69-year-old Cynthia Ackley became the second person to fall to their death inside Grand Canyon National Park in the last month. There have also been recent falling deaths outside park boundaries. KNAU’s Zac Ziegler recently talked with park spokesperson John Quinley about whether or not those numbers are unusual.
John Quinley: Well, it seems like they’re clustered here in late March and April, but our history is that there are usually a small number of falls in the park each year. Last year there were three. The number of deaths, our typically long-term average is 17 a year.
Zac Ziegler: Are falls the most common cause of death in the canyon?
JQ: No, so we've had, for instance last year there were three falls from the rim, but people died from cardiac arrest, one person drowned last year. There's a variety of causes of death. Falls are usually in the low single-digits: one, two, three a year maybe. It may be unusual that they're clustered here in late part of March and first part of April, but we might go 6 months without another one.
ZZ: How much do we typically know about the causes of falls?
JQ: Sometimes they are witnessed and we get pretty good information about it. Other times we know that they fell, but what they were doing at the time we're not sure. The one earlier this month the fall itself was witnessed, but I don't think anybody was really seeing what he was doing beforehand. In each case I think it's a little bit different but if you know a common theme might be that people lose some sense of awareness of their surroundings. They get too close, maybe they're taking a picture, they're focused more on photograph than on their surroundings, and where their feet are. So it varies
ZZ: We saw a fall not that long ago east of the park at the Horseshoe Bend that, come to find out, was a selfie-taker. A recent one west of the park was a tourist trying to get a picture of Eagle Point. Are picture-taking-falls getting more common?
JQ: Yeah, probably so, with more people wanting to to do selfies. But you can look back at historic photos from the Kolb Brothers and see people standing out on tiny Rocky outcroppings. Having your picture taken with the canyon behind you is well, it’s our Centennial, so people have been doing it for a hundred years.
ZZ: Is the park planning any sort of actions or changes?
JQ: Not at this point with a falls specifically. I think where we are is sort of a shift in emphasis. The fall danger is sort of always there, but we're getting into the time of year when, especially hiking into the canyon, we get more heat related incidents. So it makes more sense as it's 110° instead of 75° or 80°.
ZZ: We've spent a lot of time so far talking about the visitors. Tell us about how the first responders are holding up. It's not an easy thing to go collect a body, both physically and emotionally
JQ: Right, whether it's a rescue or a body recovery, anytime you deploy a helicopter or a technical rescue team, there's an element of risk. They train for that to avoid any undue risk, and they've been a very safe operation. They prepare themselves mentally as well. But your right, this is not not an easy profession for them to be in.