Survival Lessons from the National Parks

South Kaibab Trail

South Kaibab Trail
By Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A lot of people died this summer in the National Parks of the U.S. I didn’t highlight these deaths in the weekly Outdoor News simply because I didn’t want to discourage anyone from exploring the outdoors in the National Parks or anywhere else. Nonetheless, this blog has a topic for “Survival”, so perhaps examining a few of theses deaths could be beneficial and we can avoid some deadly mistakes.

Man Struck by Lightning

On September 13, a 21-year-old man died after being struck by lightning near  Ooo-Aah Point about a mile down the South Kaibab Trail at Grand Canyon National Park.  This trail is carved into the side of the canyon and fully exposed to the elements.  There is really no way to avoid lightning there other than to get up and out of the canyon if a thunderstorm threatens.

  • Lesson number 1: be aware of the weather and find cover before a thunderstorm arrives.
  • Lesson number 2: read my story on Lightning Safety.

Grizzly Kills Hiker

A 63-year-old man was attacked and killed by a grizzly bear near the Elephant Back Loop Trail in Yellowstone National Park on August 6.  Reports indicate the bear was not defending her cubs, but was aggressively hunting for food.

Man Dies Climbing Longs Peak

Longs Peak

Longs Peak

On October 2, a 26 year old man died in Rocky Mountain National Park.  He planned to hike alone to the summit of Longs Peak (14,259 feet) and was found at the bottom of Lamb’s Slide.  His planned route was unknown, but he was reported missing when he did not return when he was expected.  Apparently he slipped and fell.  Search teams reported icy conditions in spots.

  • Lesson number 1, don’t explore alone, particularly in remote areas where you are likely to be far from anyone that might be able to help.
  • Lesson number 2, have appropriate footwear for the conditions you expect.  If conditions are different or change along the way,  be willing to wait until conditions improve or turn back immediately.

Seven Die in Keyhole Canyon

Keyhole Canyon

Keyhole Canyon
National Park Service Photo

On September 14, seven people died in Keyhole Canyon in Zion National Park.  Some of them had a lot of hiking experience and all except one of them took a five-hour canyoneering class offered by the Zion Adventure Company.

Just before heading to the canyon the weather service had predicted a 40% chance of rain with heavy thunderstorms and a moderate risk of flash flooding.  Just after starting their adventure, the weather service raised the chance of rain to 50%.  Part rangers began advising people to stay out of the canyons, but our group didn’t get that message.  They did check the weather at 1:00 PM, but the weather didn’t seem threatening, so they set off.

 About 20 minutes after they lost cell phone coverage on their way to the canyon, the weather service became concerned and issued a flash flood warning for the area. Forecasters said: “Move to higher ground now.  Act quickly to save your life.”  They made it safely into the canyon wearing wetsuits, waterproof shoes, helmets  and their backpacks using their only rope.  Then a flash flood rushed through the canyon, killing them all.  It took a day to find the first body and two more days to find the last.

Here’s the thing,  Keyhole Canyon is considered an easy canyoneering experience, but it is not a ‘hike’ in the normal sense of the word.  It requires the ability to rig and use ropes and, in an emergency, it requires the ability to apply those skills quickly.  These people were experienced hikers, but not experienced canyoneers, and that may have ultimately caused their demise.

  • Lesson number 1,  have the skills necessary and be able to apply them quickly and efficiently.
  • Lesson number 2,  have some way to check the weather immediately before entering a situation like this.  A satellite phone can replace your cell phone in the wilderness where no cell service is available and some GPS units have a weather radio built in.  Having said that,  many people have long and healthy outdoor careers without ever owning such a device.  In this case a more experienced group of canyoneers entered Keyhole Canyon after our group, passed them in the canyon and lived to tell about it.  Thus,  I suspect inexperience played a larger role in this case.
  • Lesson number 3,  when setting off on a new type of adventure that requires special skills, hire a professional guide service.  Zion National Park doesn’t allow guide services, but other parks do.  Not only can a guide service help you improve your skills, the guide may also save your life in an emergency.  Our group did the next best thing and got five hours of professional training before setting out – it just wasn’t enough.

Teenagers Crushed by Branch

On August 14, at 4:15 AM, two teenage boys were crushed to death by a falling tree limb while sleeping in their tent at Yosemite National Park.

  • Lesson number 1, if you are camping under trees, be sure to look above for dead limbs that could fall.  It’s often difficult to be certain of the hazard, but if you check, you stand a chance of locating your tent in a safer place.


These are only a few of the deaths in the National Parks this summer.  Besides deaths, like heart attacks and suicides that could have happened anywhere, most deaths are associated with risky ventures like mountain climbing and canyoneering.  Many of the reports of people dying in the National Parks provided insufficient information to uncover the ultimate causes of those deaths or to develop lessons from them.  The bottom line is to be prepared for your adventure and the conditions surrounding it before you start out, then think safety at every point in the journey.

Please Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy

Pin It on Pinterest