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Know the West

Abnormal weather linked to more recreation deaths

Summer is always high season for fatal outdoor accidents, but increased lightning and heat seem to make it worse.


On August 22, Rebecca Anderson, Tyler Strandberg, and Catherine Nix, all in their late 20s, set out to hike Teewinot Mountain in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. 

Only Anderson made it back alive. They were climbing Teewinot’s east face, the standard (and easiest) route up the 12,326-foot mountain. It’s an exposed scramble on steep terrain, but not a technical rock climb, and like most parties, the women were not carrying a rope.  Rangers found the bodies of Strandberg and Nix after Anderson called for help. Her two partners had apparently died after falling 200 feet. The hikers were well off the East Face route in far more difficult terrain when the accident occurred. 

The mountain seems so accessible, said George Montopoli, a longtime climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park, “but people get in trouble very easily.” 

Summer is almost always the high season for outdoor recreation-related deaths. And while climbing unroped is one of the most common ways to die, abnormal weather in recent months has made playing outside more dangerous than usual in several outdoors spots across the West. From Arizona to Colorado to Oregon, higher temperatures, more lightning, and less rain have contributed to this summer’s death toll.

A lightning bolt striking next to a wall of rain south of Boulder, Colorado. An unusually wet spring led to a stormy summer in Colorado — and more danger for hikers heading into the high peaks
Bo Insogna/Flickr

Climatologists attribute the weird weather to a “warm blob” in the Pacific Ocean, sprawling along the North American coast between Mexico and Alaska. The blob is around 2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit above average. A recent study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters, links the huge warm-water mass  — 1,000 miles wide in each direction and 300 feet deep —with everything from the abnormally mild winter in the Pacific Northwest followed by a heat wave in early June, to the record rains that pummeled Colorado this spring. 

Here’s a look at some of the places where weird weather has taken a deadly toll among outdoor recreation enthusiasts:

Arizona deserts

In separate incidents in July, two female hikers died outside Phoenix and a 63-year-old and his grandson perished while hiking in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Heat, say officials, played a big part in all four deaths. In the Grand Canyon, scorching temperatures also played a role in the deaths of several hikers in June including a 36-year-old Japanese tourist and a 17-year-old boy. The Japanese man was making his way out from the bottom of the canyon along the popular Bright Angel Trail amid temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit. That brings the total number of heat-related deaths in the Grand Canyon this summer to three. That's on the high end of normal, says Christian Malcolm, who leads the Preventive Search and Rescue program at Grand Canyon National Park, but much lower than last year’s record-setting 25 fatalities. An unusually dry monsoon season could have played a role in the punishing weather. “Anecdotally it’s been drier and hotter,” says Malcolm. He won’t know for sure until the National Weather Service publishes its analysis later this fall.

Northwestern Waterways

On June 9, a 22-year-old Portland man drowned while swimming in the Clackamas River. The event was one of 10 early summer deaths that occurred in lakes and rivers around Oregon and southwest Washington. No more than five had been recorded between Memorial Day and June 13 since at least 2006. Rick Gruen, Clackamas County Parks and Forest manager, told the Portland Tribune that abnormally high temperatures were likely factors in the rash of drownings. People think it’s okay to swim, since it’s hot outside, Gruen says. “Despite the warm temperatures, the water in the Clackamas and Sandy rivers is still dangerously cold,” he added. The drowning occurred during an unseasonably early heat wave in the Pacific Northwest. In June, highs in Seattle climbed into the high 80s; Portland reached 90 on June 8. The average high in Seattle for early June is in the upper 60s, and Portland usually sees highs in the lower 70s.

Colorado mountains

On July 17, Kathleen Bartlett, a 31-year-old schoolteacher and newlywed, was descending Mt. Yale,  a 14,199-foot peak southwest of Denver, when she was struck by lightning and died. Several other states may see more lightning, but Colorado ranks third nationwide in the number of people killed by strikes each year, likely due to the appeal of high peaks during the summer when lightning strikes are most common. Earlier this summer 15 people were injured and a dog was killed by a lightning strike on Mt. Bierstadt, another one of Colorado’s famed 14ers.  

Though Bartlett has been the only fatality in 2015, this summer has seen an unusually high number of lightning strikes. The wet spring and summer means there’s a lot more moisture swirling around the air, says Steve Hodanish, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service. That’s creating frequent, massive thunderstorms and, with them, increased lightning. 

Colorado rivers

Abnormal weather also contributed to an unusually high death toll on Colorado’s rivers. Four tubers, rafters and kayakers were killed over one weekend in late June; experts have said that the deaths may have resulted in part because heavy spring rains led to some of the highest water levels in two decades. In the southwest corner of the state, a man died in June after his raft flipped in the Animas River, which was running well above average for that time of year. The flow was 4,030 cubic feet per second (as compared with the median 2,820 cubic feet per second). 

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.