Avoiding disaster from the start


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  • Bob Falcone
Towards the end of December, it was hard to miss the news reports of the family that was stranded in deep snow on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

According to media reports, the Klein family, visiting Las Vegas from Pennsylvania, set out to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, not knowing that that part of the park is closed during the winter. They followed GPS directions that led them onto a hiking trail rather than the main road to the canyon — that's when they got stuck.

In need of help, and without a cell phone signal, the mom walked 10 miles through three-feet of snow to the main road, only to find it closed. She then walked another 14 or so miles to what she thought was another road into the canyon, all the while drinking melted snow and eating twigs. She finally stumbled upon a cabin, broke into it and stayed there until rescuers found her. She suffered frostbite injuries.

Meanwhile, her husband and son walked 10 miles in another direction through the snow until they found a cell phone signal and called for help. Eventually, search and rescue crews found all the family members and transported them to safety.

The ending to this family's ordeal could have been much worse, but, at the same time, all of this could this have been avoided.

The North Rim is approximately 8,000-feet above sea level, 1,000 feet higher and as much 10 miles from the South Rim. It sees tremendous amounts of snow and closes every winter, as clearly stated on the NPS website. The family didn’t research the trip, presumably, which led them into this life-threatening situation. The lesson here is that a little research would've revealed that the North Rim is inaccessible in the winter, and a trek there would be ill-advised.

The family relied on a GPS device to tell them where to go, instead of maps or other park information. But the GPS led them astray. GPS's are great devices and a useful tool, but as with anything else, you have to know how to use them and the data. In this case, they didn’t correctly interpret the data the GPS was giving them.

Not only did they overly rely on a GPS, they also relied on a cell phone to summon help. The unfortunate truth is that many parts of the Rocky Mountains and the southwest have little or no cell phone service. An outdoor rule-of-thumb: Your cell phone will likely not work when you need it the most. When venturing out, especially into territory you may not be familiar with, tell someone where you're going and when they can expect to hear from you. Technology-wise, consider buying a personal locator beacon (PLB) that can signal for help, even when there is no cell phone coverage.

Once stranded, not only did the Kleins venture away from the shelter of their car, they split up. Search and rescue experts advise not to do either. STAY PUT. If you don't, not only are you more likely to become a victim of the elements, but you'll be harder to find in the vast wilderness. When you split up, more rescuers are needed, since more than one search has to be conducted.

The over-arching lesson here is to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. Whether in a car or on foot, make sure you have food, water and clothing, and have blankets in your car. Don't leave without a full tank of fuel, both for you and your car. Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back, and research your destination and the route there. Otherwise, we may reading about your near-death experience in the news, if not worse.

For more information on winter survival, see this earlier blog.

Speaking of National Parks, all National Park Service sites have FREE admission on Monday, January 16th for Martin Luther King Jr. birthday.

And finally, the US Forest Service has announced that Forest Service road 383, which leads to the popular Crags and Devils Playground trails will close Tuesday January 17th for tree-removal and other work. There will be no access to those trails, possibly until April.

Happy (safe) Trails!

Bob Falcone is a retired firefighter, photographer, hiker, college instructor, business owner and author of Hiking Bob's Tips, Tricks and Trails, available via his website. He has lived in Colorado Springs for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter (@hikingbob), Facebook (Hiking Bob), Instagram (@HikingBob_CO) or visit his website (Hikingbob.com). E-mail questions, comments, suggestions, etc to Bob: info@hikingbob.com.


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