Yosemite’s Rivers Present Hazards, Even in September

September 11, 2015 Posted by: Yosemite Search and Rescue

Three hikers were injured along the Merced River in the first six days of September. While the river is flowing at near record lows, it is not benign.
Despite extremely low water levels, the Merced River can still be deceptively dangerous.
On Tuesday, September 1, while most of the park's available resources were engaged in a wilderness search for a missing person, Yosemite Emergency Communications Center received a 911 call reporting that a young man was trapped in the water and screaming for help near the Silver Apron footbridge between the bottom of Nevada Fall and the top of Vernal Fall. The call was transferred to the incident commander, who attempted to get additional details. Unfortunately, cell reception was poor and it took some relay work to get the information. Meanwhile, a hasty team of two rescuers raced up the trail to assess the scene, relay information, and help as able until a properly outfitted swiftwater team could follow with swiftwater rescue gear. By the time rangers reached the reporting party, the badly injured subject had managed to free himself. The subject avoided the rescuers, who were unable to locate the subject. The swiftwater team returned to the Valley to bolster the teams already depleted for the search operations.

Four days later, on Saturday, September 5, the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center received a call from the Merced River near Arch Rock Entrance Station. The report indicated that a male subject in his 30s dove into a shallow pool of water and could not feel anything below his waist. Ambulances responded from Yosemite Valley and El Portal while rangers responded to the incident with swiftwater gear. As more information came in, rangers learned the subject was already out of the river but was showing signs of shock. The man was flown to a nearby trauma center where, despite the skill of many medical professionals, his injuries left him paralyzed.

The following evening, on September 6, the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center received another 911 call reporting that a young male subject had slipped while climbing around in boulders at the base of Nevada Fall and that his arm had become trapped between the boulders. A hasty team headed up the trail and found that, while the man had managed to free himself, he had dislocated his shoulder. The subject had no other injuries but was in intense pain. Rescuers provided pain control medication, splinted the shoulder, and then accompanied him down the trail to the Yosemite Medical Clinic, where his shoulder was reduced. 

Swiftwater accidents are particularly dangerous and Yosemite has a long and storied history of drownings and horrible accidents in fast-moving spring water. At this time of year, however, the water seems comparatively tame. Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Fall have all but dried up for the season and the Merced River appears to have been reduced to near stagnation. However, the river still contains a litany of hazards including slippery wet granite, smooth and polished granite (which is also very slippery), boulders creating entrapments, currents that may or may not be observable, deceptively shallow water, and steep drops with short stops. As you enjoy the waterways in this drier season, please remember that rock hopping and scrambling among the boulders near the slow moving river can be as dangerous now as when the water is higher. Stay on designated trails or enjoy the river from one of the many beaches, bridges, or viewpoints along your route so that you can return from your vacation having experienced the park's fall beauty safely!

In each of these incidents, individuals made what seemed like reasonable choices to engage in activities along a seemingly benign section of a river but the injuries that resulted were painful ways to end a vacation, and sadly, one which was life altering.

Last updated: September 11, 2015

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