When someone sprains an ankle, suffers from heat exhaustion or is lost, the Grand Canyon National Park search-and-rescue team loads up their backpacks and hits the trail to help.
In 2018, it responded to 265 incidents—that’s more than three calls per day, especially because the majority of the incidents occur May through September. The total number of EMS Incidents that year was 1,054.
While most of us don't think anything will go wrong on vacation, one minor mishap can doom an outing in Grand Canyon’s unforgiving desert environment. We sat down with Meghan Smith and Brandon Torres, two of the park’s search and rescuers, to find out why tourists get hurt, how to stay safe and their favorite happy-ending stories. In fall 2019, Torres left Grand Canyon to take a position as chief ranger at North Cascades National Park, but his experiences in the canyon are as relevant as ever.
What do you like about working as a search-and-rescuer in the Grand Canyon?
Brandon: I am search and rescue coordinator for the park and chief of emergency services. It’s a pretty awesome job in that it allows me to be in the field and be active. I’m young enough that my body still allows me to do missions because you can have really heavy loads to carry equipment and gear to people who need help.
Heat is a big issue that can be life-threatening. What else should travelers be aware of?
Meghan: One of the things that’s not talked about is acclimatizing to the altitude. The South Rim rests at 6,800 feet to 7,400 feet.
Brandon: A lot of our rescues are day hikers, so they are underestimating the heat and that we are at 7,000 feet. You start by hiking down into the canyon, so it’s not the warm-up for your muscles and legs like other parks. It’s easy to hike downhill, so you are not experiencing the difficulty people face going back up.
What is your busiest season for emergency calls?
Brandon: Summer. It’s also when we have the most visitors. In the summer, your safety margin is so much smaller than say in our recommended hiking seasons of spring, fall and winter. If any little thing goes wrong like your nipple falling off your Camelbak and you lose unplanned water, that’s going to completely change your experience from being well-prepared to being vulnerable. It may be time to end that trip.
And if you don’t stop, what dangers are you exposing yourself to?
Meghan: Even if you understand the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses in yourself or your companions, it happens so fast. People will tell me,” I kept checking on her and she kept saying she was fine, fine, fine. And then she wasn’t.” It happens so fast. All the training and fitness people acquired at home do not always translate here.
What should people do as soon as things don’t go according to plan?
Meghan: If you have a plan to leave early, for instance, but something happens and you get to the trail much later, you need to rethink your original plan and say, "Today is not the day.” There are a lot of things driving you forward into worse situations.
Brandon: Making a decision to turn back, especially in a group situation, is tough, but the Grand Canyon is wilderness travel and you are entering an environment that is unforgiving, even in May. We can really see hot days in May and September and that’s unexpected. So, you need to change your mindset.
What are the happy stories you can share?
Meghan: I think there are a number of individual cases that stick out in my mind, but if in each case that individual returns, decides it’s not the Grand Canyon’s fault that they or a family member suffered a tragedy and celebrates this resource, that’s a win every time.
Brandon: I find a joy in folks who have decided they are going to make it, even when they are feeling miserable. If you can empower folks to help in their rescue, it’s personally really satisfying.
By the Numbers
Search and Rescue in 2018
Number of search and rescue incidents in 2018
Fatalities in 2018
Highest temperature recorded at Phantom Ranch (multiple days)
Lowest temperature recorded along the North Rim (Feb. 1, 1985
Number of degrees the temperature increases with every 1,000 feet you descend into the canyon
Search and Rescue Incidents by the Month
South Rim (lodges, roads, rim trail and public buildings)
Bright Angel Trail
South Kaibab Trail
North Kaibab Trail
River from Lees Ferry to Lake Mead
Top 7 Types of Injuries
Musculoskeletal Injuries (Head and ankle injuries were the most common.)
Cardiac Chest Pain
Age of Patients