Over The Edge – feature for the New Zealand Herald

With a yawning hole nearly 2km deep at his feet, Mark Meredith looks — very gingerly — into the abyss in Arizona.

“The Grand Canyon wants to kill you,” a park ranger told Lonely Planet’s guide to America’s second most visited National Park. 

I discovered that there are plenty of people who want to do their best to help the canyon deliver on its wish. 

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I found visitors, who may otherwise be quite sensible, had abandoned all rationality and decided that the perfectly adequate viewpoint overlooks thoughtfully provided by the US National Parks Service were, well, plain inadequate.

They climbed over railings, or left the well-made rim trails, to clamber over rocks and boulders to stand or sit, legs dangling, on a finger of granite above a sheer drop thousands of feet to the canyon floor. 

Not for them the security of a sturdy bench or ledge safely on the rim path to picnic and admire the awe-inspiring spectacle spread before them. No, they had to take their sandwiches to the very edge, to watch their crumbs spiralling into the abyss.

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What is it about the Grand Canyon that induces such behaviour? I put it down to sheer overexcitement and altitude sickness. At 7,000ft at the South Rim and 8,000ft at the North Rim, the body and brain receives less than three quarters of its normal oxygen intake. This might explain a lot.

Certainly, your first glimpse of the canyon’s immensity is a heart-stopping moment and has you wanting to edge that bit closer to the edge just to see that bit better what lies directly beneath you. It’s hard to resist. I found myself treading very gingerly, inching forward, but far enough away from the precipice to stop my wife having heart failure.

Unfortunately, says Lonely Planet, adults and children have plummeted to their deaths engaged in “the most mundane activities”. But climbing over a guard rail on a precipitous drop with your very young child to take a selfie with your Go Pro camera on a stick, as I witnessed at Roosevelt Point on the North Rim, I would not categorise as “mundane”, but insane.

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In their 2012 book, Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, Tom Myers and Michael Ghiglieri detail 685 deaths over the years. Being male, and young, seems to hold the greatest risk. Of 55 who have accidentally fallen from the rim of the canyon, 39 were male. Eight of them were hopping from one rock to another or posing for pictures.

Deaths at the Grand Canyon this year are already above the annual average of 12, according to the Washington Post. By July 18 people had died, including three on river trips, two who fell over the rim, one in a car accident and several others from natural causes or medical conditions.

On the amazing Bright Angel Point trail on the North Rim – a narrow paved walkway with drop-offs on either side, where the edges are crumbling rock and sand – I found a collective lemming-style death wish taking place. Sunset was approaching and people were leaving the trail to take up suicidal positions to enjoy it. 

Fathers hauled tiny children up boulders high above the trail; a photographer ventured onto a horribly narrow, sheer promontory while the wind gusted, and I thought he would be blown off; and a young couple looked to have decided to end their lives together on holiday, 8,000ft above Bright Angel Canyon on a vertiginous outcrop.

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The tragedy of how a vacation here could go bad was vividly brought home to me one night. I was photographing the Milky Way above Grand Canyon Lodge when a light began moving towards me through the darkness further down the track. The torch belonged to a park ranger. He asked if I had seen a 15-year-old boy whose parents had reported him missing. That night I lay in my cabin and thought of the boy’s parents and the crazy behaviour I’d witnessed during our visit.

The thing about the Grand Canyon is that there is no need to take risks. The park is extremely well managed and there are miles of safe rim tracks and trails into the canyon to enjoy – you are advised against trying to hike down to the bottom and back in one day, dehydration and heat exhaustion being the biggest overall killers.

Most of the paths along the rims do not have guard rails. These are found at overlooks where the drop is sheer such as at Mather Point on the South Rim. But even here I photographed some pretty rash behaviour. 

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CHECKLIST

Which Rim?

Fortunately the Grand Canyon is big enough for you to escape people and their foolishness. But at the South Rim in summer, unless you wander off the beaten track or get up very early, it is almost impossible to escape the crowds. About 4.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon every year and 90% of them go to the South Rim. However, the South Rim has the best and most spectacular views, is more accessible, and is open all year.

The North Rim has the best vibe and just 10% of the visitors. The only accommodation is at beautiful Grand Canyon Lodge which is only open from May to October. With a higher elevation and a cooler climate, it has montane forest of aspen and ponderosa pine. You can also see bison.

Sunset at Lipan Point
Sunset at Lipan Point

Accommodation 

South Rim: All accommodation inside the park is managed by Xanterra Parks & Resorts: www.xanterra.com. There is a choice of three campgrounds, or seven hotels or lodges (with motel-style rooms) ranging from the historic El Tovar Hotel on the rim, to Yavapai and Maswick Lodges set further back in the woods.

North Rim: Grand Canyon Lodge: www.foreverresorts.com.  The Lodge sits right on the rim with huge floor-to-ceiling windows and outside verandas to sit and drink in the view. Accommodation is in log cabins and motel-style units in the woods. There is also a campground.

IMG_3564Grand Canyon Lodge, North Rim

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