Monday, August 29, 2016

Book Review 372: Over the Edge

OVER THE EDGE: Death in Grand Canyon, by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers. 586 pages. Puma paperback, $24.95

Chuck Jones wouldn’t have subjected even Wile E. Coyote to what Californian John Presley did to himself in 1968: while hiking a rough trail Presley slipped on loose gravel and, instead of just plotzing, ran out of the slip. He kept upright but could not stop as he approached the edge of a cliff.

At the last moment he wrapped his arms round a barrel cactus but it pulled out by the roots and both fell 50 feet. Presley died.

This seems to be more a case of hard luck than the rank stupidity and carelessness that characterize most of the 700 or so deaths of visitors to what Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers, both experienced hikers and rescuers, call the most unforgiving place on earth.

That seems excessive. Actually, the toll over a century, while high, is not enormous, and over half the deaths came in crashes of helicopters and planes, including a 1956 collision of two airliners that was the worst peacetime civil aviation disaster to that date.

Despite spectacular opportunities, people fall or jump off the rim to their deaths only about once a year. Falls from below the rim, plus deaths from heart attacks in out-of-shape middle-aged men about double that toll.

Drownings are somewhat more common. Still, the body count doesn’t come close to what Hawaii enjoys.

Some things that might seem dangerous have so far failed to kill any visitors: animals and poisonous plants or running the rapids of the Colorado on commercial oared rowboats.  (Rafts and private trips have been more dangerous.)

Lee Whittlesey inaugurated the morbid book about deaths in our western parks with “Death in Yellowstone.” There are more ways to die in Yellowstone than in Grand Canyon (but not nearly as many as in Hawaii), and Whittlesey’s book is still the best of the genre. “Over the Edge,” while admirably complete, suffers from Ghiglieri’s purple prose and a somewhat phony public service justification.

Nobody really reads these books for deep insight into safety considerations. Walking into the desert without water is not a topic that requires deep reflection to avoid. Likewise, stepping over safety barriers to teeter on the edge of a cliff in order to get a dramatic photograph does not require 500 pages of explication in order to discern the risk.

(I never reviewed Whittlesey's book, but I did write about it in the context of deaths at Haleakala National Park.)

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