Stranded Hikers Rescued from Tenaya Canyon

August 30, 2012 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue

On Tuesday, July 31, a father and his (adult) daughter arrived at Olmsted Point (on the Tioga Road, west of Tuolumne Meadows), intending to hike down to Yosemite Valley via the Snow Creek Trail. Neither hiker had been on this trail before, but according to their topographic map, it appeared to start near Olmsted Point. The Olmsted Point area features a network of confusing, braided, unofficial trails, created by hikers seeking a variety of scenic views. The pair set off from Olmsted Point, unwittingly following an unofficial trail, and soon noticed a sign that read, "To Yosemite Valley," with an arrow indicating a direction of travel that seemed correct for where they expected the Snow Creek Trail to be. Before long, however, the duo were bushwhacking downhill through thick brush, eventually arriving at the top of a drainage, east of Yasoo Dome, where they discovered a fixed rope tied to a tree, along with a climbing helmet.

When asked if seeing the fixed rope in the tree made him reconsider whether they were, in fact, on the Snow Creek Trail, the father explained the thoughts running through his mind at the time:

We need to keep going down to find the trail, because I can't find it up here [at the top of the drainage]. If we can get down to the bottom, to the waterway, that will lead us to the canyon, which will spit us out in the Valley. I'm not going to make my daughter go back uphill through that brush.

The pair used the rope to descend into the drainage. The father, recounting their journey later, said, "Neither of us has any rope experience at all. We used t-shirts to protect our hands and arms." Scrambling for hours down a steep slope covered with more dense patches of manzanita, the hikers followed the drainage to Tenaya Canyon. The terrain flattened out when the pair reached the floor of the canyon, making for much easier travelling. They hiked downhill, following Tenaya Creek, until the creek dropped over a waterfall with steep cliffs on either side, leaving them no means to descend farther. From this point in Tenaya Canyon, ropes and rappelling skills are essential for safe travel.

 People hiking down Tenaya Canyon

Photo of Tenaya Canyon taken later this summer. (Photo by Greg Nespor.)

Exhausted and running low on water, the two hikers could not fathom retracing their route back uphill through the unforgiving brush.  The daughter discovered that, fortunately (and remarkably), her cell phone had service, so they called 911. The father was put in direct contact with park rangers, who concluded that the pair had descended the gully east of Yasoo Dome.  Two Yosemite search and rescue (YOSAR) teams were sent out that evening, one on the path that the pair had followed and the other down the standard Tenaya Canyon descent. Meanwhile, knowing that teams would come looking for them, the hikers built a fire and hunkered down for the night.

The next morning, one of the search teams found the two hikers.  They still had plenty of food and were relatively warm, thanks to the fire, but were moderately dehydrated. The pair was guided back to Olmsted Point by a more common route that included third-class scrambling.

The most important lessons from this incident are these:  

  • As soon as you realize you are no longer hiking on an established trail, and instead find yourself bushwhacking or scrambling on rugged terrain, stop. Do not keep going, thinking you're going to find the trail. Immediately backtrack until you find the correct route, even if that means hiking back uphill. The sooner you recognize your situation, the easier it will be to correct it.
  • If you're hiking off trail and you cannot see every step of the way to your goal, you cannot evaluate the terrain. In the case at hand, a single 100-foot waterfall blocked their way to the Valley.
  • Most wilderness areas in the park lack cell phone service. The father-daughter team was extremely fortunate to have service at the bottom of a canyon where both sides rise thousands of feet. The Yosemite Emergency Communications Center (ECC) was able to triangulate the 911 call, but only to within a three-mile radius with 90% accuracy. The coordinates put the pair on the near-vertical east slope of Yasoo Dome, nearly 2,000 feet above their actual location.
  • The two hikers were using a topographic map, but it did not have the necessary close-up view.  Bringing and knowing how to read a 7.5-minute topographic quadrangle map, which is more detailed, could have prevented the confusion at Olmsted Point and warned them of the hazardous terrain ahead of them.

The father-daughter pair made at least three smart decisions:

  • The first was to stop when they did; through the years, hikers who were unprepared for vertical terrain yet continued descending farther into the canyon have been stranded and even killed.
  • The father-daughter team brought a lighter, which allowed them to build a fire so they could stay warm through the night.
  • Also important was the father's decision to give two different parties in the Tuolumne Meadows Campground their hiking itinerary; he explained where they were starting, where they were ending, and what trail they planned to take. He told his fellow campers that he and his daughter should return by Wednesday night, and instructed the campers to notify someone if their truck wasn't back in the campground by Thursday morning at the latest. Had the daughter's cell phone not had service, the itinerary given to their fellow campers would have proven crucial for their rescue.

A few days after the rescue, the father was asked what he would have done if rescuers hadn't been there, and the father answered, "I don't know. That question keeps running through my brain. I've already called REI and asked, 'Do you offer map and compass training?'"

