Climbers Stranded on Wawona Dome

May 15, 2017 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue
On Friday, April 28, 2017, around 1 pm, the Big Trees Lodge manager contacted Yosemite National Park regarding two of her employees who were late for their morning shift, and who hadn't been seen by co-workers in about 24 hours. Initial investigation revealed the two Aramark employees had told their roommates they were planning on climbing Wawona Dome. They were last seen walking from their Wawona residence to Wawona Dome, only about 1.5 miles away. The investigation didn't reveal their climbing experience, but it appeared they had left at about 12:30 pm and apparently didn't take any overnight gear as their intention was to climb the dome that afternoon. Rangers initiated a search, and the first search team performed a “hasty search” around the old fire road access to the bottom of the dome and associated area.
CHP Helicopter in Wawona MeadowAt the park’s request, California Highway Patrol helicopter H24 flew for about 45 minutes over the search area, but did not find the climbers. Additional search teams searched the area on foot without success.

At about 6:30 pm, the Big Trees Lodge manager called and said one of the missing employees had phoned her and said the two of them were back at their house. A ranger verified the employees were safe at their residence and all search operations were terminated.
Interviews with the two employees revealed the following:  The climbers departed for Wawona Dome with no overnight gear, as they intended to climb an easy pitch and rappel back down. They got lost trying to find the best access to their climbing area, but eventually found it. They climbed the face without incident, and when they got to the top, one of them didn't feel comfortable rappelling back down. Their intention was to find a way across the Chilnualna Creek, over to the nearby Chinualna Falls Trail, then simply hike back down to Wawona. However, due to the very heavy flows of the creek from snowmelt, they could not find a safe way from the top of the dome to cross the creek and get over to the trail. They were in three feet of snow, and it was getting dark. They hunkered down under a boulder and spent a very cold night without any overnight gear. The next day, they slowly trudged through the deep snow and eventually found a way down. When asked if they heard or saw the CHP helicopter overhead, they said they did, but it apparently didn't see them.
Lessons learned:
  • Research your trail or climbing route thoroughly in your trip planning process.
  • Always ensure you have the right gear and equipment for your trip and plan for the "what ifs," like bad weather.
  • Always check a local visitor center for current conditions on trails and streams.
  • Always go with a friend, especially when climbing or hiking into a wilderness area.
  • Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.
These two employees are very lucky. While they weren’t prepared for an overnight stay, they used good judgment and were flexible. They were smart not to try to rappel down when one of them felt uncomfortable. They also used excellent judgment in not crossing the creek during high water. Additionally, they told someone where they were going, and that person alerted the park when they failed to return. Had these employees gotten stranded or injured, information about their plans would likely have allowed the searchers to locate and rescue them.

Last updated: May 15, 2017

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