Why Should Hikers Read about Death in National Parks?

Death in National Parks hiking

It all started with a trip to the Visitor’s Center on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was here that I found the strangest and seemingly macabre book about deaths in the Grand Canyon. Written by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon (Amazon link) tells the tragic endings of visitors in or above the canyon. I laughed at first, wondering why anyone would ever read a book about death in a national park. However, after reading the back and skimming the table of contents, I was intrigued. I decided I would buy the book.

Over the Edge:Death in the Grand Canyon is a book written by qualified professionals – one, a wilderness EMT and river guide for over 30 years, and the other, a doctor who worked at the Grand Canyon Clinic for over two decades. The authors even start the book by explaining why they wrote a book on death. Their desire was not to point blame at the victims but to “identify the kinds of mistakes and decision-making which commonly kill people in Grand Canyon.” This, in turn, teaches readers how to avoid such deadly mistakes. The authors are not trying to disturb people with these details of death, but instead teach people how to be safe in the wilderness. (Interested in learning more about this book? Here’s a previous post with more information.)

The most compelling of the book is the beginning, when deaths from falls is explained. It’s amazing to learn how many people get too close to the rim (unnecessarily) when taking photos. Reckless behavior is often the cause of falls within the canyon. The book also goes through death caused by the environment (ie. heat), flash flooding, the Colorado River, lightning strikes, as well as plane crashes over or in the canyon, suicides, and murder.

Death in National Parks hiking

A few years later, while in Yosemite, I found a book about Yosemite deaths as well. Off the Wall:Death in Yosemite (link to Amazon) by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Charles R. Farabee, Jr., that teaches readers about the dangers within this beautiful park. Some of the more interesting causes of death in Yosemite are waterfalls, snow, base jumping, hiking, getting lost, tree falls and death caused by animals and insects.

Sure there are parts of these books that I skip. I’m more interested in learning how reckless behavior around waterfalls can prove deadly than to read about the plane crashes or homicides within the park. Being that this book is about death, the authors did not pick and choose the “interesting” deaths, but included all of them that occurred in the park.

Death in National Parks hiking

My husband does not understand my fascination with these books.  It’s not as if I’m obsessed with pain, suffering, and death. As an avid backpacker, I read about how these people met their demise in order to educate myself about wilderness safety. It’s not fun reading about death, but I can learn from others’ mistakes.

Recently, I read Death in Yellowstone (Amazon link) by Lee H. Whittlesey. I couldn’t believe that there were people, as recently as 1981, who jumped into a hot spring to rescue a dog. It was informative reading about earlier times in Yellowstone, when people didn’t understand the dangers of hot springs, geysers, or the poisonous gases that are in high concentrations around certain areas of the park. I learned that many people don’t understand that the bison in Yellowstone are a very real and very dangerous creature – not some long-lost symbol of our American heritage. These wild creatures can weigh over 2,000 pounds and are very unpredictable. Nevertheless, every year, some guest gets too close to a bison when taking a photo and gets injured or gored.

These are just a few examples of all the things I’ve learned while reading these books. It also has to be stated here that there are hundreds of men and women who risk their lives performing search and rescue operations within the national parks. Each time they get the call to action, they risk their own safety to rescue another. If we can all learn from these books before heading out for a weekend of hiking or exploring in the parks, we will hike smarter and decrease the risks that these rescuers have to take.

That’s no macabre obsession. That’s just being smart!

Happy Travels!


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