At 4:42 on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center (ECC) received a 911 cell phone call from a bystander near the base of Bridalveil Fall. The caller reported that someone had slipped and fallen in the rocks, hit his head, and was unconscious and bleeding from the ear. The ECC paged the Valley ambulance, rangers, and other search and rescue (SAR) team members to respond. Communications—both cell phone and radio—are difficult in that section of Yosemite Valley, but after some initial confusion, emergency responders found the subject, a man in his 60s, off the trail on a boulder next to a branch of Bridalveil Creek.
Family members explained that, as a group, they had left the Valley Loop trail and scrambled up the Bridalveil Creek bed. The subject lost his footing and slipped, fell about three feet, hit the left side of his head and his left shoulder, and ended up unconscious, facedown with his head submerged in the creek. The subject’s family pulled him out of the water, and approximately 1-2 minutes later he regained consciousness. Although the subject did not regain full alertness and orientation, with help from his family who at times “buddy” carried him, the subject was able to make his way downhill next to the creek. A few minutes’ hiking time from the trail, the group descended onto a large boulder with steep drop-offs, which is where the search and rescue team members encountered the subject.
The initial medical assessment of the subject included a suspected skull fracture and left clavicle fracture. The subject was stabilized, packaged into a litter, and carried out. The litter extraction was risky for the rescue team, who, even wearing approach shoes with sticky rubber soles, were slipping on the polished dry granite. The rescue also included one belay of the litter through technical terrain. The subject was transported by ground ambulance to El Capitan Meadow and transferred to an awaiting air ambulance, who then flew the subject to an area trauma center.
For the past decade, hiking and scrambling off-trail is the third leading cause of accidental fatalities in Yosemite (after water-related deaths and climbing fatalities). The area at the base of Bridalveil Fall is particularly treacherous: the falling water has polished the boulders and rocks to a surface as smooth as a granite countertop, and the terrain is incredibly steep and has big drop-offs. From 2014 to 2019, 23 off-trail SAR incidents occurred in this area, 7 of which were life-threatening, including one subject who was paralyzed and another who did not survive his injuries. While exploring in the park—and especially while hiking—you can greatly reduce the chance of an accident by staying on the trail and focusing on your footing.
Most of the area at the base of Bridalveil Fall, including the traditional viewing platform and the treacherous boulder field above it, are closed due to construction. (This incident occurred near, but outside of, the closed area.) Every day, dozens of visitors are going around or over signed fencing into the closed area and off trail, endangering themselves and the trail crew workers who are actively rebuilding rock walls and trails and who at times are felling trees or operating heavy equipment. For the safety of yourself and others, please respect posted closures.