Turning Blue in the Emerald Pool

July 29, 2016 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue

A brief dip in the Emerald Pool became a near-death experience for two 18-year-old swimmers on July 17, 2016. A group of eight older teens were hiking the Mist Trail above Vernal Fall. Two of the teens, both from Southern California, were familiar with swimming and recreating in the Pacific surf. They reached Emerald Pool as late-afternoon shadows were falling across the canyon.

Two of the teens decided to leave the trail and swim across Emerald Pool. When they tried to return to the trail side of Emerald Pool, the two swimmers struggled with:

  • A strong current, which was not apparent before entering the water
  • Cold water temperatures, which quickly accelerated their fatigue

The strong current and cold water thoroughly exhausted both young men. One was surviving the return swim but the other literally was not. The surviving swimmer doubled back to rescue his friend but fatigue overcame both swimmers. Their six companions on shore, though watching in horror, were not able to help. At this point, the young men were now losing their battle against drowning.

During their struggle, an anonymous Good Samaritan entered the water and grabbed the more distressed swimmer just as he was bobbing under the water. The rescuer pulled him to the water’s edge, enabling the other swimmer to self-rescue.

The Good Samaritan, whose identity remains a mystery, left the scene.

The distressed swimmer swallowed water and, although on dry land, was vomiting and barely responsive, even as the first emergency medical responders arrived. His condition was serious enough that a Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team had to carry him down to Happy Isles on a litter.

It appears both swimmers will make a healthy recovery.

Lessons Learned:

  • Emerald Pool is not a swimming pool. Other swimmers have drowned after discovering the challenge of cold and current when it was too late.
  • Warning signs are a good indication of a tragic history. Emerald Pool and the adjoining Silver Apron are well signed with warnings about and prohibitions against entering the water in this area.
  • In hindsight, the rescue went well and achieved an ideal outcome. However, entering the water to aid a distressed swimmer is not encouraged because these would-be rescuers often require rescue themselves, or die. This almost became a case in point when the first rescue attempt turned into a losing battle against exhaustion. The recommend rescue technique is to try to get a floatable object to the struggling swimmer(s) and immediately alert authorities.
  • Yosemite’s waters present unique dangers often quite different than the oceans’ hazards. Familiarity with the ocean does not translate well into success in Yosemite’s waters. Although swimming is a necessary skill around any water, sometimes even strong swimmers lose their lives in Yosemite’s waters, including at Emerald Pool.
  • Stay on the trail.

Last updated: July 29, 2016

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