Last updated: April 2, 2015
With the unseasonably warm, sunny weather this spring, the number of hikers has risen dramatically over the past several weekends. Trails out of the Valley are open for a long way, with little snowpack, leading some adventurers to travel farther than they might normally at this time of year. We have had an unusually high number of search and rescue missions, all stemming from one common cause: leaving the trail. Here are the stories from this March in Yosemite.
Ledge-Out Near the Snow Creek Trail
On March 16th, three friends ranging in age from 19 to 32 headed up the Snow Creek trail. On the return, they left the trail above Tenaya Canyon near "Airplane Gully." As they followed what they believed to be a faint trail of rock cairns, they began descending into more and more steep, difficult terrain. Unwilling to turn around and go back, they eventually realized they had scrambled down to a ledge system that they they could not climb back out of, nor could they safely descend. Realizing they were trapped, they placed a cell phone call for help. Unfortunately, it was late in the day, and a rescue operation could not be initiated until the next morning. The subjects spent a cold night, unprepared to be out, waiting for daylight. The next morning, an aircraft from the California Highway Patrol (CHP) was requested, and two rangers were flown to within hiking distance of the stranded scramblers. The rangers were able to help the group safely descend to the landing zone, and they were flown back to Ahwahnee Meadow.
Lost and Injured Off Trail Near Lower Yosemite Fall
Less than one week later, on March 21, a group of three friends from UC Santa Barbara were visiting Yosemite for the first time. They headed for the beautiful base of Yosemite Falls as soon as they arrived and were scrambling on the boulders near the viewing area at the Lower Yosemite Fall footbridge. They had no concrete plan for the weekend, but all hoped to go hiking, maybe to the top of the falls. After about 30 minutes, two of the group members turned around in the boulder field at the base of the lower fall to look for their friend. They searched for several hours and eventually contacted rangers when it became apparent they had no idea where their friend had gone. The missing 20 year old was wearing only a sweatshirt and jeans and only had a camera (no wallet or cell phone).
Early the next morning with still no sign of the missing student, rangers began devising a plan to search the area near the lower fall, but with no direction of travel and no planned itinerary for the subject, search efforts were difficult to focus. Adding to the difficulty, the two friends, tired of waiting, disregarded the incident commander's request to stay in their campsite that morning to be interviewed for more information to guide the search. Several hours were lost trying to locate these reporting friends. Meanwhile, rangers were sent to search between the boulders at the base of the lower fall for fear he had fallen and been severely injured out of sight. Another team went to the top of Yosemite Falls to ask visitors if they had seen the subject hiking in the area. The second night after the young man went missing, a cold rain settled over the Valley accompanied by a dramatic thunderstorm. The rain continued overnight, raising the urgency of the search for the unprepared subject.
The morning of March 23, 48 hours after the subject's disappearance, 50 searchers from 4 counties responded along with YOSAR personnel, and were deployed into the Valley to assist with contacting the public to establish a simple direction of travel and enlist visitors' help with the search. At approximately 11 am, these efforts paid off when a visitor spotted the missing man amidst a pile of boulders, suffering from hypothermia and severely injured after a large fall, less than half mile from the base of the lower fall.
Based on the photos found in his camera, it is believed the search subject attempted to scramble up higher along Sunnyside bench, possibly to get better pictures, or possibly to shortcut to the Yosemite Point area. He had fallen over 50 feet and suffered severe injuries. Investigators believe he may have crawled toward the trail in the night and sought shelter from the rain among the boulders. He remains in critical but stable condition.
Lost Off Trail Near the Yosemite Falls Trail
Finally, a third group of friends was hiking down the Yosemite Falls Trail on Friday, March 27th, when they decided the main trail would take too long to descend. They scrambled down from the trail toward the inner gorge, which separates the upper fall from the lower fall. They became separated in their scramble down the slope and two of them became stranded or lost in different locations along the edge of the gorge. The third member of the party was in Camp 4 after dark, when he reported his friends missing from a borrowed phone. He did not however, stay put for the rangers to speak with him further, hampering efforts to launch rescue operations due to insufficient information. Rangers responded in the dark to the lower fall area and could hear screams for help, but could not tell where they were coming from over the din of the waterfall. Eventually, a rescue team was able to locate one of the missing subjects near the inner gorge on Sunnyside Bench and guide him to safety. The final missing subject could not be located, but a fire among the cliffs at the lip of the lower fall provided the evidence searchers needed that their subject was still stranded. Unable to communicate over the water or reach the subject in the dark, rangers were forced to wait until morning. The subject spent a long cold night, unprepared, in the cold mist of the waterfall.
Early the next morning, CHP was again requested, and a YOSAR rescuer was hoisted to the stranded hiker's location. He was extracted via hoist and flown to Ahwahnee Meadow. He was uninjured, but hypothermic and scared.
The lessons learned from these three incidents are classic, but bear repeating, as they are the most common causes of injuries and fatalities in Yosemite. All of the subjects had left developed trails looking for shortcuts or better views. All had become stranded or injured doing so. None were prepared to spend a night out and most did not have headlamps or whistles to help rescuers locate them. The reporting parties in two instances did not stay in their campsites when requested to do so, delaying the efforts of rangers to gather enough information to launch viable search efforts. In one case, that delay could have cost their missing friend his life.
Yosemite's trails are some of the most spectacular and best maintained in the National Park System. They are, in every case, the shortest, safest path of least resistance to return to the trailhead. Even when hiking on developed trails, always carry a headlamp, a whistle, and at least a warm jacket in the event you are delayed getting back. Something as seemingly benign as a sprained ankle can lead to a hike ending later than planned, well after darkness falls and many hikers have become stranded overnight for simple lack of a headlamp. Being prepared reduces the fear and urgency of being out in the dark, making staying on the trail more appealing, and making it easier to resist the temptation to short cut.
Yosemite's hiking season is off to a glorious early start. Enjoy safe travels on the trails as they are some of the most beautiful in the world!