On Thursday, July 8th, 2007, 24 year old Margaret Bradley, of Chicago, and a running partner set off on a 27 mile run. It wasn’t her typical run – it was along the Tonto Trail about 3000 ft. below the southrim of the Grand Canyon. She had planned the run and found a local runner to hit the trail with her – just a quick down and up. They picked a less traveled trail – the Tonto Trail that skirted the Colorado River on a plateau about 1000 ft. above the river’s edge. They left the Grandview Trailhead (elev. 7000 ft.) 4 hours after sunrise. The temperatures at the bottom of the canyon reached 105 degrees (F) on July 8th.
2 weeks ago I, too ,was in the Grand Canyon with some fellow runners and had the pleasure of running some to the same trails that Margaret had planned to run. In March the temperatures were 30 degrees at the rim overnight, but 95 degrees on the river during the day. Her route was very ambitious and was along a very exposed route. We ran a similar distance in just over 6 hours with water resupply at the bottom of the canyon and at the Indian Gardens on the way out on the Bright Angel Trail.
Margaret, however, never made it out of the canyon. When Search and Rescue found her on July 10th, 2007, she was alone, curled up in the fetal position on a ledge 500 ft. above the river – her pack underneath her head as a pillow. The official cause of death was listed as accidental “dehydration due to environmental heat exposure.”
So, why did she die? Why did this have to happen?
Margaret was a 3:04 finisher of the Boston Marathon and was, by all accounts, very bright – she held degrees in Biology and Earth Sciences and was attending medical school. For all of her athletic prowess and her obvious intelligence – she was not smart.
Margaret succumbed to what I call the Disneyland Effect. In our everyday lives, there is always a way out. At Disneyland, you can experience the “thrill” of the edge without the risk. You can soar through the air, race at breakneck speeds and generally jazz up your adrenaline on any number of roller coasters. You know that if it gets too scary, the ride will stop and you can get off. If you get stuck, you can call someone on your cell phone. If you get lost, just look for a friendly face and ask for directions. Life is simple.
Once people get on the trail, however, and wander into the wilderness, they often fail to make the paradigm shift necessary to avoid trouble and – in many cases – survive. At the Grand Canyon, 2-4 people each year fall off the rim hundreds of feet to their death – often while backing up to take a picture! Each year they air lift hundreds of people out of the canyon due to dehydration, hyperhydration and general lack of fitness!
We could spend hours analyzing and debating the cascade of events that lead to Margaret Bradley’s death, but, as endurance runners and ultramarathoners who often find ourselves in such environments, there are a few lessons learned that we should all take to heart.
Know the environment – stupid mistakes will kill you no matter how fast and smart you are: Margaret and her partner had no maps, an inadequate supply of water and left late in the day – exposing them to extreme temperatures. Chicago has an elevation of about 580 ft. The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is over 7000 ft. while the Tonto Trail is at 3500 ft. Temperatures in the GCreached between 105 and 120 degrees (F) while the average temperature in Chicago in July is about 85 (F). Had they spent $8.00 on a map or obtained a free map from the Ranger Station, she would have realized that this trail was a desolate, water free, exposed route. Park service maps specifically state that there is no water on the trail and that hiking in the summer is not recommended. Margaret left with l.5 liters and her partner had 4 liters (~ 1 gallon/ 4 quarts). At these elevations and temperatures, they could have easily lost 1-3 liters per hour. To properly hydrate, they would have needed to replace + 1 liter of fluids + electrolytes every hour. Even at her “Boston” pace, Margaret would have needed at least 2x the amount she took – ideally she should have had at least 2 gallons of water. A better choice would have been to look at the map, change the plan and pick a route that had water resupply marked and available. This is something that the Park Rangers would have gladly steered them toward.
