What should the National Park Service do, if anything, with Angel's Landing in Zion National Park?
This question arises every time there's a fatality, and rightly so. The recent death of Barry Goldstein has rekindled the debate, with at least one reader believing the Park Service should, in essence, certify the ability of hikers determined to reach the landing.
Is that reasonable? Does the Park Service have the manpower to station someone at the base of the landing to bear that responsibility? Would it not merely heighten the Park Service's liability for those who are deemed experienced enough to make the hike to the top?
And if the Park Service agreed to such a proposition, which I doubt will ever happen, what of other parks and the risks they present? How do you guard against canoeists, kayakers and rafters drowning while on park outings? What about those who are swept away by avalanches, who are attacked by grizzlies, die from the heat at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, or fall from Half Dome in Yosemite?
What responsibility does the Park Service have to try to prevent these accidents? Just as important, if not more so, what responsibility do individuals bear?
We live in a dangerous world, one where we have to recognize not only the dangers that exist, but our own limits. And those who visit national parks need to appreciate that these are not city parks, not well-manicured and contained. National parks present a host of dangers, ranging from cliffs and rivers to wildlife and even other park visitors.
This is not intended to belittle or minimize the loss felt by Mr. Goldstein's family and friends, or the families and friends of other victims of national park accidents. It's not to question their actions, capabilities, or decision-making. The pain of their untimely deaths cannot be soothed, there is no salve that can erase it.
Rather, this post is simply to acknowledge that there are dangers that exist, both in national parks and beyond their borders, throughout the world we live in, and that we need to accept both the responsibility of our decisions and that accidents do happen.
Might those who fell from Angel's Landing over the years been saved had they had to meet specific qualifications to ascend to the summit or if the Park Service put railings atop the landing to keep hikers a safe distance from the edge? Perhaps. But incredibly qualified climbers have died in accidents in the parks, and folks have clambered over railings, trusting their own judgments, only to die in accidents.
Beyond that, do we really want to sanitize the parks?
I don't think I'm alone in believing that a good part of the allure of places such as Zion, Yellowstone, Yosemite, North Cascades, Mount Rainier and Grand Teton, just to name a half-dozen parks, is their ruggedness, their wildness, of entering them on our own terms and seeing how we match up.
It scared the hell out of me the first time I went up Angel's Landing, when I climbed to the top of the Grand Teton, and to the summit of Half Dome. That adrenalin rush not only heightened my cautiousness, but it also let me know how alive I was. When my time does arrive, I hope it comes in a national park and not while driving down the highway or crossing the street.