July 12, 2012
Around noon last Thursday, June 28, a 65-year-old male set off from Lower Pines Campground in Yosemite Valley for an off-trail hike. The subject was a frequent visitor to Yosemite in excellent physical condition. Before leaving on his hike, the subject left a voicemail for his wife indicating his planned route. Fifteen minutes after his phone message, as a back-up plan, the subject decided to send a text to his wife: "I'm hiking up to Illilouette Fall again. Check in with you later…" Little did he know at the time, his wife, who was elsewhere in Yosemite Valley taking an art class, would never receive the text, and only hours later would discover that the voice mail message was waiting for her. The subject left the trail at the confluence of the Merced River and Illilouette Creek and headed up the Illilouette Creek drainage toward the base of Illilouette Fall, scrambling and climbing over boulders of every size, and not once encountering another person. Near the base of Illilouette Fall, the hiker left the creek bed and started scrambling up much steeper terrain (class 5) toward Glacier Point. The hiker suddenly lost traction, slipped, and took a tumbling 100-foot fall, coming to rest at the base of a granite apron not far from the base of Illilouette Fall. Describing the incident later to rangers, the subject explained that it "took a long time to assess what had happened." The subject never lost consciousness, but collecting his thoughts was a protracted process. He realized his injuries were serious-in fact, incapacitating-and that he needed help.
The first contact the subject made with the outside world was via cell phone; he called his wife's cell phone at 4:02 pm, 4:08 pm, and at 4:30 pm. His wife was still in her art class; later, when she turned on her phone, the missed calls did not show up on her cell phone. The subject also sent a text to 911 at 4:14 pm that simply read, "SOS," and in reply, he received a standardized text message, time stamped at 4:15 pm, that read, "Please make a voice call to 911. There is no text service available to 911 at this time." The subject doesn't remember when he received or noticed the text; regardless, he never made a voice call to 911. At 4:52 pm, the subject sent a text to his wife, "Help. [Subject's name]." which was again delayed. The subject's wife received a voice call at 5:14 pm from the subject. She could see the call was from her husband, but when she answered her phone, there was no voice connection. Ten to fifteen minutes later, she received his 4:52 pm text. The subject's wife also saw that a voicemail was waiting for her, but being out of her local calling area, she didn't know how to access her messages. She called her son, who accessed her voicemail remotely and called his mom back, reporting that her husband was traveling to "Silhouette Falls." Knowing that her husband was in some kind of trouble and with an idea that, like the last time they visited Yosemite, he had journeyed up the Illilouette Creek drainage, the subject's wife sought help from the NPS volunteer at the Lower Pines campground, who then called rangers to the scene. The rangers were then able to communicate directly with the subject on his cell phone, and at sunset, a team of three rescuers headed up the drainage to find him.When the rescuers found the subject, it was close to dark. The subject was lying on his back, not moving. To immobilize the subject's spine, the rescuers packaged him in a vacuum body splint, covered him with a sleeping bag, and settled in for a long night. The next morning, the subject was extracted from the backcountry by helicopter via short-haul. At the Ahwahnee Meadow, the subject was transferred to an NPS ambulance and transported to the Yosemite Medical Clinic. The subject was later transferred to the trauma center at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. His notable injuries included: four full-thickness scalp lacerations, a cervical vertebra fractured in two places, a fractured thoracic vertebra, a fractured right pelvis, and an open fracture of the left ring finger. During the entire ordeal the visitor remained calm and had a positive attitude and is expected to fully recover from his injuries.This incident demonstrates the capacities, and shortcomings, of cell phone use in Yosemite. Although cell reception is common within park boundaries, reception still tends to be spotty and unreliable. Additionally, as this case highlights, there is the very real issue of time delays in receiving text messages and voicemail messages-according to the park's director of telecommunications, often messages land in a queue and are sent out belatedly. Keep in mind that cell phones that work fine at home, may not work in the park. If yours works and you need emergency help, it is imperative that you call 911 instead of texting.This incident also highlights how incredibly easy it is to get into treacherous terrain. In reflecting on his accident, the subject was clear that he "should have known better," further explaining: "I know my limits. I can handle class 3, even class 4 if I had to, but I was not geared for technical climbing; I didn't have protection. I have learned my lesson."