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Book review – “Over The Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon”. - Heartstart's Journal

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March 10th, 2014

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04:58 pm - Book review – “Over The Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon”.
Last October in the USA, Craig and I spent a day at the Grand Canyon National Park. We rode the shuttle buses around the South Rim, took a plethora of photographs, saw a chipmunk, an elk and a condor, and hiked part of the South Rim trail. Interesting thing about the Grand Canyon: the only safety rails you’ll see are at the main lookouts. Despite America’s reputation as a litigation-happy, safety-first country, most of the Canyon is unfenced.

‘How many people die at the Grand Canyon each year?’ is a question often asked by visitors, according to Michael P Ghiglieri and Thomas M Myers, co-authors of the book: “Over The Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon”. In this gripping and sobering book, Ghiglieri and Myers recount the ways in which people have died, or come close to death, at the Grand Canyon.

Of all America’s national parks, Grand Canyon holds the record for the most fatalities. In the past one hundred and fifty odd years, nearly 700 people have died in or around the canyon. “Over The Edge” devotes each chapter to a certain category of fatality, including: falls from the rim; drowning (the Colorado River flows along the bottom of the canyon); aircraft crashes (including the tragic 1956 crash between a TAA plane and a Delta plane which killed a total of 128 people; deaths caused by animals and plants; and murder.

The book is stuffed with fascinating tales. Consider newlyweds Bessie and Glen Hyde, who in 1928 decided to spend their honeymoon attempting to become the first man and woman team to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. In a homemade boat. Without life jackets. The ambitious Hydes decided this trip would be their ticket to a lucrative life, giving lectures and writing a book on their adventure. Sadly, the young couple disappeared four weeks after they set off. Their scow, containing all their possessions, was discovered several days later. But despite a search financed by Rollin C Hyde, Glen’s wealthy rancher father, Bessie and Glen were never seen again. Or take the 1992 manhunt for Danny Ray Horning, a bank robber and child molester. Horning attempted to take a family hostage, before eluding police. For the next five days, hundreds of law enforcement personnel swarmed the Grand Canyon. Yet Horning managed to change his appearance, and take another couple hostage, before finally being captured.

Some of the most personal and harrowing stories are found in Chapter 3 – “Environmental Deaths”. Each summer, many unprepared hikers get lost, and risk perishing from heatstroke or dehydration. For me, the most heart-breaking story was that of 24 year old Margaret Bradley. In 2004, with her companion “Ryan”, she attempted to hike a 27 mile trail. The pair failed to take an adequate amount of water. Halfway down the trail, Ryan collapsed from exhaustion. Margaret pushed on ahead to get help, only to lose the trail and become hopelessly lost. Ryan was discovered the next morning by an NPS ranger who assisted him back up to the top, and gave him a lift home to Flagstaff. Ryan did not inform the ranger (or indeed, any other authorities) that he had been travelling with Margaret, or that she might be in trouble. As a result, a search was not launched until the following day, when Margaret’s family reported her missing. Tragically, her body was discovered in a pitfall 500 feet above the river, only hours too late. Ghiglieri and Myers stop short of blaming Ryan for this tragedy, merely stating that Ryan felt “an enormous amount of responsibility for Margaret’s death”. Today, there are signs at the Grand Canyon with Margaret’s picture, warning hikers of the dangers of dehydration.

A point that is made repeatedly throughout the book, is that many of these deaths are entirely preventable. None more so than falls from the rim. Incredibly, most falls are the result of human behaviour such as skylarking, urinating off the edge, and “backing up” for photos.

However, “Over The Edge” is not a morbid expose on deaths, nor is it a condemnation of human stupidity (although the authors’ somewhat dismissive comments about the ‘selfishness’ of suicide victims sit a little uncomfortably). Ghiglieri and Myers also cover much of the Canyon’s history, as well as outlining ways in which fatalities can be prevented in future.

“Over The Edge” is well researched and comprehensive. The authors have utilised NPS reports, old newspaper articles, and books; and have conducted many eyewitness interviews with eyewitnesses. The book is dense, yet readable, although some of the descriptions may raise one’s eyebrow. (“She went over the falls like a piece of limp spaghetti!” is one quote from an eyewitness.) “Over The Edge” should be essential reading for anyone planning to visit the Grand Canyon. It is also highly recommended for people who are interested in topics such as American history, wilderness survival, and aviation disasters.

As dusk fell on our day at Grand Canyon, Craig and I caught the Orange Shuttle to one of the lookouts to photograph the sunset. There we saw a group of Asian tourists in their twenties. One young man was standing on a rock jutting over the edge. His friends cheered and laughed as they snapped photos of him balancing on one leg and pulling crazy poses. But if he’d lost his balance, even for one second, he could well have joined the list of tragic, yet preventable, fatalities that occur all too frequently at the Grand Canyon.

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:March 15th, 2014 07:47 pm (UTC)
I read this book when my family visited the Canyon, also! We hiked several days South Rim, and then did mule rides from the North Rim a week or so later.

The history is well-researched, and I used it as a guideline to help my family- know what you are doing, where you are going, tell others, take lots and lots and lots of water, stay on the trail, and remember, it is a "reverse mountain" so going down is pretty easy- it is the UP part that is difficult!

We ran into more than one ranger who was on a minor rescue mission- mostly with water or hurt feet. But, helicopter rescues are not uncommon. Cell phones may be of no use, so do not rely on them.

The two authors insert their own tales on occasion, and you get the feeling that it would be nice to hike down with them and share a meal at Phantom Ranch and hear the share more stories- of rescues and success stories!.

The book is a narrative of true tales of woe. Be prepared, and enjoy!

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Date:March 16th, 2014 07:13 am (UTC)
Mule rides from the North Rim! That would have been great fun. :-)

And yes, absolutely agree that the book is stuffed with true tales of woe!

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