|Sixtymile - Grand Canyon Notes|
About Hazards and Risks
Hiking in Grand Canyon has its risks. In fact, I think it is one of the most hazardous environments the average backpacker is ever likely to see. I wish I had the statistics to support this impression, but in the end, risk is as much about perception as it is about probabilities. In other words, assuming a good foundation of practical experience rather than mere naive enthusiasm, if you feel confident and secure then success will follow the right attitude.
If you have ever given serious thought to risks you may be aware of the two essential dimensions of risk: likelihood and consequences. The first part is just the probability that something might happen. The second part deserves more attention, namely what will happen to you as a result. But the sensation of real fear typically strikes us only when both of these factors are high.
For example, there are lots of places even on the most commonly traveled trails where it's possible to fall a considerable distance that would almost certainly kill you. But if the trail is in good condition and you pay close attention to what you are doing a fall is just not very likely. Still, when the consequences may be severe, that's good reason to be aware and cautious. Examples in the Grand Canyon where such risks often go unnoticed include the Boucher Trail, Grandview Trail, Red Canyon Trail, Beamer Trail and Deer Creek Narrows. Nankoweap (or Tilted Mesa) may be the most hazardous of the designated trails. See About Hiking and Exposure.
Here is my top (not artificially inflated to 10) list of Grand Canyon hazards, going from what I consider to be the least likely to most serious. This is not a statistical model, it's just my own assessment of likelihood and consequences:
Severe cold is not as great a risk in Grand Canyon as other places because of the lower elevation of the inner Canyon. If you have the right equipment for the season you should be able to avoid anything more serious than merely feeling cold. Snowstorms can affect upper elevations and trail conditions, and make it difficult to get back up on top. Temperatures at the rim can be threatening in winter or early spring if you are not prepared. If you are foolish enough to go swimming in the river, hypothermia is a certainty, not a risk.
Grand Canyon is still eroding and cliffs are everywhere. There are enough reports of people who have been killed or nearly struck by random rockfall to be concerned. If you are the kind of person who thinks about risk management, pay attention to the places you choose to camp. If there is a pile of rubble nearby, look around to see where it came from. If rocks have fallen here before, they probably will again. In spring, rockfall below the North Rim is highly probable and camping with much of a slope or cliff overhead should be avoided.
Rattlesnakes are not unusual even in frequently visited places, but bites are rare. This is because snakes don't want to bite you if they can avoid it. If you are bitten there's a good chance that the snake won't inject venom, and in the worst case, medical attention can probably save you. In recent years I have seen a lot of rattlesnakes in my travels and I respect the risk of a bad encounter with a snake. To minimize risk, carry a venom sucker and a signal mirror and know how to use them. There are so many people with expertise who are willing to explain the factors influencing the risk of snakebite that it hardly seems worth going into again, other than to say that they are fascinating and beautiful creatures and ought not to be teased or played with.
This happens to quite a number of people, but let's look ahead at item number 7 on the list before overplaying this point. Usually, a judgment error or inattention creates the situation where a fall happens. There have been a few times, however, when my feet just seemed to pop out from under me for no reason. It happens to most people sometime and if it happens in a bad spot it could easily be fatal. The fact is, even a cautious person cannot go very many places in Grand Canyon without being near some big cliffs.
Dehydration and Hyperthermia
Water shortage and overheating always go together and I'm sure that this is the most common killer in Grand Canyon. For people who are not used to physical activity in a hot, dry climate the risks are greater of running short of water, losing essential electrolytes, and overheating. Anyone who hikes here very much will experience a water supply problem sometime. Nearly everyone manages to rescue themselves from this situation before it becomes life-threatening. That's called the learning process.
If you experience a flash flood or debris-flow and live to recount the experience you will be among the most fortunate. These things happen in sidecanyons along the river many times every year, but, until recently there was rarely anyone there to notice. Today, so many people travel and camp in stream beds that there is good chance a flood will claim a victim. Caution, and knowledge about the weather and of the drainage systems above and below the rim will help avoid being caught in harm's way.
The greatest risk of all is that we will fall victim to our own errors, or those of a companion. This explains the lower ranking I've given to some of the other risks even if they are statistically common. Tragedies almost always start with lack of foreknowledge, lack of preparation, or misjudgment. For more specific comments, see the Theory of Mistakes and Bad Luck.
Two More for the List
New candidates for the hazard list are hantavirus and mountain lion.
Although I have not seen a lion yet, I have seen paw-prints and other signs, all on the north side of the river. A lone hiker in the remote backcountry could be vulnerable. Hikers in groups of 3 or more should be safe anywhere. It has been suggested that extending the point of a walking-stick between you and the lion can be a useful defense. This is one of those "confuse the predator" techniques that makes sense, but I don't know of anyone who has tested it.
Hantavirus is known to be widespread in the northern plateaus of Arizona and must be assumed to be present in all parts of the Grand Canyon. Thus far, there is only one known case acquired in the backcountry. It is a very serious illness causing severe respiratory congestion even if treated quickly and probably only a matter of time before there is a fatal case. Avoid camping under overhangs that are frequented by mice (probably any overhang).
The Risk of Bad Companions
No, I'm not talking about what your mother said about your high school buddies, but there might have been a valuable lesson there if you weren't preoccupied with feeling left out of the group. That was then. This is now.
I make no apologies for choosing who I hike with and you had best be prepared to do the same. Most people realize the obvious hazard in hiking alone, but this is nothing compared to the risk of hiking with bad companions just because you wanted to be friendly. All but the worst are harmless enough when things are going well, but when confronted with a real crisis, will your companions work together or will someone make their own safety primary, and fail to work with the group so you all come out OK?
Follow your instincts on this. Just like the four-footed ancestors who knew how to find the best access, the best food and water sources (as in the Theory of Least Energy)... your two-footed ancestors knew how to read the signs that told them who they could count on. If they couldn't, you probably wouldn't be here today.
The Risk of the Leaderless Hike
Ranking third after the hazard of bad companionship and hiking alone, and much less anticipated, is going with a highly-experienced group, but without any understanding who is the leader. What may happen is that you will all allow the situation to deteriorate, thinking (without really thinking) that someone else will speak up when things seem out of control. Or, you may think that someone else is paying attention to the return route, when all of you are thinking this is your turn to relax and just ramble along. Or you (and each of the others) may be reluctant to show your concern so as not to seem like the wimp. Guys... they don't call us "macho" just to feed our egos... it's part of what we are. It can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing.
You may already realize where this is leading... The situation gets gradually worse with no one really considering the options and consequences. And then when things are just bad enough that double-whammy of bad luck strikes. Blessed indeed will be the survivors of this scenario!!!
Which leads to the subject of the Theory of Mistakes and Bad Luck.