June 15, 2024

How Grand Canyon National Park Works to Prevent Heat-Related Deaths and Injuries

Watching weary day hikes start the long uphill hike from Phantom Ranch, a ranger station at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Jeff Schwartz has learned to look for telltale warning signs.

“They’ve got the salt stains all over their shirt, and clearly have a day pack on, and you’re like, ‘let’s prevent some search and rescue by talking with these folks,’” said Mr. Schwartz, a paramedic and backcountry park ranger who has worked at Grand Canyon National Park since 2012. After a dozen summers on the trail, he also knows what to offer: a comfortable seat in the shade of the ranger’s office, maybe something salty to eat. “It’s amazing what a bowl of ramen noodle soup will do,” he said.

An unplanned overnight at the Ranch may be in order for those in truly dire straits. For everyone else, the ramen is a reset, a dish served with a frank discussion about how long and how hard it might be to get back to the rim.

It’s been a deadly summer for hikers in the Southwest. At least seven have died in recent weeks from apparent heat-related causes — including one at the Grand Canyon, one in Death Valley and two at a state park in Nevada — as extreme temperatures this year have met increased visitation at national and state parks.

Grand Canyon National Park has long been one of the National Park Service’s most visited marquee destinations, even before the pandemic sparked a surge of interest in the great outdoors. Carved like a giant boot print into the northern half of Arizona, the park stretches across a million acres of rugged high desert, with a year-round community — Supai, the home of the Havasupai Nation, occupies a slender valley along the Colorado River — and some five million annual visitors who are drawn by hiking, white-water rafting and unparalleled views.

But during the summer, the park is already at the edge of comfort for the human body. And unlike Death Valley National Park, where visitation peaks in the winter months, the Grand Canyon typically sees both its highest temperatures and peak visitation in June.

The park’s search-and-rescue staff are among the busiest in the entire park system, with an average of more than 300 incidents a year and tens of thousands of “visitor contacts” meant to head off even more emergencies. But while search-and-rescue incidents across the National Park system have ticked upward alongside rising visitation in recent years — a post-pandemic rebound in annual visits this year is climbing toward the 2016 record of 330 million — that’s not the case at the scorching Grand Canyon. There, in recent years, staffing and aggressive messaging focused on preventing heat-related illness have helped to uncouple the number of visitors from the number of search-and-rescue incidents, a number that has dropped from the 1996 peak of 482, even as visitation has increased.

In 2022, the National Park Service tallied 3,428 search-and-rescue incidents — incidents that might include helicopter flights and multiday searches, and can cost tens of thousands of dollars. According to Travis Heggie, a professor at Bowling Green State University and former public risk management specialist for the National Park Service, that number is a significant undercount: It does not include so-called “agency assists,” or search-and-rescue responses by entities like sheriff’s offices, which are often better positioned to respond in some remote areas. If those, too, figured in National Parks statistics, he said, “the total would probably increase by about 30 percent.”

Although the internet has made it easier than ever to do research before hitting the outdoors, the hurricane of information available hasn’t necessarily led to better-prepared visitors. One common and frustratingly lasting misconception in the Grand Canyon: that it gets cooler as you hike down. Staff often refer to the canyon as an “inverse mountain,” where you start your hike with a long, vista-filled downhill, and the mercury rises as the elevation drops. By the time you get to the Colorado River from the South Rim — 10 miles down via the Bright Angel trail, or a shorter but even more exposed seven by way of South Kaibab — you’ve descended a vertical mile and entered an environment where the weather is closer to what you’d encounter in, say, Phoenix.

There’s no question climate change is contributing to the increase in incidents, Mr. Schwartz said.

“When it’s sunny and over 95 degrees in the canyon, our call volume for emergency medical response and rescue goes way up,” he said. During this historically hot July, at the halfway point between the rim and canyon bottom, not a single day has passed with a high temperature below 95 degrees; at Phantom Ranch, there have been nights when the low temperature hasn’t dipped below 90 degrees.

Mr. Schwartz supervises rangers who work eight days on, six days off, and cycle between three ranger stations in the canyon and living out of backpacks on trail patrols. The team is, he said, “down there for whatever comes up.”

On the so-called “SAR shift,” for search-and-rescue, Mr. Schwartz stays mobile, driving around the South Rim and taking cellphone calls to dispatch everything from Chex Mix for hikers to medevac helicopters wherever they were needed. On a hot day in June, when I visited with him, a boater was flown out of the canyon with a lower-body injury. Now, in the heat of the afternoon, several day hikers were unexpectedly spending the night at Phantom Ranch — a near daily occurrence in the summer.

“These are folks who are missing out on their hotel rooms, missing out on their flights home,” Mr. Schwartz said of the hikers he typically helps at Phantom Ranch. “They thought they’d be fine — they’ll be exhausted, maybe they’ll have muscle cramps, they’ll have to drag themselves out. But they’re really not picturing hours of uncontrollable vomiting, or renal failure.” The range of possibilities extends to permanent disability and death. “Those are the things that we’re worried about when we’re talking to people down there.”

The salty snacks offered by rangers are part of an approach known as P-SAR, or “preventive search and rescue,” pioneered here after an extreme heat wave in 1996 led to hundreds of cases of heat exhaustion and five fatalities.

“We had nonstop calls,” recalled Ken Philips, who led the park’s search and rescue at the time. “It got to a point where we were like zombies.” Something had to change. Now park staff and volunteers undertake P-SAR training, and are told that the goal is to “get everyone back out of the canyon alive.” Also, said the P-SAR coordinator, Meghan Smith, the aim is to help people avoid experiences that will make them reluctant to return.

“If people spend their day throwing up,” she said, “They’re not going to want to come back and they’re not going to want to tell their friends and their family, or bring their grandkids.”

