Grand Canyon Summer

The Big Ditch had its share of rescues and deaths this season

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As of press time, at least six actual hiker/backpackers had died in the canyon. Here’s a brief recap of the more interesting incidents. Common themes were solo travel, and/or lack of advance preparation – such as obtaining current information, carrying enough water, leaving a route itinerary, or getting a required permit. I hope these brief sketches will help others avoid similar mayhem, but I’m buried with magazine work right now, so visit the Grand Canyon National Park’s Hike Smart page for specific tips.

April 30th: Three young men, Mark Merril (16), Joey Merrill (22), and Saif Savaya (16), jumped into the spring-swollen Colorado River at Boat Beach near Phantom Ranch, where the main corridor trails cross on the Silver Bridge at River Mile 88, and attempted to swim across the swift current that runs through Granite Gorge. The trio were visiting the park in a 30-person Baptist church group on their annual Grand Canyon hiking retreat. All three were swept into Bright Angel Rapids, a swiftwater section that runs beneath the Bridge. Mark Merrill’s body was found a mile downstream on May 1st. The other two weren’t located until May 15th, below Boucher Rapids, over ten miles downriver from where they jumped in.

The problem: Spring flows from Glen Canyon Dam were around 20,000 cubic feet per second, and this is a swift-water section of river. Water temperatures were 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. River flows this cold and powerful are tough even for kayakers in insulated dry suits and life jackets. The eddy lines suck you under and shove you back into the main current. Crossing to the far shore, if possible, will blow you a mile downstream. These guys were young, fit and game, but they didn’t know what they were really up against.

On June 5th, rangers found the body of Robert Williams, 69, of Surprise, Arizona, who was overdue from a Memorial Day weekend in the canyon. Williams had left on a hiking trip Friday, May 23rd, and was reported overdue on Tuesday, May 27th. With no backcountry permit or itinerary on file, searchers eventually found William’s car parked behind Verkamp’s Visitor Center in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. From there, they began covering nearby trails like the Hermit, Bright Angel and South Kaibab without success. On June 1 the search was scaled back, then re-focused after people who had encountered Williams on the trail reported his last-seen locations. Rangers using spotting scopes eventually found Williams on June 2nd, about 200 feet below the Hermit Trail, a quarter mile south of Santa Maria Spring. The area where Williams was found is about two miles from the top of the Hermit trailhead at Hermit’s Rest, eight miles west along the rim from Grand Canyon Village.

The Problem: Both water and shade are available near Santa Maria Spring, only a short hike from the rim. Williams apparently fell to his death. Age may or may not have contributed to the slip. It’s notable how many hiking fatalities have involved seniors this summer, but that could be due as much to the high numbers of older hikers as to age-related infirmity. In many regions the 50-and-over crowd forms a majority of hiker traffic.

On July 21st, park dispatch received a call that Bryce Gillies, 20, was overdue from a backpacking trip into the Deer Creek/Thunder River area of the Grand’s North Rim. According to friends, Gillies might have headed into the area after reading an online trip report here on No park permit for Gillies (mandatory) was found on file, but searchers quickly found Gillies’s car parked at the Bill Hall trailhead and began covering a large area from Deer Creek into Tapeats Creek. The effort was refocused westward to Bonita Creek after searchers found an abandoned backpack there. On July 25th they found Gillies at the top of a 100-foot pour-off about one-quarter mile from where Bonita Creek meets the Colorado. He was probably trying to reach water by bee-lining for the river, became cliffed-out, and died of heat and dehydration. This descend-toward-the-river-till-you’re-stranded theme is a Grand Canyon staple.

