Image: Grand Canyon hikers
Felicia Fonseca  /  AP file
The canyon presents obstacles that can leave even experienced hikers emerging sore and fatigued, including scorching heat during summer months, high altitude, and steep, rocky, winding trails.
updated 6/19/2009 3:25:45 PM ET 2009-06-19T19:25:45

Frank Poole worked out at a gym and hiked around his Mississippi home carrying a weighted pack for months in preparation for his trip to the GrandCanyon.

But it wasn't long after Poole started hiking on a popular GrandCanyon trail that he was struggling to breathe. Several hours later, he was in a northern Arizona hospital, where doctors determined the 75-year-old Poole had suffered a heart attack.

"I never suspected I was having a heart attack," Poole said recently from his home in Oxford, Miss. "I just thought it was the heat and extra exertion, the altitude and things like that. I was just so naive."

At the Flagstaff Medical Center — northern Arizona's only Level I trauma center, and the place where Poole was treated — officials have a name for the spring and summer months when many tourists travel to the canyon. They call it "GrandCanyon Season."

Emergency workers at the park and hospital officials know they'll start seeing more people with injuries or those who, like Poole, didn't know they had underlying health conditions that surfaced during the strenuous hikes at the canyon.

The canyon lures millions of people each year with its colorful landscape, immense size, and awe-inspiring geology. But it presents obstacles that can leave even experienced hikers emerging sore and fatigued, including scorching heat during summer months, an altitude of 7,000 feet, and steep, rocky, winding trails.

"There's a million ways you can hurt yourself down there," said Lon Ayers, who works in the park's backcountry office.

National park secretsThe last few weeks have illustrated that.

In late April, an Ohio man fell 60 feet when he was peering over the edge of the canyon and lost his balance. Two days later, two teenagers and a young man who were swimming in the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon were swept away and drowned. Another injury occurred when a mule lost its footing on a trail, fell and rolled over the passenger it was carrying.

Falls, fatigue, extreme temperatures and horseplay at national parks around the country lead to nearly 3,600 search and rescue operations each year, according to 2007 figures. The park service also responds to 16,000 emergency medical calls a year for anything from abrasions to twisted ankles, heat stroke and cardiac arrest, said Dean Ross, NPS branch chief of emergency services in Washington, D.C.

Rangers at the GrandCanyon perform more rescues than at any other park, including 300 helicopter rescues a year, said Ross.

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People who come prepared, bringing plenty of snacks and water, and who pace themselves and listen to their bodies fare the best.

"Don't be afraid to try it, (but) take it easy," said Dave Florence of Green Bay, Wis., who recently completed a 40-mile, five-day hike at the canyon.

Beautiful photos of national parksBut hikers don't always heed warnings from rangers and on signs posted around the canyon.

Allan Widener of Louisville, Ky., recently took the Bright Angel trail just off the canyon's South Rim. After a park staff member strongly recommended that Widener not head down without water, the hiker quipped that, "I don't drink water, I drink Coke."

On the way back from his 1½ mile hike, leaning against the canyon wall in a shady spot, the 48-year-old said he wished he'd had something to drink.

Park rangers say they generally encounter three types of people hiking in the canyon. There are the strong-headed ones, usually in their teens and 20s who have an invincibility complex and will go against recommendations. Others are excited and unprepared but willing to change plans if needed.

Then there are people like Albert Shank, who are prepared and generally stick to plans they've made, but sometimes get in trouble because of circumstance or because they made a bad decision, said Marc Yeston, deputy chief ranger.

Shank was about 28 miles into what was supposed to be a 42-mile rim-to-rim run in April when his legs started cramping and his body refused to keep down any food or water. He nearly collapsed on a park bench and spent several hours having saline pumped into his body before he was able to walk out of the canyon.

The Arizona State University faculty associate, who often runs distances longer than marathons, had plenty of water, energy bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but not enough electrolytes or salty food.

"That was a rookie mistake, and I'm not a rookie," he said. "I learned that no matter how good of shape you're in, the canyon is something you need to respect, and dehydration will take you down."

What can be deceiving at the GrandCanyon is that the temperature at the South Rim, where 90 percent of all visitors go, is about 20 degrees cooler than at the bottom. And while most trails lead hikers up a mountain before the downward descent, it's the opposite at the GrandCanyon.

"It's a unique set of circumstances," Ayers said. "People from all over the world need to at least hear it from somebody on what to expect. People who have never hiked the GrandCanyon before expect it to be a walk in the park."

Some hikers do undertake extraordinary preparations. But other times, rangers say they aren't sure what people were thinking. They've seen a man in a business suit carrying a briefcase full of water bottles, a man playing a tuba and people hiking without shoes or in flip-flops.

"It all stems from a lack of preplanning and knowledge of these trails," said Ian Buchanan, a seasonal park worker who advises people on smart hiking. "A lot of people get the sense that it's Disneyland when it's an environmental park."

T Beautiful photos of national parkshis time of year, 30 percent of the heart patients at Flagstaff Medical Center are brought in from the canyon with conditions such as valve and rhythm problems, and heart disease and blockages.

Since the hospital started its open heart surgery program in 2004, there has been at least one month where all heart attack patients came from the GrandCanyon, said Gigi Sorenson, the hospital's cardiopulmonary services director.

"You just get used to it," she said. "And now when tourist season kicks in, you just start to expect when they call and say they're coming from the canyon."

Poole, who had three clogged arteries, was the hospital's first open heart surgery patient after his heart attack at the canyon in 2004. He said his general good health, the exercise he did in preparing for his trip and willingness to seek help spared him from a more serious problem.

