No doubt, Dean Potter was not your normal national park-goer doing normal stuff.
The 43-year-old extreme athlete’s talent for scaling the world’s sheerest rock faces or leaping in a webbed wingsuit from mountain peaks had long ago secured his status as a rock-climbing and BASE-jumping legend. His death May 16 inside Yosemite National Park, where he and a friend were killed, naturally captured international headlines.
But odds are you might not have heard of other wild things that happened this month in the wilderness of America’s national parks:
May 17: A day after Potter’s death, four ski mountaineers were climbing in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming when an avalanche struck. One died; another suffered life-threatening injuries.
May 15: A bison gored a 16-year-old Taiwanese girl at Yellowstone National Park. She was treated at a hospital.
May 10: Rangers in Yellowstone National Park saved a 71-year-old New Yorker after he stumbled backward over a stone wall while trying to take a picture. He fell into a crevice but managed to stop himself after tumbling 25 feet. He used his legs to brace his body against the wall. If he hadn’t halted, he would have fallen 200 more feet.
Visitors called 911. Rangers threw him a looped rope and affixed the other end to a tree and sign at the top of the canyon. Harnesses, ropes, pulleys and a descending ranger saved the man’s life.
“As they say,” said Ken Phillips, branch chief of search and rescue for the National Park Service, “you can’t make this stuff up.”
He offers a caution to the millions of tourists who, as of this Memorial Day weekend, are planning or setting off on summer vacation trips to one or more of the nation’s 59 national parks:
Be careful. Extreme behaviors like Potter’s may create headlines, but it is routine behaviors inside the parks’ extreme environs that cause the most trouble.
“We obviously see it,” Phillips said of extreme sports injuries or deaths like Potter’s. But “that is a very small fraction of our annual call volume.”
Some of what the National Park Service handles more routinely can be viewed daily online, recorded as “incidents” in the park service’s Morning Report.
May 9 in Death Valley National Park: Temperatures in the California desert can reach 120 degrees. Rangers got word that a white pickup had been parked for several days at the remote Saline Valley Sand Dunes. Rangers, county rescue teams and a California Highway Patrol helicopter began searching. It took two days. Finally, the helicopter spotted the man 5 miles from his truck, huddled with a pack of burros at a desert watering hole.
The man had gone out for a day walk — seven days earlier. He became disoriented and followed the burros to the water, where he subsisted until help arrived.
“There’s tragic things that can happen every year,” said Brandon Torres, the branch chief for emergency services at the Grand Canyon National Park.
Overzealous and unprepared hikers sometimes think they can walk through the Grand Canyon. Then they get into trouble.
“They’re on vacation brain,” Torres said.
But the events also need to be put into perspective.
Beyond its 59 national parks, the National Park Service is in charge of more than 300 other sites that include memorials, monuments, reserves, rivers, scenic routes, trails and battlefields such as Gettysburg.
Annual visitors top more than 290 million, just 30 million shy of the entire population of the United States, making it a statistical certainty that serious drama will unfold.
Some of it is criminal: Last year, the park service recorded 15 murders, 47 rapes or attempted rapes, 115 other sex offenses, five cases of kidnapping and 358 assaults, along with more than 3,000 thefts and 5,100 cases of drug abuse.
The service also counted 44 attempted suicides last year, 19 of which ended in death.
On May 9, rangers at Grand Canyon National park in Arizona spent three hours talking a suicidal visitor off a ledge.
“It’s something we deal with,” said National Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson. “Some people want to take their lives in beautiful places.”
Compared with the number of visitors, the odds of people finding themselves in enough trouble to need rescuing is miniscule. The National Park Service reported 2,658 search and rescue incidents inside all its sites in 2014.
Some were major. The report recorded 164 deaths, including heart attacks and dehydration as well as drownings and fatal falls.
The Parks Service spends an average of $5 million annually on search and rescue. Incidents are particular to the terrain of each park. Frequently, the biggest dangers are the usual rather than the unusual.
At the Everglades National Park, at the tip of Florida, one might assume problems from alligators.
“There have been no reported incidences with visitors,” said Mary Plumb, the park’s public affairs specialist. “People are smart. They stay away from alligators and crocodiles.”
The biggest problem is boating. Air boats and other motorized boats are not allowed in the national park. But canoes, kayaks and other non-motorized boats are. Part of the park includes the sea waters at the tip of Florida, with their formidable tides.
“We did have a search and rescue this year where two gentlemen were in a canoe …,” Plumb said. “They overturned. One of the gentlemen was able to make it to an island.”
The other didn’t.
Still, of some 3,400 individuals involved last year in search and rescues, most suffered no injuries or illnesses. Some were lost visitors who needed to be guided to the right path, or lost children.
A third of the rescues did involve illness or injuries, but many of those also were minor, like twisted ankles or turned knees.
In its annual report, the National Park Service lists the 39 activities people were engaging in when they required search and rescue, including boating, caving, cliff diving and roped mountaineering.
The category that came in first hardly involved daredevil antics: day hiking, at 42 percent, followed by overnight hiking, 13 percent.
“What gets people more often than not,” said Torres of the Grand Canyon, “is just simple underestimating how difficult a hike is going to be.”
So people don’t take the right shoes, causing them to trip or fall. Or they fail to bring water, or they overdress, or overestimate their physical capabilities. The hike between the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon is 25 miles.
“They’re not really thinking about what they’re walking into,” Torres said.
That’s too often the case, even on shorter excursions.
“I’ve seen people down the trail in full motorcycle leather with their helmets in their hands,” he said. “They’re 3 miles down the trail. It’s 95 degrees, and they’re not even thinking of the fact: ‘Oh, my gosh. It’s really hot now. I have to go back up.’”
When people are ill-prepared, he said, is exactly when the routine becomes extreme.
59 national parks, plus more than 300 other sites, under National Park Service control
290 million visitors each year
2,658 search and rescue incidents, involving some 3,400 people, in 2014
164 deaths in 2014