18 Comments Comments icon

  1. September 28, 2016 at 09:30

    I've hiked into Tenaya Canyon numerous times. The first time down Tenaya Creek. It was challenging but we did it with just one difficult stream crossing. We found the route from Olmstead Point which is a much easier hike. The article says it's class 3, the route I found was class 2. I found a guy that was lost in there one time, he'd been wandering around there for a couple days. I showed him the route out. He was a novice backpacker. I have a lot of experience reading maps and taking cross-country routes, which made it an enjoyable hike every time I've been down there.

  2. October 30, 2012 at 12:37

    I noticed that the park maps all indicated that Tenaya Canyon should be avoided by hikers and until now I wondered why. After reading the story ( It should be noted that I consider myself a moderately skilled hiker and adventurer) I will avoid Tenaya Canyon despite that call to look further and for better and closer views and photos. Thanks for the lesson and I am glad all you payed for it was a long uphill trek back to Olmstead.

  3. September 28, 2012 at 12:44

    I know part of Tenaya Creek and Tenaya Canyon, it is not for a regular hiker to visit; climbing skills and some equipment is necessary in some areas.

  4. September 18, 2012 at 11:19

    Thank you, Richard from Soquel, for the book recommendation. I'm picking up a copy. It sounds like an illuminating read.

  5. September 14, 2012 at 04:18

    Thankyou, Yosemite for all the informative feed-back and stories regarding Hiking back-country and "un-marked" trails. This knowledge is a gift. The more "stories" you provide...the more learned we become.Too many unfortunate casualities occur from lack of knowledge. Thankyou.

  6. September 13, 2012 at 02:30

    I believe another thing the hikers did right was to stick together. Never split up even for a minute to try to backtrack or find an alternate route.

  7. September 11, 2012 at 09:04

    Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite should be required reading for anyone who even thinks about hiking in Yosemite----or even other parks, for that matter. That book details what could (and did) happen when one goes bushwacking.

  8. September 10, 2012 at 09:44

    So happy these father/daughter hikers were able to survive this ordeal & share their story! Lesson learned & great story of survival. When I hike in Yosemite, I always stay on the posted trails. Yosemite is beautiful & Im grateful to be able to enjoy the great outdoors! Thanks to Yosemite Search & Rescue who are available to come to the rescue, for those who need the help!!

  9. September 10, 2012 at 07:08

    I was one of the campers in Tuolumne that the father gave his itinerary to. He was very clear as to their route, destination and expected day/time back. It's nice to help people out, I'm sorry they had such a bad experience.

  10. September 10, 2012 at 05:59

    They were very lucky. I am a novice, so I wouldn't be trying to go on trails that are not marked.

  11. September 10, 2012 at 05:28

    This happens far too often. Mainly due to inexperience. Inability to properly read a topo map, unfamiliarity with trails, and obviously no knowledge of Tenaya Canyon. I see hiking clubs with similar errors made, with heli rescue for people not even hurt! Please, do not go into the wilderness if you don't know how to know where you are or know which way to go!

  12. September 10, 2012 at 05:18

    That's great everybody is safe in this incident! We're living in Bay Area and go to hike/bachpack in Yosemity pretty often. Now with high tech growing fast, majority of people has smartphones. So, we are using Maprika iphone/android application. It shows you very accurate on the topo maps they have for many different areas, including Yosemity. It's very helpful espicially when no service,but at least GPS will work and show your location compare to trail. Hope it will help! With kind regards, Svetlana

  13. September 10, 2012 at 02:02

    All too real and all too true. Thank you.

  14. September 10, 2012 at 01:41

    I've been down in Tenaya Canyon - hiked all the way around from Cloud's Rest down almost to Yosemite Valley (until we reached an area we called "The Death Zone"- an overhanging spot where the underground river came gushing out into a narrow steep canyon). I was uncomfortable hiking down a dry riverbed to get there and it was against my better judgement- if I felt I was in serious danger, I would have turned around. We ended up running out of water, only a few minutes from Pywiack Cascade (getting there at first light for the best tasting water ever) and then, when we hit our Death zone dead end, we had to go all the way back to Olmsted Point. Only my experience kept us from being rescued (tons of bear scat down there too). Muir wrote about hiking up Tenaya Canyon in "A Geologist's Winter Walk"- where he slipped and knocked himself out for a few hours - but of course he continued on and make it up the entire canyon- we never made it all the way down, and I'm glad we stopped trying:

  15. September 10, 2012 at 01:39

    I'm not sure the hikers should be credited with the 1st point - from the article, it sounds like they *couldn't* descend further, save by jumping over the waterfall.

  16. September 10, 2012 at 01:29

    The father and daughter in this account should consider themselves extremely fortunate for surviving this ordeal. When traveling in the Yosemite wilderness, one should travel with an experienced hiker who is familiar with the trail. The Yosemite high country is no place for novices!

  17. September 10, 2012 at 12:42

    Thank you for sharing this lesson. I hope that others will read it BEFORE they go out into the Yosemite (or any other) Wilderness and think about what they would do in a similar situation.

  18. September 10, 2012 at 12:40

    I think this type of story is very helpful and informative for beginning hikers like me and my husband. Thanks for posting.

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Last updated: August 30, 2012

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