He hasn't had any complications with his heart since the surgery. "My heart's in good shape now," he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: America's national parks

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  1. Acadia

    Acadia National Park in Maine boasts the highest mountain on the U.S. Atlantic Coast and was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. Visitors beware: temperatures can vary 40 degrees -- from 45 degrees to 85 degrees in the summer and from 30 degrees to 70 degrees in the spring and fall. (Gareth Mccormack / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rocky Mountain

    Bear Lake, with mountainside aspens changing colors in mid-autumn, is one of the popular attractions in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. (Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Badlands

    The climate in South Dakota's Badlands National Park is extreme. Temperatures range from minus 40 degrees in the dead of winter to 116 degrees in the height of summer. Visitors are drawn to the park's rugged beauty as well as the area's rich fossil beds. (Mark Newman / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Yosemite

    One of the nation's first wilderness parks, Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, scenic valleys, meadows and giant sequoias. (Robert Galbraith / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. North Cascades National Park

    The North Cascades National Park complex offers something for everyone: Monstrous peaks, deep valleys, hundreds of glaciers and phenominal waterfalls. The complex includes the park, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas. (David Mcnew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Zion

    This spectacular corner of southern Utah is a masterpiece of towering cliffs, deep red canyons, mesas, buttes and massive monoliths. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Redwood

    Created in 1968, Redwood National Park is located in Northern California. Today, visitors to the national park can enjoy the massive trees as well as an array of wildlife. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Joshua Tree

    Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California. The area was made a national monument in 1936 and a national park in 1994. Outdoor enthusiasts can go hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Great Smoky Mountains

    Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses more than 800 square miles in the southern Appalachian Mountains. Visitors can expect mild winters and hot, humid summers, though temperatures can differ drastically as the park's elevation ranges from 800 feet to more than 6,600 feet. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Arches

    More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, many of them recognizable worldwide, are preserved in Utah's Arches National Park. Temperatures can reach triple digits in the summer and can drop to below freezing in the winter. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Grand Teton

    The Snake River flows through Grand Teton National Park, and the jagged Teton Range rises above the sage-covered valley floor. Daytime temperatures during summer months are frequently in the 70s and 80s, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. (Anthony P. Bolante / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Haleakala

    Visitors watch the sun rise at 10,000 feet in Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii. If weather permits, visitors at the top of the mountain can see three other Hawaiian islands. (The Washington Post via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Grand Canyon

    Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most recognizable national park. Nearly 5 million visitors view the mile-deep gorge every year, formed in part by erosion from the Colorado River. The North and South rims are separated by a 10-mile-wide canyon. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Yellowstone

    Yellowstone National Park, America's first national park, was established in 1872. The park spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Grizzly bears, wolves, bison and elk live in the park. It is well known for Old Faithful and other geothermal features. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Mount Rainier

    Glaciers. Rainforests. Hiking trails. Mount Rainier National Park, located in Washington state, offers incredible scenery and a diverse ecology. The park aims to be carbon neutral by 2016. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Hawaii Volcanoes

    Two of the world's most active volcanoes can be found within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In 1980, the national park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve; in 1987, it was added as a World Heritage Site. (David Jordan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Everglades

    Everglades National Park covers the nation's largest subtropical wilderness. It is also a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve and a Wetland of International Importance. Visitors to the park can camp, boat, hike and find many other ways to enjoy the outdoors. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Glacier

    A view from atop the Grinnell Glacier Overlook trail in Glacier National Park. With more than 700 miles of trails the park is known for its glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and beautiful lakes. (Matt McKnight / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Bryce Canyon

    Located in southwestern Utah, Bryce Canyon National Park is known for its distinctive geological structures called "hoodoos." (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crater Lake

    The brilliant blue Crater Lake, located in southern Oregon, was formed when Mount Mazama, standing at 12,000 feet, collapsed 7,700 years ago after a massive eruption. Crater Lake is one of the world's deepest lakes at 1,943 feet. (David Gotisha / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Olympic

    Washington state's Olympic National Park offers visitors beaches on the Pacific Ocean, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between. Keep the weather in mind when visiting, though, as roads and facilities can be affected by wind, rain and snow any time of year. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Sequoia and Kings Canyon

    A woman stands among a grove of a Giant Sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park in Central California. The trees, which are native to California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the world's largest by volume, reaching heights of 275 feet and a ground level girth of 109 feet. The oldest known Giant Sequoia based on its ring count is 3,500 years old. (Mark Ralston / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Denali

    Alaska's Denali National Park spans 6 million acres and includes the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America's tallest peak. Many park visitors try to catch a glimpse of the "big five" -- moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves and grizzly bear. (National Park Service) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Kenai Fjords National Park

    The National Park Service considers the 8.2-mile round-trip on Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park to be strenuous, saying hikers gain about 1,000 feet of elevation with each mile. (National Park Service via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Death Valley

    California's Death Valley encompasses more than 3.3 million acres of desert wilderness. In 1849, a group of gold rush pioneers entered the Valley, thinking it was a shortcut to California. After barely surviving the trek across the area, they named the spot "Death Valley." In the 1880s, native peoples were pushed out by mining companies who sought the riches of gold, silver, and borax. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Wind Cave

    Bison graze in Wind Cave National Park in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota. Millions of bison were slaughtered by white hunters who pushed them to near-extinction by the late 1800s. Recovery programs have brought the bison numbers up to nearly 250,000. (David McNew / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Canyonlands

    The Lower Basins Zone is outlined by the white rim edge as seen from the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Shenandoah

    Fall colors blanket the Shenandoah National Park, drawing tourists to Skyline Drive to view the scenery. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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