Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Hiking and Dying

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 21, 2015


7 hikers died suddenly. I knew some of them. Did they die doing what they love? I don’t think so. I think they died sad and scared. They left families and loved ones who might define their lives by this before and after moment. The question of “should they have known” will never be known, but many people have very strong opinions on both sides. Estimating risk is the discussion of every adventurer. Every step up a mountain could be one’s last, and yet the thrill of the adventure propels people forward. Most people do not die on adventures, and most people do not know people who have died on adventures, and yet, the risk still looms. There is no good way to think about this, except to say, that thinking about these seven people is how we remind ourselves that we matter, and our friends and buddies who share our passion matter too.  Tragedy has no words, only feelings of pain and confusion. Adventure tragedy is no different. Movies are made, stories are told, but the pain does not change. There is no lesson learned. Yes, slot canyons are very dangerous. Yes, flash floods means there is no way out. Skill and experience matter little. Warnings come and go, and getting information out is not always easy given the limitations of cell coverage. The search for someone to be mad at comes up empty. We cannot funnel our feelings into rage and that makes it even harder. The shock and sadness keeps coming, in waves, which feel like an emotional tsunami, similar to the water which killed these  hikers. They were trapped, as we are now, trapped in the mourning and bewilderment of sudden loss. There is one thing to do. Hold hands with people you care about, because you just never know when that won’t be possible. Yes, I have lapsed into cliché. Mourning has emptied out my language, perhaps explaining why clichés come in handy.

8 Responses to “Hiking and Dying”

  1. I’m very sad to hear this news, sadness for the hikers lives lost too soon and for all impacted by their passing. I appreciate you sharing what you’re going through in this post, as the confusing feelings of grief is something we can all can relate to. I’m a psychiatrist as well and with each loss, I still find myself hoping that the grief process will be a bit more tolerable or easier each time, even though my knowledge tells me otherwise.
    Best, Vania

    • Hello Dr. Vania…thanks for chiming in. As I am about to teach a “Depression” class at the analytic institute, I am thinking a lot about loss and despair and the loneliness that follows. It is a heavy topic which most of us keep at bay until we have to face it and then the shock and confusion sets in. Thanks again.

  2. Eleanor said

    Shirah this tragic and horrific occurrence in Zion last Monday is devastating and in your words, an “emotional tsunami” for so many, and will be for a long time. When I saw your blog post I knew this is something I wanted to respond too but as usual my thought processes were going in many different directions. Before I saw your post however, I knew about these overwhelming losses in Zion as my husband and I were close by, in southern Utah (Capitol Reef/Escalante) for 5 days of hiking and exploring and enjoying one of the most magical places on our Planet Earth which we have visited many times (including Zion). I have been a lifelong hiker, beginning with my growing up years when my family would spend part of every summer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Hiking and our natural world has always been one of my passions. I can absolutely identify with your friends choice to go to southern Utah for their adventure.

    The day before the Zion flood my husband and I began a hike through Capitol Reef “Grand Wash” (Wash is in the name for a reason). An very popular easy 4.4 mile round trip hike that has a mile of “narrows”….narrow trail with towering rock walls 500 feet high with no access to “higher ground” should it start to flood. We watched the sky in the distance, knowing floods usually happen many times “a long way off higher up”. Seeing some concerning clouds after 15 minutes of hiking we aborted the hike and got back to our car not willing to take any weather chances. The next day, the day of the Zion flooding, we chose a more distant area of Capitol Reef for a longer but safer hike where rain chance was about 20 percent. We also had access to higher ground on every bit of this canyon hike. September is part of the monsoon season in southern Utah and rain is more apt to happen in late afternoon. We were back safely at our car by 4pm with blue skies. On our long drive north back to our lodge, the skies to the far south west toward Zion, were absolutely frightening and ominous….that dark blue that says severe storm danger. They were so dramatic, frightening, but beautiful at the same time, I found myself pulling our car off the road to photograph. We did not realize at the time that this was when the tragedy was occurring, sadly,

    The next day when word of the Zion tragedy was released I initially found myself deeply saddened and horrified and identifying with the family and friends devastation of sudden loss and the lifelong impact this will have on their lives. Much later my further reactions (from one who has always been highly attuned to balancing risk factors with adventure safety with a “middle of the road approach”), I found myself getting angry that mistakes had been made by this group ( leaving for a slot canyon late afternoon in monsoon season for instance). But as always I try to find a balance, and began looking at our hike that same day, not too far away….While safe weather wise, parts of the mostly easy but long hike had been steep and challenging and slick, especially downhill, and literally every step had to be carefully made…very carefully ….…for two people in their 70’s with no cell service and no one else around on the trail. Even with our extreme caution, we chose this risk for adventure and incredible beauty that had to be seen to be believed. So if we are going to live life, that involves risks (the degree of which is different for each one of us)… Despite how cautious we think we are being things happen. We are imprefectly human…all of us.

    My bottom line, the horrific devastation in Zion happened….there is no one to be angry at or blame…..bad things happen sometimes for those of us without warning…. who want to “live life” to the fullest. Just the thought of this brings tears to my eyes. I am sorry for your loss Shirah and for the devastation for all the family members.

    (My apologies for the length of this…I honestly didn’t know how to make the point I wanted to make with fewer words. )

    • Oh Eleanor, no need to apologize for your lovely comment. Yes, it is easy to emphasize caution, but at the same time, as you say, the inspiration of nature beckons and it is hard to turn that down. How many of us have had “close calls” and yet we keep going. We continue to push forward, and if we live to tell the tale we are courageous, and if we fall to a hazard, then we are foolhardy. I do not want to “die doing what I love” (in that I hate cliches), but I also do not want to stay home. Seeking the middle ground is the goal, but there is no certainty, only estimating risks and hoping to make good decisions. Thanks again.

  3. Shelly said

    I’m so sorry that these poor hikers died. It becomes personal when you say that you knew some of them. When people say, “they should they have known,” that puts the blame on the victims and turns the terrible tragedy away from what it is….a terrible act of G-d and these poor people simply got caught in the middle. All of us know that at some point, we will make our own mistake and get caught up crossing the street at some point in front of a speeding car, swimming and getting caught in an undertow, or having a heart attack, or some other means of death. I’m so sorry for your loss, Shirah.

    • Thank you, Shelly. Yes, there is always the question of blame when there is a sudden death. For adventurers, there is an inherent risk of dying, and estimating that risk is quite challenging. Yes, it is a terrible tragedy. Would other skilled hikers decided not to go that day? Maybe. Does that change the nature of the tragedy? Maybe, since perhaps hikers need to learn from this accident that sometimes turning around is the smartest move. It is hard to have your ego invested in adventure seeking, while at the same time be able to pack it up and try again another time. As always, it is ego flexibility which is the most useful survivor skill. We all need to balance our seeking adventure and novelty seeking against the risk of a sudden ending. At the end of the day, we hope we make good decisions, but even then, nature can overpower us. This story brings that debate alive.

  4. Lind, Mimi said

    Omg I finally read this – I’m so sorry – were you close to them? it’s so awful. You don’t do this do you?

    Mimi Lind, LCSW
    Director, Mental Health and Domestic Violence Services
    Venice Family Clinic

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