Near Drowning at Vernal Fall Pool

September 05, 2014 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue
At approximately 1 pm on Wednesday, August 13, the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center (ECC) received a report of an unconscious male in the natural pool at the base of Vernal Fall. Three rangers responded to the scene, arriving within 30 minutes of the initial report. A National Park Service trail crew supervisor directed the rangers to the subject, a 24-year-old male, who, by the time the rangers arrived, was out of the pool, sitting among the boulders at the base of Vernal Fall. The subject was conscious and alert and drinking a bottle of water. He was surrounded by three other hikers; it is unclear exactly how long the subject was underwater.

One ranger performed an initial medical assessment on the subject, while another ranger asked the three hikers to recount the events. According to the hikers, they had been hiking down the Mist Trail from the top of Vernal Fall when they noticed a person in distress in the pool at the base of Vernal Fall. The three hikers stated there were “hundreds” of people on the trail who could see the subject struggling to exit the water. One of threesome, who was farther down the trail, ran off-trail to the base of Vernal Fall and jumped into the pool. The hiker swam across the pool to the subject, who had “gassed out” (the term used by the hiker) and was bobbing under the water. The hiker-rescuer was able to push the drowning man to the edge of the water, where another bystander, who was no longer at the scene when the rangers arrived, pulled the subject from the river. Once the subject was out of the water, he began to vomit profusely. By this time, the hiker-rescuer’s two friends had crossed the river and had joined him and the rescued subject. The three hikers gave the rescued man water and food and sat with him until the rangers arrived.

According to the rescued subject, who was on his honeymoon, he had decided to go swimming in the pool while his wife waited at the river’s edge. He had been in the pool, on the big rock not far from the edge of the river, when he decided to swim from the big rock across the full length of the pool. As he reached the far side, he became tired. That, combined with the cold water and the slippery nature of the rocks at the pool’s edge, prevented the subject from being able to pull himself out of the pool.  As he struggled to exit the pool, he began to drift downstream and bob under the water. It was at this point that the hiker-rescuer jumped into the pool and pushed him to the edge where the other rescuer pulled him from the water. The subject explained to the rangers that he did not have much swimming experience.

Once the rangers were finished with their medical assessment, they and the subject’s rescuers helped the man cross the river, where he was reunited with his new wife, who had watched the incident. Once the subject and his wife were ready to hike down the trail, he declined further medical attention. The rangers advised the subject that while he appeared in a good state of health at the time of assessment, near-drownings could present with respiratory failure or infection several hours after the event.

While the Merced River is typically at its lowest level in August and September, drownings and near-drownings are not uncommon at this time of year in Yosemite. Due to the high summer temperatures and seemingly benign water conditions, people who have little swimming experience can be lulled into a false sense of security and enter water that is beyond their abilities. Many near misses and fatalities in the river corridors of Yosemite often begin with people overestimating their swimming skill and underestimating the strength of the river. While the hikers who rescued the subject thought it was strange no one was going to the aid of the drowning subject, it is common for people to fail to recognize that someone is drowning. Moreover, all too often would-be rescuers enter a river to save a drowning person, becoming victims themselves. When visiting a national park and enjoying its natural features, please remember you are responsible for your own safety, and when it comes to wading or swimming in flowing water, carefully assess your own swimming ability and that of everyone else in your group. Survey the scene before approaching the water. Beyond the clear dangers of waterfalls, Yosemite’s rivers and streams have unseen currents and hidden hazards, such as submerged rocks and logs, and the river beds have sudden drop-offs.

The rangers left the subject and his wife and returned to the trailhead. Just as they were about to drive away, the rangers received a report that a 46-year-old woman on the lower steps of the Mist Trail had a seizure and was in an altered level of consciousness (in a postictal state). The rangers hiked back up the trail, reaching the subject within a half an hour. Once on scene, rangers realized the subject spoke English as a second language and the initial report of a seizure was incorrect. The subject, who was conscious and talking, had lost consciousness briefly (i.e., suffered a minor syncopal episode). The rangers performed an initial assessment on the subject and concluded her fainting episode was most likely due to the subject not eating lunch. They advised the subject to eat and drink before continuing down the trail

Photo showing the pool and the location of the rock and where the subject was rescued from the pool

Last updated: September 5, 2014

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