We’ve all seen the photos of a hiker out on a precipice, dangerously close to a ledge, witnessing a vista from a spot that’s presumably taken hours to reach. It’s what all hikers and outdoor enthusiasts dream about—myself included.
I love encouraging people to get off the couch or outside exploring but I fear the ubiquity of the person on a precipice photo makes some complacent about their preparation to reach these spots and is encouraging faster deterioration of fragile geological sites. Each summer season sees many accidents at national parks and monuments—in so many cases people underestimate the dangers or damage they might cause.
The infamous shots of Horseshoe Bend are a perfect example. In and of itself it’s not a very strenuous place to reach. If you’re in average good health and can walk a mile this is an easy walk from a nearby parking lot. Yet, people die there because they are distracted, careless about the dangers, and careless about dressing properly.
On a recent sunrise visit to Horseshoe Bend I watched as a young woman approached a raw section of the rim—without a railing—wearing a flimsy, leather soled sandal. This red rock ledge is covered in fine sand and pebbles on top hard flat rocks offering a perfect spot for viewing and photos, but also a perfect potential for slipping. It was a damp, thirty-some degree morning with a steady, brisk wind that makes one move stiffly. There are sections with a railing and there are sections without. This young woman stood near the rim without a railing to take her selfie, back to the edge, obviously cold, and sure enough one of her feet slipped away from her. She was lucky because she slipped away from the edge. All I could do was shake my head and be grateful I hadn’t just watched her fall to her death—something I’m sure I couldn’t handle.
Similarly while I was climbing down from Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park a few years ago, I witnessed parents standing behind as their twelve, or so, year-old daughter slid down an embankment on her bottom and jumped off to a landing less than two feet wide, facing a shear drop off into a canyon over 1,000 ft down, wearing a basic pair of worn sneakers. If she had misjudged the landing, slipped ever so little, caught an edge on the rock face or done anything that caused her to need more room for a landing she would have been gone. There was no precaution in her movement.
She might have also taken someone with her as she grasped for anything when she realized she was falling. Stupid, careless, thoughtless, reckless, I feel. Even if she had the proper shoes this was an eye bulging situation to witness. Again, I was thankful, as were the others watching in terror with me, that we hadn’t just witnessed the death of this young girl. It’s almost as if the chains and railings give visitors a false sense of safety, and that folks are sure there will be protections or warning signs—even where the dangers are glaringly obvious. In that case, I’m not even certain the parents recognized the situation they had allowed to occur. (I can’t even bring myself to call it a tragedy averted because, to me, a tragedy is something you don’t or can’t see coming. This was an obvious and unnecessary risk.)
And as for those who climb out upon overhangs, I know it makes for a great photo, but remember you’re standing on a natural ledge in the process of natural erosion. One day it will fall, and are you sure you want to cause it to fall. Do you wish to go with it? In many cases it seems there is no regard for the places and their preservation. There is an insatiable need to possess them—not just witness them. The least you can do is wear appropriate shoes. Sneakers and basic athletic shoes are intended for pavement or prepared surfaces, as a rule. There is a great deal of engineering and design behind a good hiking shoe–really. It’s not any different than buying tires for your car, except it’s you getting your feet trail ready. Call ahead and talk to park officials or search online sites that provide a preview of conditions and logistics, so you know what to expect. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it will make the experience better.
Here’s the thing, National park visitation has spiked in the last six years, and the number of park rangers patrolling has declined along with their budgets. Keep these statistics in mind from Steve Sullivan, Permits Program Manager at the Grand Canyon, as you take a ledge or head out on an unfamiliar trail: each year at the Grand Canyon alone the National Park Service engages on average to 297 search and rescues, and 1,067 emergency service responses. In May of 2016, on a single day there were over 1,000 people attempting some version of a rim-to-rim hike. For every park visitor, nationwide, there is 1 park ranger for every 180,000 visitors, according to National Park Service data. They are overburdened and under funded and the current administration doesn’t appear to have any regard or remedy for improving those stats.
You’ve probably heard the camping motto “Leave no trace.” meaning there should be no trace you visited—no trash, nothing left behind. No trace can also include creating a situation where visitors disregard risks and need to be rescued or evacuated. It’s a drain on a National Park system that’s already struggling to manage. Please think and plan ahead before you visit a park, and take precautions all the way down to the shoes you choose to wear.
Hughes, Trevor and Chavez, Trevor. “Death on the trail: More Americans visit nation parks, but fewer rangers on patrol.” USA Today, Published June 29, 2019, updated July 9, 2019. Accessed August 31, 2019 https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/06/29/national-parks-rangers-vanishing-putting-visitors-risk/1503627001/