Abnormal weather linked to more recreation deaths
High Country News
On Aug. 22, Rebecca Anderson, Tyler Strandberg, and Catherine Nix — all in their late 20s — set out to hike Teewinot Mountain in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.
Only Anderson made it back alive. They were climbing Teewinot’s east face, the standard (and easiest) route up the 12,326-foot mountain. It’s an exposed scramble on steep terrain but not a technical rock climb, and, like most parties, the women were not carrying a rope. Rangers found the bodies of Strandberg and Nix after Anderson called for help. Her two partners had apparently died after falling 200 feet. The hikers were well off the East Face route in far more difficult terrain when the accident occurred.
Summer is almost always the high season for outdoor recreation-related deaths. And, while climbing unroped is one of the most common ways to die, abnormal weather in recent months has made playing outside more dangerous than usual in several outdoors spots across the West. From Arizona to Colorado to Oregon, higher temperatures, more lightning and less rain have contributed to this summer’s death toll.
Climatologists attribute the weird weather to a “warm blob” in the Pacific Ocean, sprawling along the North American coast between Mexico and Alaska. The blob is around 2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit above average.
In separate incidents in July, two female hikers died outside Phoenix and a 63-year-old and his grandson perished while hiking in the Sonoran Desert National Monument. Heat, say officials, played a big part in all four deaths. In the Grand Canyon, scorching temperatures also played a role in the deaths of several hikers in June including a 36-year-old Japanese tourist and a 17-year-old boy. The Japanese man was making his way out from the bottom of the canyon along the popular Bright Angel Trail amid temperatures that exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenheit. That brings the total number of heat-related deaths in the Grand Canyon this summer to three. That’s on the high end of normal, says Christian Malcolm, who leads the Preventive Search and Rescue program at Grand Canyon National Park, but much lower than last year’s record-setting 25 fatalities.
On July 17, Kathleen Bartlett, a 31-year-old schoolteacher and newlywed, was descending Mt. Yale, a 14,199-foot peak southwest of Denver, when she was struck by lightning and died. Several other states may see more lightning, but Colorado ranks third nationwide in the number of people killed by strikes each year, likely due to the appeal of high peaks during the summer (when lightning strikes are most common). Earlier this summer, 15 people were injured and a dog was killed by a lightning strike on Mt. Bierstadt, another one of Colorado’s famed 14ers.
Though Bartlett has been the only fatality in 2015, this summer has seen an unusually high number of lightning strikes. The wet spring and summer means there’s a lot more moisture swirling around the air, says Steve Hodanish, a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service. That’s creating frequent, massive thunderstorms and, with them, increased lightning.
Abnormal weather also contributed to an unusually high death toll on Colorado’s rivers. Four tubers, rafters and kayakers were killed over one weekend in late June; experts have said that the deaths may have resulted in part because heavy spring rains led to some of the highest water levels in two decades. In the southwest corner of the state, a man died in June after his raft flipped in the Animas River, which was running well above average for that time of year. The flow was 4,030 cubic feet per second (as compared with the median 2,820 cubic feet per second).
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