The Park Service didn't put my son in a coma

  • Joyce Gellhorn's son, Ben Greene


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?"

My 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.

Evacuated by 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 monitor.

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.

Now I 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 nature.

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 decision.

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?

Joyce G. Gellhorn works for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, where she directs teacher-training programs.

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