The lead story in High Country News Aug. 22 concerned a hiking trip gone tragically awry near Zion National Park in Utah. Two men died, and the survivors filed a $23 million lawsuit against the Park Service. This essay responds to the question the story raised: "Whose fault?"
24-year-old son's accident in Yosemite National Park in April 1987
occurred while he and his wife and her sister were hiking on the
Snow Creek trail. Spring thaws loosened rocks from a monolith 2,000
feet above them, causing a major landslide. The crashing rocks
destroyed over 20 switchbacks in the trail, knocked down trees and
tumbled the hikers in its path. That the three of them were not
killed in the slide was a miracle.
the Yosemite search and rescue team's helicopter, my son, Ben, was
airlifted to a hospital where he underwent surgery to reduce
swelling from a massive brain injury. When I arrived the next
morning, I felt totally helpless seeing my comatose son surviving
on a ventilator, his vital signs registering on the
Two days later, a representative from
the park came to the hospital to express her concern. At the time I
thought, "What a nice gesture. I wonder why the Park Service sent
someone to check on an accident victim." I was too traumatized to
recognize there might be another motive.
know the agency's visit had more to do with fears of a lawsuit than
concern over the accident. But to sue the park would never have
entered our minds. Even two years later, after bills of nearly $1
million and against the advice of well-meaning people, we rejected
the idea of suing Yosemite National Park. Why? Certainly the
federal government has more money than we and would be better able
to pay the costs involved.
The question is, who
is responsible? Ben and his companions chose to take the hike.
While their hike was not designed to be a "bold adventure into the
wilderness," like the hike taken by the Explorer Scout group in
Utah, no person or agency can be held responsible for an act of
Experiencing the wilderness has always
been a high priority for me and my children. Ben has been an avid
skier, mountaineer, rock climber and adventurer his entire life.
While his recovery was a long, difficult process over a number of
years and his accident resulted in many profound changes, it did
not change his lust for the wilderness. As soon as he healed enough
to travel, Ben was off on new adventures - to Alaska and more
recently to India.
I am grateful to Yosemite
National Park, to the competent and efficient search and rescue
team whose quick actions saved my son's life and supported his
companions during the crisis. I believe in the mission of national
parks to preserve and protect the wilderness for us and future
generations. It is clear that national parks have an obligation to
educate visitors about the special features of the park, to inform
people about seasonal conditions, and to warn about potential
dangers. But then what? I believe it is up to each person to
evaluate the advice and to make his or her
National parks aren't our parents, and
I resent regulations designed to "take care of me in the
wilderness." I am also outraged when people sue parks for monetary
gain. I don't want my freedoms infringed upon by a Park Service
that worries about being sued.
Let us not burden
the Park Service with responsibilities we need to take for
ourselves. With the privileges of wilderness adventure comes
responsibility. Would you rather be stripped of the privileges or
accept responsibility for your actions? n
Joyce G. Gellhorn works for the National Center
for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, where she directs