Picacho Peak

In 1996 a 14-year-old Utah Boy Scout died on a hike on a remote trail in Grand Canyon National Park. The group had run out of water while hiking down on a summer day when temperatures reached 112.

The leaders and scouts were strung out along the trail and the boy who died was part of a group that had gone ahead to try and retrieve water for the others.

He died only 100 yards from the Colorado River.

The incident prompted a lot of discussion in Utah because of how disorganized the trip was and how the leaders, from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stake, had been selected more for their church standing than for their ability to lead scouts on outdoor excursions.

The group had gotten a late start during the day and one of the most troubling aspects were reports that the scouts had had a water fight at the trailhead while waiting to take off on what was a more difficult trek than anyone expected.

I was reminded of this incident more than 20 years ago with the recent report of a 16-year-old Boy Scout who died while hiking in Picacho Peak State Park.

Joshua White of Goodyear collapsed and died April 27 along the Sunset Trail while hiking down from the mountain. We know from 911 calls that the scouts ran out of water on the way up.

The hike up Picacho Peak is a difficult 2- to 3-mile trek (depending on which trail you take). The route is steep and twisting, with steel cables anchored into the rock in places where the surface is bare. There is no shade except the occasional rock outcropping depending on the time of day.

The south-side route to the top of the 3,370-foot peak, known as Hunter Trail, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1932 to service a 40-foot light beacon that was installed at the top of the peak for air traffic control.

The trail hasn’t changed much since then, except in popularity. It is not unusual to have to wait in line near certain parts of the trail on busy spring weekends as people negotiate the more difficult cable pull-up portions.

Because of the nature of the trail, more exertion is going to be needed, meaning more water will be consumed, especially on a hot day. The weekend Joshua’s troop took on the mountain was the first to hit 100 degrees for the year.

While in college I worked as a guide for a travel camp for teen boys out of Prescott. Two of the excursions we took during the summer were hiking down the Grand Canyon and hiking to Havasu Falls. At that time there were no water stops along the trails, so we had to plan for enough water down and out.

On the Havasu hike we would actually take extra water jugs down and store them at the base of the switchbacks, knowing that this would be the hardest stretch we would hit late in the day on the way out.

In the Grand Canyon, I was the water mule, carrying extra water and bringing up the rear, encouraging the stragglers along. Before each trek down or up, we would inspect each pack of the boys to make sure they all had full water bottles. We also did not loiter around the trailhead, allowing the teen boys time to get into mischief and waste energy, or in the case of the tragic 1996 trip, waste water.

As the mule, I always had water for the boys and they knew they could just wait for me if they ran out. But more often than not, I ended up giving water to others on the trail along the way. I remember one time I came across a Japanese tourist in rough shape. He had walked down in his loafers and was carrying a suitcase. I gave him water and waited with him until a ranger arrived, who immediately put an IV in his arm and radioed for evacuation.

Joshua’s family issued a statement after the Picacho tragedy saying he loved scouting and that the scout leaders were experienced hikers “fully prepared” for their planned activities.

If Joshua had fallen, or even succumbed to heatstroke, I could understand that.

But they ran out of water. That means they weren’t fully prepared.


You can reach Andy Howell at ahowell@pinalcentral.com.