A 31-year-old woman was found dead in Zion National Park on Wednesday, a day after she started a hiking trip with her husband.
The woman’s husband, 33, reported he and his wife had become “dangerously cold” overnight and were experiencing symptoms consistent with hypothermia, the National Park Service said in a statement Thursday.
The National Park Service, Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner are still investigating the cause of death, NPS said.
A search-and-rescue team found the woman by the Virgin River in the Narrows, the narrowest section of the Zion Canyon and one of the park’s most popular areas. First responders found the woman nonresponsive and administered emergency aid before declaring her dead.
Search-and-rescue staff took her husband to the Zion Emergency Operations Center after they found visitors assisting the man on Riverside Walk, a paved trail that leads from Temple of Sinawava — a natural amphitheater and shuttle stop — into the Narrows.
Visitors alerted Zion National Park shuttle drivers early Wednesday that an injured man and a nonresponsive woman needed help in the Narrows. Other people in the park tried to give the woman CPR.
The man told the park officials that he and his wife had just begun a permitted 16-mile trip through the canyon the day before. In the morning, NPS said, the husband went to get help while his wife stayed in the couple’s resting spot. Temperatures in Zion Canyon were in the 40s and 30s on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, according to the National Weather Service.
The tragedy follows the death of another hiker, 29-year-old Jetal Agnihotri, who died in the Narrows this summer during a flash flood. She was found in the Virgin River after a multiday search.
On the Zion National Park website, hypothermia is one of the listed safety concerns for visitors. “Immersion in water is the quickest way to lose body heat,” the website says.
Additionally, “conditions are always changing, so before you begin your hike in The Narrows make sure you are aware of the day’s weather forecast and flash flood potential,” the park website says. “Hiking in the river is very dangerous when flash floods threaten.”
Hypothermia is caused by prolonged exposures to cold temperatures, leading to dangerously low body temperature. It’s most likely to occur in extreme cold, but can also happen in cool temperatures if someone becomes chilled from sweat, rain or staying in cold water. Hypothermia can come on rapidly, and a victim may not notice it’s happening.
Symptoms include stumbling and poor coordination, uncontrollable shivering, fatigue, confusion or slurred speech. If you notice any of these symptoms, the park recommends to stop hiking and immediately change wet clothing with dry clothing.
“Warm the victim with your own body and a warm drink, and shelter the individual from breezes,” the park says. “A pre-warmed sleeping bag will also prevent further heat loss.”
To prevent hypothermia, the park recommends avoiding wearing cotton clothing (which doesn’t provide insulation when wet) and eating “high energy food before you are chilled.”
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive cold presents a greater threat to life than excessive heat, with cold deaths outnumber heat-related deaths in just about every year. The U.S. Forest Service says it’s responsible for roughly 85% of outdoor recreation fatalities.