The Problem: Gillies apparently got offroute somewhere on the slickrock expanses of Surprise Valley in upper Bonita Creek, which is one drainage west of Tapeats. Park Service route info describes the area as “infamously hot” and recommends avoiding it after 10 a.m. in summer weather. Instead of continuing eastward across Bonita’s three upper forks, he dropped right/south down one of those tributaries and into Bonita Creek. Once he descended a ways, Gillies was separated from Tapeats by a high, ragged ridgeline. At the time of Gillies death, afternoon temperatures in the inner gorge were between 105 and 110 Fahrenheit. Such hot conditions don’t allow much time to correct mistakes. Unfortunately, Gillies didn’t have a map, a permit, or the current conditions report that rangers would have given him.

On August 13th, Grand Canyon dispatch received a sat phone call from an NPS river patrol that a group of seven hikers had waved them down near river mile 29 to report being out of water and in dire straits. A later call revealed that one member of the 8-person party had already died. A helicopter quickly contacted the group about halfway down the 15-mile-round-trip Shinumo Wash Route – a rugged and abandoned 1950’s Bureau of Reclamation trail that once accessed a proposed dam site. Roughly one mile up-wash from the group, they found the body of an 18-year-old Native American male.

The Problem: Shinumo Wash is an unmaintained route that winds through cliff bands and hot, sunbaked wash for 5,600 vertical feet from rim to canyon bottom – and back. Comments left by one of the hikers at indicated that the mostly Navajo party found the trip much harder than anticipated. They also didn’t take enough water, lost two gallons when one of the adults nearly fell off a narrow traverse, and several of the group were forced to drink urine mixed with Gatorade once they became seriously dehydrated.

On September 9th, a search helicopter discovered the body of Andrew Brunelli, 43, of Clayton, North Carolina, who had been missing since August 31st. Brunelli had a history of short to medium day hikes in the canyon, so searchers initially concentrated on the Grandview Trail/Horseshoe Mesa/Hance Creek region, without success. After one of Brunelli’s co-workers told authorities he was planning more ambitious trips, they expanded their search area westward. A helicopter eventually discovered Brunelli’s body outside in a drainage north/downhill of the Tonto Trail, approximately two miles east of its junction with the South Kaibab Trail near Pattie Butte. This means that Brunelli had traveled most of the way along the Tonto Bench, from the foot of the very steep Grandview Trail, almost to the foot of the South Kaibab near Phantom Ranch.

The Problem: The Tonto Trail is notoriously hot and dry and the Park Service trail descriptions call it “dangerous in hot weather.” Temperatures on the Tonto were over 100 Fahrenheit during his trip. The site where Brunelli was found is nearly 21 miles from where his car was parked. Only two reliable water sources (both trickles) can be found along this route, but neither are necessarily visible from trailside in hot weather.The search for Brunelli was complicated by the fact that he left no itinerary and did not fill out any overnight permit.

On September 22nd, Thomas Peake, 39, of Atlanta, Georgia was reported overdue from a three-mile round-trip hike in the extremely remote Tuweep area of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. His wife accompanied him to the Vulcan’s Throne Trailhead, but stayed on the rim as Peake descended the steep, bouldery Lava Falls Route, which plunges down a steep lava flow to the banks of the Colorado River at Lava Falls – arguably the river’s largest rapid. Peake radioed “Oh my God, the Colorado River is so beautiful” not long before his radio went silent. As dusk finally fell and Peake’s wife Dena hadn’t heard from him for several hours, she drove the three hours to Fredonia, Arizona to report him missing. Since temperatures were high and the route is known for falls, searchers responded that evening. An aerial overflight the next morning located Peake’s body slightly off-trail, not far from the bottom of the route.

The Problem: While short (only about 3 miles round trip) the Lava Falls Route is anything but a trail hike. It involves threading 2,500 vertical feet down through cliff bands and downsloping slabs covered with sharp cinder gravel and boulders. On sunny days, the route’s blackish rock tilts straight into the sun, turning it into a vertical oven. Near the bottom, hikers pass through a section of steep, exposed cliff ledges where it is easy to get slightly off-route onto much harder terrain. This appears to be what happened to Peake, who was otherwise fit, healthy and prepared.

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