They can’t tell you to stop but they can give you some life-saving suggestions.
Preventative Search and Rescue (PSAR) rangers are trained EMTs, whose job is to provide guidance on preventing self-injury and hiking smart on Grand Canyon’s trails. When you’ve decided you can’t take one – more – step, they’re there to help you make it to the top.
“It is scary down here and it should be. It’s serious.” Josh Weiner, Grand Canyon PSAR ranger.
Josh Weiner and Ashley Butts, PSAR rangers at Grand Canyon National Park take their job serious. They enjoy what they do – hiking Grand Canyon’s trails, talking to strangers, hanging out … all while calculating in their minds – determining if you are prepared for the hike in and more importantly the hike out.
“Everybody has a different tactic but we all have the same goal,” Butts said. “We are talking to people going down. We say hi to people going up but in my mind, if people are going up and they’re not on the side of the trail puking, they’re doing ok.”
“There’s a big mental aspect down here (in the Canyon),” he said. “People are looking up at the walls and you’re feeling tired… and then we are there telling someone here are electrolytes, mix this in your water … it’s scary down here and it should be. It’s serious.”
I caught up with the two of them in August, for an article I was writing for Grand Canyon News. I wanted to get a first hand glimpse into what their job is all about. We hit the trail a little after 8 a.m.
We decided to go down the Bright Angel Trail on the Canyon’s South Rim. As we set out, hikers meandered down the trail, pausing for pictures and peering over the edge. A mule train rounded the corner and the guide gave a warning hello and directions to stand clear.
The corridor trails – the Bright Angel and South Kaibab are top priority for PSAR. Butts explained how the rangers and volunteers spend the majority of their time canvassing these trails. Other trails they patrol on a daily basis are the Hermit, Tonto and Grandview trails – all on the South Rim.
“A typical morning on the Hermit you see less than 30 people,” she said. “A typical morning on the Bright Angel you’ll see three or four hundred.”
As we hike they explain, what to me sounds like common sense, but what they say a surprising number of people don’t pay attention to when planning to hike the Canyon. Their first tip – get an early start.
“You can hike to Indian Garden if you’re going downhill early. But if you start now (9:30 a.m.) you’re going to be going uphill at noon and that’s just brutal,” Weiner said. “We encourage people to sit out that entire part of the day (hottest time, typically between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.).”
The people who start their hike super early in the morning they are not as worried about. It’s those who start late in the day, when the heat becomes unbearable and exhaustion sets in, that can later turn into a rescue.
In 2015 almost 29,000 preventative actions were carried out by PSAR rangers. These actions could be as simple as suggesting an alternative route or distance of a planned hike and handing out a package of Fritos. They could also be much more serious, where a PSAR ranger spends eight hours hiking out with a distressed hiker or providing basic emergency services until help arrives.
In 2015, PSAR made contact with 117,267 hikers, made 29,000 preventative actions to help a hiker and helped with over 350 hiker assists.
PSAR at the Canyon has been a jumping off point for other preventative operations in the NPS, including Yosemite.
“Grand Canyon’s PSAR program has been in existence for about 20 years now,” said Ben Cooper, PSAR supervisor at the Canyon. According to Cooper, in its infancy Grand Canyon’s PSAR was much less established until a spike in heat related incidents in the mid 1990s caused the NPS to consider the idea of getting rangers on the trails to assess situations before they turned into full-scale emergencies.
This is Butts second year as a seasonal PSAR ranger. PSAR offers an opportunity to do what she loves – put her EMT training to use and work outside.
We pause and Butts asks an older man with a full pack and sweat drenched shirt and bandana how far he’s going.
“I’ve got a backcountry permit for Bright Angel Campground,” he responds, leaning heavily on his hiking poles.
Butts looks at him closely and gently explains it’s a 10 mile hike to the campground and how right now, the going down is the easy part. The hard part is coming up the trail, after you’re exhausted and filthy.
He nods, taking in what she’s telling him. A few minutes later he turns around and is headed back up the trail. Confirming that only a mile in, his knees are already aching and his pack is too heavy.
Butts and I make eye contact and I knowingly nod my head, silently agreeing with her – that could have turned into a bad situation.
We reached a good turn around point and ready ourselves for the uphill trek. On a daily basis Butts and Weiner each carry a hiking pack weighing between 25 to 35 pound, depending on how far down the trail they’re going.
Later they dump their pack and show me what’s inside; a medical kit, radio, snacks – Fritos, Cheez-Its, Goldfish, an MRE (meals ready to eat), compass, GPS, electrolyte packages for water, two headlamps, tarp, hiking poles, spray bottle of water and personal food and water.
“You should always carry enough water for yourself, for the day (and) water is important but so is food,” Butts says as she explains the ‘Drink to Thirst’ which is new verbiage the NPS is using on trailhead signs around the park.
We continue on, the rim growing steadily closer. Hikers pass us and Butts and Weiner greet each of them with a friendly smile and a pointed question. Where are you headed today? How far are you going? How are you feeling?
“It’s hard to know how effective you are but it’s safe to say we are effective,” Weiner said. “It’s not a ridiculous assumption to say that one of these people would have died if they had gone on.”
“We have a big thing we call psychological first aid,” Butts adds. “Which is a huge part of job. We encourage people, help them get there in their head to be able to keep going. It’s a huge deal and I’d say most of the time when we’re called down trail for a hiker assist that’s what it is. They need someone to encourage them to make it and help them and be with them.”
As we reach the trailhead Butts and Weiner head off, their packs full, their mission clear – saving lives and reminding visitors to stop and smell the roses.