On June 5, 2016, three young male hikers from Florida started hiking from Tenaya Lake (Sunrise Lakes trailhead) and established a base camp 2.5 miles into their hike. On Monday morning, they hiked back out to Tuolumne Meadows to obtain a Half Dome permit in addition to their wilderness permit. The trip to the frontcountry added miles and effort to their day while subtracting available daylight; it was noon before they returned to basecamp and started off for Half Dome.
At the Forsyth/Clouds Rest trail junction, the group lost the trail due to snow and unintentionally took the Forsyth trail down toward the John Muir Trail. They eventually righted themselves and summited Half Dome via the cables.
It was on their return to base camp when their long day, accumulated miles, and high elevation begin to take their toll. First, they only had three liters of water, which wasn't enough. Although they bought three LifeStraws (water filtration method), they only took one on their Half Dome hike and it malfunctioned. Due to the potential for water-borne illness, they were reluctant to drink from local water sources and they had no means to melt snow. Eventually, they ate some snow (but snow has low water content).
Before they reached their base camp near Sunrise Lakes, the sun set and they were thirsty and exhausted. Lacking a light, they spent the night on the trail, ill-equipped for an overnight stay in the high Sierra. That evening, June 6, the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center received an incomplete 911 report of three hikers 1.5 miles up the Forsyth trail and in need of water. Cell service in the area is poor. A second 911 call of poor cell quality indicated the party began hiking from the Sunrise Lakes trailhead, which led to confusion that the party was 1.5 miles up the Sunrise Lakes trail, but broken communications prevented confirmation of their location. Due to incomplete phone calls, the Yosemite Emergency Communication Center notified Yosemite Search and Rescue of a party of three, 1.5 miles from the Sunrise Lakes trailhead, either out of water or having difficulty with a water crossing.
At 10:45 pm, a hasty team reached the Sunrise-Clouds Rest trail junction but did not locate the party. During this time, the hikers continued to make 911 calls and some successful text messages to family members, which were relayed to the park.
By Tuesday morning, a major ground search was initiated, including several ground teams and the park’s helicopter. With a major search underway, command staff located the group’s wilderness permits, including a Half Dome permit.
The park’s helicopter located a party of three. A wilderness team found the hikers’ tent on a knoll above the Sunrise Lakes-Clouds Rest trail junction, at which point the hiking party walked into camp.
All three were exhausted, cold, and tired from sleeping on the ground. Otherwise, no medical treatment was required. A SAR team escorted the party out to the trailhead. In truth, they would have made it safely out without assistance but they learned some valuable lessons.
What Went Right
The hiking party obtained the necessary permits. Although permits are used to manage wilderness use, permits can be useful for obtaining information if a hiking party becomes lost or has other difficulties.
The hikers came to their base camp well equipped and they did do some planning.
After darkness set in, the hikers accepted their reality and did not try to force a solution by groping around in the darkness hoping to find their camp. Walking around in darkness increases the likelihood of losing the trail or falling off a cliff.
When problems began to overtake them, the party stayed together. This increased the probability for a good outcome, likely kept up their morale, combined judgment, and kept the search uncomplicated.
When planning a hike of any length, always consider the level of effort involved and equip yourself accordingly. Determine not only distance, but elevation gain, which reduces speed while increasing fatigue and the need for additional water and nutrition. Also—and this was a huge factor here—determine how much daylight you'll need to accomplish your goal. A good topographical map and knowing how to read it is invaluable for calculating things such as distances, travel time estimates, elevation changes, and the effort necessary to accomplish one’s goals.
High elevation always needs to be considered when estimating effort. These hikers came from Florida (sea level) and began hiking above 8,000 feet. At the least, this increases fatigue and dehydration. Heartrate and respirations increase with elevation even with healthy, well-conditioned hikers.
Although generally adequately equipped, this was not the case on the intended day trip to Half Dome. Always carry your 10 essentials even on short day hikes and side-trips. The 10 essentials are for unplanned events, like this one, and not reaching your destination before dark is a good example. In this case, the group didn't have a light; it turned out they stalled only one mile from their basecamp, an easy distance to cover if each hiker had their own headlamp.
In summary, always make adequate preparations and carry more than you will need. Never depend on cell phones, especially in the wilderness. In this case, the cell phone did have some value but always ask yourself what you'll do if you need help and don't have a cell signal.