Mist Trail Redux, Sadly
I didn’t expect to be writing about the Mist Trail again so soon. But recent news has caught the eye. Before, I was writing about water and the mistakes tourists make. Really, mistakes can cost you more than a little dehydration. People regularly die in the wilderness and in Yosemite, as with other great parks, and even on our day hiking back from the wilderness to the Valley, we saw to medevac helicoptors airlifting the injured.
As an interesting by-point, if you are treatable at the park’s medical clinic, your helicopter ride is wonderfully free, part of the benefits of paying national park fees, but if you need outside treatment, it’s another story. We got that from a ranger talking about the man who had the misfortune of having a heart attack on one of the domes. Fortunately for him, they got him on a helicopter in time.
Unfortunately, this last week two boys, aged 10 and 6, were swept into the Merced River and drowned. Visitors pulled out the older child and started resuscitation attempts before the rangers arrived, but it was ultimately unsuccessful. The little one went under and has not yet been found.
As sad as it is, the majority of deaths in Yosemite are from accidents, and historically, from drowning. Many start from places that look placid, but the current is deceptive in the rivers. We’ve seen people swimming in the famous Emerald Pool – as tranquil looking as it’s name – at the top of Vernal Fall. It’s at the top of a waterfall that plungers hundreds of feet. Logic would say “Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!” but no, there will always be someone who thinks it’s fine, or thinks they are strong enough. The current down at the bottom is visible as it tumbles over the rocks, but that’s were the family who lost the children went.
From the NPS report (emphasis mine):
A family group, from southern California, were in the Merced River near the Vernal Fall Footbridge yesterday afternoon around 3:00 p.m. They had begun their hike at the Happy Isles Trailhead and hiked approximately one mile, where they stopped at the footbridge. The group was in the river and the two boys were swept away by the current.
The L.A. Times says they were “cooling off with their mother.” The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the boys were wading in about 7 inches of water when they “apparently waded too far and got caught in the rapids.” (SFGate) Their mother and elder brother jumped in to try to save them but suffered injuries themselves.
I can’t know what the family was doing, if they thought that was the place to swim or were being good parents and monitoring their children. There’s no information and I would respect their loss and privacy to much to question what led to the horrible situation. Want I want the readers to know is that this happens all the time. Yosemite is one of my favorite places, and this happens all the time.
Let’s say it again. This happens all the time.
Michael P. Ghiglieri has written books about death in the Grand Canyon and in Yosemite. He said, “There are incredible benefits to our life of modern luxury. But we pay for it by domesticating ourselves. When we set out in a park like Yosemite, we enter a world for which we are not very well trained.” (NY Times) His books are interesting because they document, through our demise, the conflict between our personal expectations, confidence, and societal values and a world many of us are no longer familiar with, conflict that led a Japanese teen to bound over rocks to impress his classmates in 1978, and to let go of the rescuers’ rope, likely to save face, after he fell into the torrent. (same article – good read if you haven’t run across his books)
Karen Klein of the L.A. Times pointed out that much is a matter of personal judgement, making the choice to cross a wet footbridge, wade into water, take risky rock climbs, or bound over wet rocks like the Japanese teen. She asks for more literature in varying languages to be handed out upon entry with emphasis to read to warn about the dangers near waterfalls. She has a point: the entry gates where tourists pay their entry fee is the one guaranteed point where you have their attention (unless they drive in by night, whereupon you pay to exit). I waxed on about distance and danger signs, which are plentiful, but she’s got a good point here:
Each time Yosemite or another wilderness area is the site of an avoidable death, the question inevitably arises of whether the park is doing enough to keep visitors safe. Does it need more railings, more signs? The Times editorial board has repeatedly said no. Yosemite has a lot of signs; in fact, part of the problem could be that there are so many signs, tourists don’t bother looking at them. Wilderness is wilderness for a reason; people need some respite from man-made boundaries.
Just like my complaints and whinging on about carrying potable water, again tourists aren’t reading the signs, but the stakes are a little higher in this gamble. Perhaps a warning card in multiple tongues would help here, or at least catch a few people. The sad cynic in me though wonders, if they don’t read the signs, how many also don’t read the brochure and map that gives warning? How many still don’t read the newsletter that the ranger hands them? Would an extra piece of paper help when they don’t prepare for their hike enough to look it up in what’s handed them or read the sign at the trailhead?
Maybe I was lucky and it was my time in the Girl Scouts from even Kindergarten that gave me a sense of the danger but brilliance of the outdoors. Maybe it was some common sense inherited or practiced by my parents. I think, more now, that these deaths are more of a reason why we should expose children and have outdoor education and scouting and whatnot, not keep them away. If there’s a respect for nature, not just an appreciation or a love, but a good respect, might it not follow that those kids will be less likely to risk things beyond their abilities when they grow up, or put their own children in those positions? Might they be more familiar with the natural world and have enough knowledge to fuel their own judgement. Yet, Ghiglieri also has stories of pros who went against what should be their better judgement and died from their mistakes.
This happens all the time.