P-SAR is a bit of a misnomer: It’s not search and rescue so much as its opposite — education and outreach before any search or rescue is needed, an effort to replace as many helicopter trips as possible with better visitor awareness and preparation, and if need be, position spare tents and food supplies where stranded hikers need them.

A cohort of nine seasonal P-SAR rangers and another 70-odd volunteers patrol popular trails, plying hikers with information, advice and extra calories, and providing an early warning system for the park’s much smaller search-and-rescue staff.

While only a handful of parks have dedicated P-SAR staff like that of the Grand Canyon, the approach is drawing interest: This year a P-SAR symposium at the park hosted staff from 31 other park sites. Dozens of new P-SAR positions across the system are expected to come online soon.

During my visit in June, a group of seasonal and full-time employees was supplementing their weekly half-day of training with a multiday course focused on serious rescues. As they practiced rappelling down the canyon walls and maneuvering loaded stretchers back up over the rim, tourists passing by pointed and stared. Staff in harnesses and helmets ringed with broad-brimmed lids — “SARbreros” — called out to be raised and lowered down the cliff-side a few feet at a time, their ropes secured to a craggy piñon pine. A motorized rope winch whined like out-of-tune bagpipes. Radios crackled.

Sitting on a cooler in the shade during a break, the trainer and emergency medical services coordinator, James Thompson, explained the evolution of the park’s approach since the advent of P-SAR in the late 1990s, when the core message to hot weather visitors was “Drink, drink, drink.”

“That pushed people into becoming hyponatremic, where they lose a bunch of salt but they can’t regain it,” Mr. Thompson said, a situation that can lead to dangerous brain swelling and seizures. If hikers readily absorbed the message that they needed to hydrate at all costs, they often forgot the corollary: sweating through the dry heat robs your body not just of fluids, but of the sodium that’s essential to muscle and nerve function. The park has since altered its public messaging and deployed blood testing machines called I-STATs, usually reserved for use in hospitals, in the backcountry. The machines allow rangers to diagnose hyponatremia on the spot and administer IVs with a highly concentrated saline solution.

“It’s not a slam dunk, but it can save patients a lot of money and a lot of risk,” Mr. Thompson said. This season, the park saw its first death from the condition in nearly 15 years, a 36-year-old woman visiting from the Midwest.

The 95-degree threshold Mr. Schwartz mentioned has become an important indicator at the park, consistent with research going back to World War II. As the U.S. military prepared for a possible invasion of North Africa, the government hired a University of Rochester physiologist named Edward Adolph to study the physical effects of heat and dehydration, who assessed soldiers in the hostile terrain of the Colorado Desert.

“At air temperatures above 95 F (i.e., above average skin temperature),” Dr. Adolph and his team wrote in “The Physiology of Man in the Desert,“evaporation is the only physiological mechanism by which man can rid himself of heat.” As the hours wear on at those temperatures, they found, most people just can’t sweat fast enough to cool themselves down.

The park’s own 2015 study found that “hiker assistance activities” jumped by 71 percent on days when the temperature reached 95 degrees. Lately, there have been more days like that, according to National Weather Service data showing a slow gradual climb since 1935 on hot days; Phantom Ranch itself has experienced an average of two extra 95 degree days annually since 2000.

I got on the crowded Bright Angel trail myself the next morning at 8:30. Through the thin high desert atmosphere, the sun wasn’t shining so much as pinning us to the canyon walls. Our descent was marked by geologic eras — Kaibab limestone, the Toroweap formation, Coconino sandstone. A sign with an illustration of a character park staff refers to fondly as “Victor Vomit,” warned against day hiking to the river and back. Victor, doubled over in distress, started his hike without adequate water or sun protection, and was paying for it.

I, too, had fancied myself the type to try for the 17-mile round-trip jaunt, until the park’s press liaison, Joelle Baird, told me, straight-faced, that I should leave by midnight, and certainly no later than 2 a.m. Ms. Baird spent her first years at the park as a P-SAR ranger, patrolling the upper reaches of trails into the canyon to offer hikers a friendly reality check. “I always look at the footwear,” she said, as in “‘Oh! You’re in flip-flops!’”

Halfway to the halfway point, I met a backcountry ranger hiking out of the canyon and practicing P-SAR the whole way up. Betsy Aurnou, climbing with wraparound shades and fabric completely covering her face, carried Fritos and Vitalyte, and referred to the occasional slivers of shadow beneath overhung cliffs as “shade opportunities.”

I’d fallen in rhythm alongside two young men from Broward County, Fla., with tiny water bottles and no hats. Ms. Aurnou pulled down her face covering and gave us a cheery hello before she got down to business — how far were we planning on going? Would anyone like any salty snacks? Yes, they said, yes, we would.

Ms. Aurnou had already helped a trio of heat-exhausted siblings to find their way to Bright Angel Creek. “They stayed in the creek for about 40 minutes, and then they hiked out and they were great,” she said, adding that we, too, should get soaking wet at the first opportunity.

Down at Havasupai Gardens, a stopover at the 4.5-mile mark and halfway to the river, I took her advice and lay in the creek with my shorts on, then dunked my hat and shirt for good measure. Signs on trail water fountains, supplied by a water pipeline built in the 1960s, also reminded passing hikers: “Your shirt is thirsty too.”

On the way back up, about 1.5 miles and 280 million years from the rim, I crossed paths with a couple I’d seen that morning at a shaded pavilion near the top of the Hermit formation. Now, four hours later, they were in the same spot, still lingering in the shade before climbing the last stretch of the trail. I couldn’t help but think of the old bumper stickers the park had printed for the search-and-rescue team. “Down is optional,” they read. “Up is mandatory.”

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