In this world of extreme sports, 100-mile ultramarathons and ever-decreasing record times, a 21-mile trail run probably doesn’t seem like all that big a deal anymore. And indeed, you’d never guess, reading about a recently-broken record, that there’s anything unusually taxing about what’s known in running and hiking circles as the “rim to rim,” where folks run or walk between Grand Canyon’s north and south rims (or even from one rim to the other and back again) in a single day or even a few hours.
On May 25, runners Rob Krar, Jared Scott and Jason Wolfe all bested the previous record -- 3 hours, 6 minutes, 10 seconds -- for their 21-mile rim-to-rim route. The most the Arizona Daily Sun had to say about the risks involved? “The Park Service considers the 21-mile journey a ‘strenuous’ three-day hike and strongly warns against such undertakings.”
The story doesn't explain why that might be, nor how the men prepared and avoided potential risks. It said nothing about the fact that temps on the canyon floor can climb well past 100 degrees Fahrenheit this time of year, and nothing about how the route first descends and then ascends more than 4,000 vertical feet – like climbing a giant and very toasty mountain upside-down, with the hardest part – up-up-up – at the end, when hikers may already be reeling from heat and dehydration.
Such coverage – long on adventure and short on important information, and found everywhere from blogs to running magazines to promotional materials in running stores – may be helping to create something of a nightmare for Grand Canyon’s rescue staff. People in phenomenal shape read up on the rim-to-rim route and sometimes come to the park thinking “they can live off of goos and electrolyte tablets,” says paramedic ranger CJ Malcolm. They often end up hyponutremic (dangerously low on salts and nutrients), dehydrated or worse. “It’s a real problem,” Malcolm says. So much so that rim-to-rimmers now account for 15 percent of canyon rescues (there are about 250 search and rescues at the park each year), he estimates. He should know. He missed an interview appointment with me two weeks ago because he had been dealing with seven medevacs, including one of an experienced rim-to-rimmer displaying stroke-like symptoms. (For a realistic take on the challenges involved, see this 2005 article from the Los Angeles Daily News.)
It’s special cause for concern to Malcolm not just because he must help haul people out of the canyon, but because he supervises Grand Canyon’s Preventative Search and Rescue program (PSAR), which attempts to tackle patterns of preventable injuries by educating and better preparing visitors through tactful, face-to-face interaction as well as websites, posters, podcasts and more – ideally saving lives and reducing expensive rescues. Grand Canyon’s – begun in 1997 to curb and reduce high rates of heat-related injuries and deaths – is the oldest and most comprehensive such formal program in the National Park System, with eight rangers and 60 volunteers (look for my snapshot on the subject in our June 11 issue, live next Monday). About 20 national park units have followed suit to varying degrees.
But as the rim-to-rim issue shows, getting the word out and staying effective enough to consistently keep injuries down can be a huge challenge given the constantly changing dynamics and goals of the people visiting national parks. While basic planning info on the Grand Canyon website, warning signs everywhere from the airport to trailheads, and plenty of park rangers patrolling trails convince some hikers to prepare better, choose more conservative plans or turn back, athletes who arrive from far away with a specific goal in mind and lots of training under their belts can be impossible to dissuade, even if they’re dangerously unprepared, Malcolm says. Somehow, the park needs to reach them before they arrive – perhaps with a YouTube video and other pre-trip informational materials aimed at the adventure set that detail what rim-to-rimmers must know, he says, which would be distributed everywhere from running and gear shops to hiking and running blogs and publications.
That’s one of the approaches Yosemite has taken for water-related accidents, says Joy Marschall, a ranger with the park’s PSAR program — the service’s second largest, launched in 2008 in hopes of curbing swift-water drownings and day-hiker falls. The park distributes the video Beautiful but Deadly, which details some of the risks involved in approaching whitewater and waterfalls, to its interpretive staff and many of its partners, from concessionaires to gateway community chambers of commerce, and also posts it to relevant trip-planning websites.
Measuring the effects of such direct and indirect outreach efforts can be difficult given the number of variables involved – from unusual weather patterns (heat waves and high runoff years, for example) to global economic factors that bring more or fewer people than normal from other countries. But with good collection of statistics, PSAR has been shown to be enormously effective, especially if it reaches people well before they embark on a hike or other activity, says Bowling Green State University professor Travis Heggie, who focuses on recreational and tourism health and safety. Heggie found a significant decrease in injuries at a Hawai’i national park after the creation of a regularly updated volcanic eruption hotline (which included suggestions on what to bring) that was advertised at local hotels and other spots that tourists might frequent, as well as a more frequently updated park website.
Grand Canyon’s Malcolm, a self-described "statistics Nazi," has high hopes for measuring the future effectiveness of his park’s PSAR program. He’s doubled down on data collection with some interesting results. Last year, PSAR rangers and volunteers patrolling the most popular trails logged significant face-to-face exchanges with 80,000 visitors – 41 percent of whom were unprepared enough to require some kind of advice – and a high number of assists, wherein rangers or volunteers actively helped hikers. Alongside this activity, the park saw a gigantic drop in heat-related injuries. Time will tell whether there’s a correlation between the two, but even the Centers for Disease Control is interested in the outcome and has begun looking at and cleaning up the data the park has collected in the past, Malcolm says.
Nailing the benefits of the program would be a big deal, not least because it would provide grounding for many more parks to implement such programs, or for the Park Service to consider a nation-wide initiative. Such an effort could potentially save lives, not too mention oodles of money. Grand Canyon spent $400,000 on just 133 hours worth of helicopter search and rescues and medevacs last year. The park's annual PSAR budget, meanwhile, is just above $200,000.
Sarah Gilman is High Country News’ associate editor
Photo: HCN online editor Stephanie Paige Ogburn and former editorial fellow Nathan Rice demonstrate what heat-exhausted hikers look like next to one of the earliest PSAR signs at Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Trail. Courtesy Anna Santo.