Prepare for 24 hours: Margaret and her companion left the trailhead “dangerously light” not accounting for any problems along the way. Dehydration, hyperthermia and exertion have a notorious way of slowing down your movement and changing plans, despite your best efforts. Water is heavy – 1 liter weighs about 2 pounds – 2 gallons would mean about 16 pounds of water. Along with water, you should take enough food and clothing to survive in your environment for 24 hours. Always ask the question “What if….?” – remember, you might be OK, but your partner – or someone else on the trail might get hurt, eat some bad food, become hydrated…. you get the picture. There are many resources available about what you should bring – and that may be the topic of another article.
Stand together or fall apart: By 3:00pm Margaret and her partner were out of water. They were 12 miles into their run with 15 miles to go. Margaret – a tough minded runner and the stronger of the 2 – decided to leave her partner and continue down the trail for help at a watering point & ranger station known as the Phantom Ranch. Her companion stayed put until morning, at which point, he mustered his strength in the cool air and made it to a more populated trail where he ran into a park service employee with a sat phone who got him water – it was Friday morning at 7:00 am, about 21 hours after the run had started. They hiked out of the canyon. He assumed she had made it to the Phantom Ranch, left a message for her about her car and then went home. He did not let anyone know that he was a runner or that he had a partner who was still unaccounted for – a point for another full line of discussion to be sure. Had they stuck together, they would have been able to conserve their energy, offer moral support and both make it out alive. In the face of the confusion and poor decision making that is inherent with dehydration and other forms of exposure the one clear decision that must be made is to stick together.
Why your parents were waiting up for you: Before you went out your parents always asked where you were going and when you would be home. This is just good practice. If Margaret had checked in with the Rangers, left a note with her parents or friends, the outcome could have been dramatically different. She also did not make a contingency plan – “What if we get separated?”. When Margaret did not make it to Flagstaff on Friday evening, her parents reported her missing. The search began in earnest Saturday morning and she was found within hours. The medical examiner determined she had been dead for 12-24 hours. Her partner had met up with help 31 hours earlier. Had there been a plan, had someone been looking for her this would have been a story about another near miss rather than a tragic death.
Patience -stay put or stay on the trail: This is an easy statement to make but hard to stick to. IF she had a map. IF she knew where she was. IF someone had known the itinerary. IF …. she had only been prepared. After Bradley left her partner, she trudged forward the way we all do on long runs. At some point desperation set in, she left the trail, made her way down a draw, over 2 20ft. dry waterfalls and was finally stopped at the edge of a 50 ft. cliff where she was later found. She was less than 1 mile from a major trail juncture where hundreds of people – including her partner – would have come into contact with her. Had she merely stopped and stayed put. Rested. Regrouped.
Don’t be afraid to turn back: This is probably the hardest for us to do. As runners we always move forward. As Ultrarunners we don’t quit. As survivalists, we sometimes need to reassess our plans. We have seen nature up close and it is inherent upon us to each realize that sometimes we need to humble ourselves in the face of what she can dish out. When we travel all the way to do a grand and majestic run it is easy to get caught up in the moment. That being said, it all comes back to the plan and the contingency plan. Looking at the weather, giving a true assessment of our own abilities and conditioning, asking the experts for their opinion, doing your research and respecting the trail – all fundementals that cannot be ignored.
In the end, it was a cascade of mistakes by Margaret and by her partner that lead to her death. Whether it was arrogance or ignorance is still to be debated. What is not debatable is that her death was unneccessary and avoidable.
So, the next time you hit the trail, be prepared. The more you know, the better off you’ll be. When you go off the beaten path, remember that Mickey Mouse won’t be waiting with a coke and pizza around the next corner – and if he is, you need to stop and drink more water… you’re starting to halucinate.
“Nothing Great is Easy” – Matt
Matt Nelson is an endurance runner based out of West Palm Beach, Florida. He has run numerous ultramarathons, stage races and expedition adventure races around the world. In December 2008 he completed a 250 mile, 5 day solo run from Marco Island, FL, across the Everglades to Key Largo and then south to Key West to raise money for Pediatric Brain Tumor Research. He is the founder of The Endurance Trust, Inc. a non-profit organization that helps Endurance Athletes and raises funds and awareness of Pediatric Brain Tumors. Matt was also an Officer and a Survival Instructor for the US Marine Corps.