It's been a tough week or so for hikers, mule riders and rescue teams at Grand Canyon National Park. During a 6-day span, a hiker fell off a trail and a rider was injured in an accident on a mule trip. Both required rescue via a park helicopter.
On April 28, 2009, a 47 year-old Ohio man headed down the Grandview Trail, just east of the park's South Rim Village. His intended destination was Cottonwood Creek, a backcountry camping area below the South Rim. According to a park report, at about 3:20 p.m.
The man and his hiking companions were several hundred feet down the trail when he stopped to peer over the edge and lost his balance.
A visitor at the Grandview Trailhead heard calls for help and called Grand Canyon Regional Communications Center. Park rangers responded and found the man lying injured on the trail.
Because of the steep terrain and difficult switchbacks, and for the safety of the patient, rangers called for the park helicopter and extricated the man using a short-haul operation. The procedure normally involves a rescuer on a fixed line, extended below a helicopter that is flown into the rescue site. The rescuer then attaches the patient, via a Bauman bag, and flies with them to a safe location – in this case, the parking lot at Grandview Overlook.
Once at the parking lot the patient was stabilized and transported by ground ambulance to the South Rim Helibase. From there he was transported by Classic Life Guard to the Flagstaff Medical Center to be treated for life-threatening injuries.
Approximately 20 people from the National Park Service were involved in the rescue. Personnel from the park’s emergency services, interpretation, wildland fire and aviation, and law enforcement divisions, and park volunteers all responded to the accident scene and provided assistance.
On May 4, 2009, a 66-year-old woman was injured on May 4, 2009, when the mule she was riding lost its footing, fell, and then rolled over the woman.
At approximately 9:00 a.m. the park's Dispatch Center received a radio call from a mule wrangler about the incident. According to a park report,
The accident occurred approximately 2 ½ miles below the rim on the Bright Angel Trail. The mule and its passenger were part of two concessioner mule strings that were en route to Phantom Ranch for an overnight stay. The mule concession is operated by Xanterra South Rim, LLC.
Two National Park Service paramedics were flown to the accident scene and stabilized the patient before extricating her using a short-haul operation—the same technique used in the hiker's rescue. In this case, the victim was flown to the South Rim Helibase, and then transferred to the Flagstaff Medical Center by Classic Life Guard.
Approximately 12 people from the National Park Service were involved in the rescue operation. They were assisted by Xanterra mule wranglers and visitors on the trail.
During helicopter operations, the Bright Angel Trail was closed for approximately 1 hour.
Information on the extent of the woman's injuries was not available from the park or the hospital.
Providers and fans of the mule trips point out that accidents involving those trips are extremely rare. According to the 2001 edition of the book, Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers,
the mule skinners running tourists down the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch hold an apparently perfect record: No client among the half million or so taken has been killed while riding a mule.
Ghiglieri and Myers report that the only fatal accident involving a mule train at the park occurred on Bright Angel Trail in 1951, and it involved a mule skinner for the former concessioner, the Fred Harvey Company, not a visitor.
Michael F. Anderson's Polishing the Jewel: An Administrative History of Grand Canyon National Park notes that mule rides into the canyon predate the establishment of the park in 1919. In the 1880s John Hance ... "improved a Havasupai trail to the Tonto Platform, and launched a small tourist venture, offering tents beside his cabin, simple meals, and mule trips."
Today's concessioner-operated trips trace their roots to operations of the Fred Harvey company in the early 1900's. Mona Mesereau, a spokesperson for Xanterra, says that nearly one million riders have made the trip, and that up to 40 people per day now ride mules into the canyon.
By contrast, in 2008 the park reported 87,981 overnight hiking trips on park trails, along with a small army of hikers who made shorter day trips. That's a lot of people on the trail in some rugged terrain. Both hikers and mule riders should be thankful for the availability of those helicopters for the small percentage of cases when something does go awry, and for rescuers trained to perform those tricky short-haul operations. The alternative—a long and grueling carryout by litter—is hard on both victims and rescue team members, and still must be used at times when weather, darkness or other factors means a helicopter isn't available.