Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Death by Camera

I was up until 1:00 AM a few days ago because I'm reading this horribly fascinating book called Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon. It's about all the different ways people have died or nearly died while visiting the Grand Canyon. The "grand" total as of 2001, when the book was published, was 550.

Lots of people plummet off the edge right near the Visitor's Center, if you can believe that. Almost all of them had climbed under or over the guardrail (ignoring the warning signs that are posted everywhere), so that they could pose for a photo or take a photo, and whoops! they lost their footing and fell to their deaths. Was it worth it?

Most victims were male, you probably won't be surprised to learn. Some of them thought that once over the guardrail and out on some precarious and unstable ledge it would be a great idea to cavort around a bit, hop from rock to rock, and strike various attitudes to impress the ladies that happened to be watching. I doubt they were impressed. Horrified? Traumatized? For sure.

Most ignominious of all, some guys have died while taking a whiz. (According to the authors [both of whom are men], this is due to the "male urge to urinate off high places." I asked B if he's ever been tempted to pee from on high and he said, "NO WAY!" Smart guy. No wonder he's still in the land of the living.)

Falling off the rim is only one of many ways to die. Lots of hikers and river runners go ahead and ignore flash flood warnings and end up drowned or entombed in the newest layer of sediment on the floor of the canyon. And, I haven't gotten to these chapters yet, but apparently people also die because they don't realize that if you go out on a hike with temperatures of 120 degrees F and don't bring any water with will DIE. Or they decide to take a swim in the unpredictable Colorado River, or they get bitten by a venomous creature, or crash their plane or helicopter into the walls of the canyon.

It's easy to think that all these folks must be utter dummkopfs, but I have to say that as I'm reading this book, I'm thinking about all the times I didn't make the best decisions while out in the wilderness. Just this summer B and I were hiking at Mount St. Helens National Monument on a trail that had been damaged in floods last year, parts of the trail were hardly wider than the width of my boot and very crumbly! If the footing had given way, we would have slid down a steep ravine. Probably not to our deaths, but either one of us could have been badly injured. Did I mention that this was a trail on which we saw no other hikers (i.e., no one who might have gone for help if we'd needed rescue)? And, oh yes, Mount St. Helens is also an active volcano that is currently erupting. Go me!

The other super dangerous (super stupid) thing I've done many times is hike alone. All hiking books you ever read say in no uncertain terms: Never hike alone. Period. Don't do it ever. Don't hike alone. Always hike with others. However, they say it they all always say it. But I (and many, many other people) ignore that sound piece of advice.

When people hear that I hike alone, almost all of them ask me if I'm not afraid that I'll get attacked and raped out there by myself. No. Not at all. Hiking up to the top of a mountain on the off-chance that a lone female will appear is way too iffy and strenuous a proposition for most rapists. They prefer mall parking lots. Also, as most of you probably know, most rapes are not perpetrated by total strangers. You're in more danger from men you know than those you've never laid eyes on. (Yes. I know there are a few notorious instances in which female hikers have been raped or killed, but the crimes occurred in areas near roads and civilization.)

No. It's far more likely that solo hikers (male or female) will get hurt or lost and no one will be there to help them. That's the real danger. In fact, I'm just about to get to the part of the book about all the solo hikers who've perished at the Grand Canyon. Oh dear. I have a feeling I'm going to start to feel like I've been really lucky. More than anything, this book is a gigantic and relentless cautionary tale, albeit a sort of morbidly fascinating one.



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