On Sunday May 19th, the dining room at Grand Canyon’s venerable North Rim Lodge took on the appearance of a disaster shelter.
An unseasonable winter storm caught hikers unprepared, and went on to knock out the North Rim’s heat and electricity for many hours.
Visitors huddled indoors at the main lodge for warmth and companionship, rather than retiring to their cold and dark cabins.
Quick efforts by the lodge’s staff revived at least a dozen Rim to Rim hikers from the throes of deadly hypothermia.
After the power outage hit, the staff first had to feed and shelter several bus tours of reservation holders who were rightfully expecting full accommodations. On top of this, the crew did an amazing job of caring for the hypothermia-stricken hikers and runners.
The staff was quick to recognize the emergency as freezing hikers steadily began to trickle in. Wet clothes were stripped in a makeshift corner of the dining room – sports bras and all in some cases. It was done with consent for those too cold to even remove their own clothing.
They were revived with hot water, donned in the staff’s personal jackets, wrapped in tablecloths, given beanies off the shelves of the gift shop, and even warmed with body heat. “Is it okay if I cuddle with you sir?”
The North Rim’s professional emergency personnel had their hands full elsewhere. Numerous vehicles were stuck on the road that exits the park, and medical personnel were called out to assist with a helicopter rescue at the South Rim. Rangers were able to check in intermittently and later expressed much gratitude for the quick work of the hospitality staff.
A northbound Rim to Rim hike ends at the Kaibab trailhead, where hikers are often discouraged to find it necessary to trek almost two additional miles to the lodge.
This is where snow and wind conditions were worst on the 19th, so a bartender with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle took it upon himself to wait at the trailhead and shuttle hikers to safety on a treacherous road that hadn’t yet been plowed. Similar acts of voluntary assistance took place throughout the evening.
Open seasonally from May 15th through October 15th, the North Rim is an outpost of basic development in Grand Canyon National Park. Only 10% of total visitors see the Canyon from this side, due to less accessibility and fewer accommodations. Despite its more remote location, the availability of modern plumbing and electricity is often taken for granted.
Perched at 8,000 feet above sea level on the Kaibab Plateau, the lodge sees weather conditions that are unbecoming of greater Arizona. Amid pine forest and flanked by sun-blasted desert on all sides, it’s no wonder that seasonal residents refer to the North Rim as “The Mountain.”
Electricity on the mountain has always been a touchy commodity. When the power goes out and guests ask “Does this happen often?” the reply is usually a variation of “As often as the wind blows.”
The storm event on May 19th was the 2nd time the lodge lost power in its first week of the centennial 2019 season. Opening day, May 15th, was windy and heralded the year’s first power outage (technically the first outage with the general public on property – winter caretakers have their own unique mess of conditions to deal with).
The initial outage on the 15th fried the facility’s primary backup generator, which would complicate things later on the 19th.
The later storm fell on the first weekend that facilities were open – consequently some of the busiest days of the year for Grand Canyon’s popular “Rim to Rim” hike.
Recognized as one of the best hikes in the National Park system for its scenic beauty, the manageable distance of 20+ miles with heavy elevation change in a unique environment has drawn more attention from endurance athletes and the ultra marathon community at large.
For several years the Park has talked of requiring a new permit for the Rim to Rim day-hike, but hasn’t been able to move forward due to a lack of funding in finalizing a new Backcountry Management Plan. The pressing need for a new, expensive pipeline to provide water to the South Rim from the depths of the Canyon has pushed this and other projects to the back burner.
For now, exhausting day hikes across the Canyon still go largely unregulated.
Now that the cold night is over and power is restored (for now), it comes time to ask what went right and what went wrong. It’s clear what went right – individuals volunteering personal time and resources to help others in a difficult situation.
So what went wrong?
Providing reliable electricity to the North Rim has been a tenuous project since its inception. The majority of staff works for an outside concessionaire, which is ultimately at the mercy of the National Park Service.
The NPS, in turn, has especially struggled in recent years with a lack of appropriate funding, skyrocketing visitation, and conflicting values in their mission statement to protect the resource yet to provide for the enjoyment of the public. We as taxpayers carry an increasing burden of failing to inspire our elected lawmakers to provide appropriate funding and a proper vision for our parks.
The primary responsibility falls on each individual who ventures into the Canyon. Granted, the majority of hiker mishaps in Death in Grand Canyon cite heat stroke (the opposite of hypothermia), and this particular case featured an unseasonable winter storm.
Most Rim to Rim groups are organized by a self-appointed expert who’s done it (and got the t-shirt?) before. A May 19th Rim to Rim hike on any year in the last decade would have required little more than a light rain jacket, so it’s easy to imagine how an experienced r2r leader could have given poor advice in this case.
However, a simple inquiry into the weather report before embarking from the South Rim (or even from the Canyon’s depths at Phantom Ranch) would have revealed the expected conditions at the North Rim.
One can argue that hiking forward into increasingly hostile conditions is a bad idea, and that these folks should have turned around.
They may reply that moving forward to a safe haven (with assumed heat and electricity) was a better option than turning around, which would further involve going off schedule, leaving the goal unfinished, staggering into fewer accommodations at a backcountry site without a camping permit, and risking the harsh judgement of rangers at the bottom of the Canyon… who have seen this sort of thing far too often.
Another individual may reply that walking yourself into such a state that you’re incapable of undressing yourself is not the direct result of an electrical problem… and the debate goes on.
Sooner or later, all of us who venture deep into the outdoors have to learn our lessons somehow, and fortunately in this case it seems that everyone came out okay in the end.