and blew her off the board. Rangers reached her just as she went under.

Others haven’t been so lucky. At least two drowned in May and June, and in July, no fewer than four succumbed to the lake’s waters. They were all men, all were from Las Vegas or other nearby towns and none of them was wearing a life jacket when he died.

And there’s that killer heat. On July 31, the park service closed trails to Goldstrike Canyon and Arizona Hot Springs in Lake Mead Recreation Area because people were getting injured, dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion on the trails. In 2013 there were 17 incidents, with one fatality. As of then end of this July, there had been 37 incidents, three fatalities and 13 medical transports. This in-spite of big signs telling people about the hazards and warning them not to hike between June and September.

Rocky Mountain National Park: After going for 14 years without a lightning-related death in the park, tragedy struck from the skies this July. An Ohio woman was killed when she was hit by lightning while hiking on the Ute Crossing trail at about 11,400 feet in elevation. Seven others were injured. The following day, a man was struck and killed by lightning at a roadside pullout at 10,800 feet; three others were injured. Over in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park a woman was critically injured by a lightning strike, and a couple of runners in the Hardrock Hundred endurance race in southwestern Colorado were knocked to the ground by a lightning strike, but escaped mostly unscathed.

At least two climbers died from falls on Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, and there were some dramatic rescues, too: A man fell while glissading down a snowfield and was seriously injured. He was able to call rescuers and guide them to his location. A 19-year old inexperienced and unprepared Canadian man got himself stuck on a steep, exposed slope and called for help. Weather hampered a helicopter rescue, and the victim ultimately made his way to the rescuers on his own; the rescue involved 46 people and cost an estimated $41,000.

The Peaks of the West: In late May, six climbers fell to their death on Mount Rainier’s infamous Liberty Ridge. Less than a month later, outdoor writer Karen Sykes died, apparently of hypothermia, while hiking in the national park near the mountain. In mid July, an Oklahoma woman fell to her death while climbing the Grand Teton in Wyoming. On July 20, a 33-year old ultra-runner fell and died while hiking/running alone near Pilot Knob in southwestern Colorado. On the same day, a 35-year-old fell on the gnarly Capitol Peak near Aspen, Colorado, and was killed. Just a couple of weeks later, the same 14er claimed the life of Jim Nelson, a six-time finisher of the aforementioned Hardrock Hundred and an experienced mountaineer. As rescuers attempted to recover his body, a climber above them knocked off “trash-can-size” rocks, injuring both the climber and the rescuers.

Utah Cliffs: This spring, three BASE jumpers were killed during jumps in Utah, two — including a newlywed — in Zion National Park, where they were jumping illegally, and one near Moab.

So is nature angry, or what? Maybe. As the world gets warmer, heat-related fatalities across the West appear to be increasing (but so is the population). On the other hand, lightning-related fatalities have been below the national annual average of 51 every year since 2006, and it looks like this year will follow that trend. As you'll see from the interactive charts below, the big killers in the West are heart disease, car accidents and the like, and have nothing to do with the great outdoors. Surely the real reason for this year's increased carnage is that more folks are getting out into the wild and semi-wild and taking on the risks inherent in climbing mountains or rafting rivers and whatnot. Tragically, a few don't make it out alive.


How the WEST WAS KILLED, 2006-11 | Create Infographics

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News . He is based in Durango, Colorado, and tweets @jonnypeace.

Phil Briggs
Phil Briggs says:
Aug 12, 2014 01:49 PM
Having worked in several western National Park units, I think I can fairly say that some people leave common sense behind, when they go on vacation. My six months at Grand Canyon, rare was the week we didn't have a SAR or a medical issue, when hikers finally stumbled into the Phantom Ranch campground area...
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon says:
Aug 12, 2014 02:42 PM
I can think of so many times when I could have died - from heat, dehydration, hypoxia - all because I was young (then) and thought I knew what I was doing. And I did - in my native Minnesota, alt. 800 feet. The west is a crucible for the adventurer, a trial by fire. Or frost, wind and icy water. 'Casual' is the wrong approach for the western outdoor life. Perhaps it's like watching an expert saddle-break a horse. It only looks easy.
Gwen Tollefson
Gwen Tollefson says:
Aug 12, 2014 04:36 PM
Karen Sykes was not hiking ON Mount Rainier, but rather ona trail IN Mount Rainier National Park. The NP contains many trails and mountains that surround Mount Rainier itself and I think it's important to make that distinction.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson says:
Aug 13, 2014 06:28 AM
Gwen: Yes, you are correct. Thanks for pointing that out. The text has been corrected.
George Winters
George Winters says:
Sep 09, 2014 08:49 AM
I find the graphics with the shaded people symbols is pretty much unintelligible. It needs more color variation or something to distinguish the categories.
Steve McCarthy
Steve McCarthy says:
Sep 05, 2015 03:52 PM
"So is nature angry?" have got to be joking! It is also possible that recreational deaths soar because many folks are dumber than a box of rocks!