A 13-year-old boy from North Dakota had a close brush with death when he fell nearly 100 feet from a ledge at the Grand Canyon’s north rim during a family trip. The boy, identified as Wyatt Kauffman, suffered multiple injuries but is expected to make a full recovery.
How the accident happened
Wyatt was visiting the Grand Canyon National Park with his mother on Tuesday, August 13, 2023, as part of their trip to see various national parks. They were at the Bright Angel Point trail, a popular spot for tourists to enjoy the scenic views of the canyon.
According to Wyatt, he was trying to make way for other people to take pictures when he lost his balance and slipped on a cliff. He said he only had one hand on a rock, which was not enough to hold him. He then fell backwards and plunged nearly 100 feet (30 meters) to the ground below.
“I was up on the ledge and was moving out of the way so other people could take a picture,” Wyatt told Phoenix TV station KPNX. “I squatted down and was holding on to a rock. I only had one hand on it. It wasn’t that good of a grip. It was kind of pushing me back. I lost my grip and started to fall back.”
Wyatt said he does not remember much of what happened next, except that he woke up in an ambulance and then a helicopter. He was airlifted to a pediatric trauma center in Las Vegas for further treatment.
The rescue operation
The fall triggered a massive rescue operation by the National Park Service (NPS) and other agencies. A search and rescue team set up a rope rescue down to the steep and narrow trail and raised Wyatt safely to the rim in a basket. The whole process took about two hours, during which Wyatt was conscious and responsive.
“We’re extremely grateful for the work of everyone. Two hours is an eternity in a situation like that,” Wyatt’s father, Brian Kauffman, said. He was in North Dakota when he heard about his son’s fall and rescue.
Meghan Smith, the preventive search and rescue supervisor at the Grand Canyon National Park, praised the team’s efforts and skills. “I can say with great confidence that they put to use advanced medical skills in an austere environment that are rarely executed in most other places,” she said. “It’s clear that their training and hard work paid off, leading to a smooth, timely operation that will no doubt lead to better outcomes for this patient.”
The extent of injuries
Wyatt suffered nine broken vertebrae, a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung, a concussion, a broken hand and a dislocated finger as a result of his fall. He underwent surgery to remove his spleen and repair his lung. He also had to wear a brace for his spine.
Despite the severity of his injuries, Wyatt showed remarkable resilience and optimism. He said he was glad to be alive and thankful for all the support he received from his family, friends and strangers.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now,” Wyatt said from his hospital bed. “I’m just happy that I’m here.”
Wyatt was discharged from the hospital on Saturday, August 17, 2023, and was being driven home by his mother. They were expected to reach Casselton, North Dakota, on Tuesday, August 20, 2023.
“We’re just lucky we’re bringing our kid home in a car in the front seat instead of in a box,” Brian Kauffman said.
The dangers of falling at the Grand Canyon
Wyatt’s fall is not an isolated incident at the Grand Canyon, which attracts millions of visitors every year. According to the NPS, the park’s search and rescue teams respond to more than 300 calls for service annually, ranging from heat illness to falls over the edge.
In fact, just two days before Wyatt’s fall, another visitor died after falling 500 feet (150 meters) from the south rim of the canyon near Mather Point. The victim was identified as Maria A. Salgado Lopez, 59, of Scottsdale, Arizona.
The NPS urges visitors to stay on designated trails and walkways, keep a safe distance from the edge, be aware of their surroundings and follow park regulations and warnings.