Hiker Dies on Lava Falls Route, North Rim of Grand Canyon


Toroweap Lookout, Grand Canyon

Toroweap Lookout, near the Lava Falls Route trailhead

The closest I’ve ever come to dying in the outdoors was in the Grand Canyon. I was 20 years old, hiking the Bill Hall trail on the North Rim in June. It was my second visit to the North Rim; I had hiked the Lava Falls route the year before, in March, when the temperature might have hit 70º. When I left that June morning, I was rolling solo, relishing the freedom of an empty trailhead, cool morning air, and a nice cloud cover overhead. I had two liters of water, my then-standard hydration plan for a day hike in Zion. I didn’t plan to go too far; I just wanted to hike a few miles and return.

Hiking DOWN the Grand Canyon feel effortless; the miles fly by amidst gorgeous views and the wonderful pull of gravity.Four miles and about 2,000 vertical feet later, I found myself at the end of Esplanade, a broad slickrock terrace of the North Rim. I still had 1 1/4 quarts of water, and the clouds were keeping the air a very reasonable temperature. I decided to take a nap.

When I awoke an hour or so later, the sun was out in full force and it was a different world. The temperature had likely increased 20 or more degrees; I stripped down to a t-shirt and decided I should turn around. Though it was only around 4 miles, the journey back was one of the longest of my life. I quickly drained my water, trying to pre-hydrate as much as possible, but the benefits were minimal. I remember stumbling up the trail, scared as hell, telling myself everything would be alright.

About a half mile from the top, I heard a hiker approaching from below. The hiker turned out to be a Grand Canyon NPS ranger, returning from an multi-night trip down to Deer Creek Falls. I felt like an idiot for being in the state I was in, but I swallowed my pride and asked if she had any water to spare. As we exchanged stories, she pretty much told me I was a fool; I agreed. But I was a fool who was going to see another day, so it was alright with me. We hiked back to the trailhead together, where I had a tank of very hot water waiting in my truck. 110º water in 110º heat never tasted so good.

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It is really easy to think people idiots when they die of dehydration in the outdoors. Don’t they read the warnings? Don’t they prepare themselves? But dehydration is difficult to understand, especially when your tenure in the outdoors is short, or if you have lots of experience in a different climate or context. The experience I had on the Bill Hall/Thunder River trail was a seasoning experience for me, one I lived to tell about and learned a lot from. But the difference between a seasoning experience and a tragedy is razor thin. It is BECAUSE of my Grand Canyon experience that I have a proper respect for dehydration now, but how can I expect to transfer this experience/education to another person? I think relating the story  helps, but it is far from a personal experience. Still, it is all we have.

I post reports of accidents and fatalities in hopes that we can learn from them, and use the lessons to make our own outdoor endeavors safer and more fun. Whatever the result of our expeditions, they have enormous, life-changing effects on so many people who love us and depend on us, for better or for worse.

Here yesterday’s news release from Grand Canyon National Park concerning a man who died from unknown causes on the Lava Point route, near Toroweap, on the North Rim. As the release points out, his friends found him 100 yards from the parking area.

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Body of man recovered from remote area of Grand Canyon identified
September 30, 2010

Grand Canyon, Ariz.– The body of a man recovered from a remote area within Grand Canyon National Park has been identified as that of 30-year-old Gavin C. Smith, of Lawrence Kansas.

He and four others were on what was to be a day hike to the river on the Lava Falls Route, a remote route near Tuweep in the Toroweap Valley, approximately 3.5 hours from the developed area on the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. Initial investigations indicate that Mr. Smith hiked approximately one-half of the way down to the river and then decided to wait for his companions to descend to the river and come back to his location. He was last seen by his friends at approximately 9:00 Tuesday morning.

Mr. Smith’s body was found by one of his hiking companions late Tuesday afternoon, approximately 100 yards from a parking area adjacent to where the route begins. His hiking companion reported the incident to a National Park Service volunteer located at Tuweep.

Park rangers recovered his body yesterday morning. His body was flown to Kingman, Arizona and transferred to the Mohave County Medical Examiner. Initial indications are that Mr. Smith’s death was heat related.

Park rangers urge hikers, especially when hiking in remote areas of the park, to be aware of the hazards that exist and to go prepared. The Lava Falls Route is one of the hottest, steepest routes within Grand Canyon National Park. It is can be dangerous and is not a hike that is recommended during hotter times of the year. Hiking information, including trail conditions and weather, can be obtained on the park’s Web site at http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm, at one of the park’s Backcountry Information Center’s or by calling 928-638-7875.

Maureen Oltrogge
Public Affairs Officer
Grand Canyon National Park

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About Nick

Nick Wilkes found ZAC in 1996, working first as an outfitter, then a guide, then as webmaster. An ardent adventure enthusiast, Nick's recent exploits involve laying down roots in Wisconsin, chasing his kids around the house, working as a Madison, WI photographer and growing his Wisconsin climbing business. Connect with Nick on Facebook, Google+, or directly via email.
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