National News

Bootmaker founder's wife, teen, missing in Grand Canyon

Posted April 18

This undated photo provided by Mark McOmie shows Jackson Standefer. Authorities searched Grand Canyon National Park on Monday, April 17, 2017, for eighth-grader Standefer and his step-grandmother who were swept away as they tried to cross a creek during a family trip in a remote part of the park. Chief Ranger Matt Vandzura says the two lost their footing Saturday. (Mark McOmie via AP)

Relatively few visitors even try to hike a rugged, remote area at the bottom of the Grand Canyon where the wife of the founder of Merrell Boot Co. and a teenager went missing last weekend, according to the National Park Service.

Tapeats Creek, where Lou-Ann Merrell and Jackson Standefer, 14, lost their footing during a family trip, is not particularly difficult to hike for experienced backpackers, said Chris Forsyth, president of the Grand Canyon Hikers & Backpackers Association board. But heavy water rushing through the creek can make it challenging, he said.

Merrell is the wife of Randy Merrell, who helped found the Merrell Boot Co.

The Merrells, Standefer and the boy's mother were on a path known as Tapeats Trail when the pair fell, authorities said. The Merrell family accessed the area by hiking down from the North Rim.

The area has a more distinct geology than most of the park and attracts a fair number of visitors but is not as popular with tourists are other spots, like Havasupai Falls. Forsyth, who says he has hiked that area five times, said a visit there calls for a multiple-day backpacking trip and at least some experience in hiking. He said his first trip through the canyon was at Tapeats Creek.

About 3,500 people got permits in 2015 to camp in the general area where the two hikers went missing, the latest readily available data, said National Park Service spokeswoman Robin Martin. About 41,000 total people that year got permits to backpack in the Grand Canyon in total.

Matthew Nelson, the executive director of the Arizona Trail Association and a former Grand Canyon backpacking guide, said accessing that area on foot takes days and requires an arduous hike. Nelson said the area offers stunning views but is also unforgivingly hot. He said the water in the creek comes from a cave and is always extremely cold.

"The rock that forms the canyon at Tapeats Creek is a particular layer that isn't found everywhere in the Grand Canyon. It gives it a more unique sense of beauty," Forsyth said.

An intense search for Merrell and 14-year-old Standefer resumed Tuesday, Martin said.

The search includes three ground teams consisting of about 20 people total, a National Park Service helicopter, a drone and an inflatable motor raft that was flown into the canyon. Search crews are looking within a mile and a mile and half of where the hikers were last seen, as well as where the creek meets the Colorado River.

"We're really just looking in the water and areas where someone maybe would have been able to get out," Martin said.

Mark McOmie, the boy's uncle, said the Merrells are avid hikers and know the area well. He said Lou-Ann and Randy Merrell, who was also on the trip, live in Vernal, a city in eastern Utah. McOmie was not on the trip.

Lou-Ann Merrell is "a very experienced backpacker," McOmie said. "If they can get to a spot where they cannot be in the water and stay warm, she's got the skills needed to get them through it."

The parent organization of the Merrell Boot Co., Wolverine Worldwide, issued a statement Tuesday.

"Our thoughts, prayers, and hearts are with the Merrell family. We are grateful to the people working around the clock and continue to be hopeful," said Jim Zwiers, executive vice president.

The park service said it hasn't determined what went wrong and that there was no rain or flash flooding reported in the area.

Creeks in the canyon often see higher water levels in the spring as snow melts. Forsyth said that he hasn't visited Tapeats Creek this year but has been to other parts of the park, where he's noticed more water than usual, he said.

The McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said Jackson is an eighth-grade student at the all-boys school.

A call to Merrell Footlab for comment wasn't immediately returned.

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Jaques Billeaud reported from Phoenix and Sheila Burke reported from Nashville, Tennessee.

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  • George Brown Apr 18, 12:00 p.m.
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    Think they don't know every ledge and cranny? Been there lately?