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A Matter of Safety

| August 22, 2012

The LA Times posted an interesting opinion piece about safety in Yosemite and asks the question, “Can Yosemite be made safer?”

Here’s a little background from the piece.

LATimes:

Of the 20 or so people who died in Yosemite last year, 13 met their deaths via accidents. Sometimes those accidents are the results of deliberate risk-taking — people who rock-climb on the sheer face of Half Dome are willingly pursuing a potentially dangerous sport. Sometimes they are the result of people willfully ignoring obvious — even literal — signs of danger, such as the three people who were swept over Vernal Fall last summer when they climbed over a protective railing and past strongly worded warning signs to bathe in what looked like a safe pool in the Merced River.

But other times, the situation is less clear. In June 2011, two men died in the seldom-visited Hetch Hetchy Valley. They were on their way home from a backpacking trip when they came to Wapama Falls. In spring, or during wetter years after storms, the waterfall sends pounding streams of water onto the wooden footbridges below. It’s a matter of of personal judgment whether conditions make it too dangerous to venture onto the bridges. Hiking books warn about the danger, but there were no signs that I could see on a recent trip. In this case, the hikers were 2.5 miles from the trailhead; turning around and taking an alternate route via the backcountry would have cost them more than a day. They decided to try the crossing. One was overpowered by the torrent of water and slipped off the bridge. According to an eyewitness, his hiking campanion let go of the railing in an attempt to save him and both men were swept into the reservoir below.

Each time Yosemite or another wilderness area is the site of an avoidable death, the question inevitably arises of whether the park is doing enough to keep visitors safe. Does it need more railings, more signs? The Times editorial board has repeatedly said no. Yosemite has a lot of signs; in fact, part of the problem could be that there are so many signs, tourists don’t bother looking at them. Wilderness is wilderness for a reason; people need some respite from man-made boundaries. (I’d make an exception for the granite steps up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, one of the most hiked trails in the park and one where many people complain about the slippery stone steps and a man died after slipping on one of them into the river. Extra railings make sense there.)

But that doesn’t mean the park should give up on additional safety measures. One possibility would be to hand people a separate, eye-catching paper when they enter the park about the dangers and some basic behaviors to avoid tragedy. (“Don’t go in the river within a certain distance from a waterfall, whether above or below.”) Tourists already have to stop to pay their fee. They’re already handed brochures and other information about the park. It would cost very little money and almost no time to print up these lists in several different languages and for the gate attendant to take just a few seconds to say, “This list is important. Please read it for your own safety. Very sad things have happened right in this park to people who didn’t do these things.”

Personally, I don’t believe there’s much that can be done to make Yosemite safer. There are guidebooks, websites (like this one), and videos that frequently warn of the dangers and urge caution. When something tragic does happen the news is carried world wide in newspapers, blogs, television news, radio and even podcasts. Yet one thing remains, people don’t heed the warnings and never will.

Yosemite is wild. This isn’t Disneyland. This isn’t an amusement park with safety measures installed. This is wilderness. Just because there’s a trail or a footbridge or a railing doesn’t mean you should give up common sense. Wilderness is wilderness. Little things can kill you. Don’t stand on top of a mountain in an electrical storm. Don’t pet a deer it can gore you with it’s antlers if startled. Don’t pick up a sick squirrel along side the trail and carry it around, it could have rabies. Don’t leave food out for bears. Don’t try to hike 10 miles in the middle of summer with only 12oz. of water in a cheap plastic water bottle. Above all…

USE YOUR COMMON SENSE.

What do you think?

Responses:

Since 2005 I have been a YA/YC volunteer five times. In that capacity I have had to direct and redirect people to have a safe, efficient and enjoyable time in the park. But there is no shortage of stupidity, carelessness and disregard. I shows in so many fashions: arrogance being a top description. Yosemite is such a wonderful place where awe should overrule arrogance, where respect should replace disregard. As you say, it’s not Disneyland (despite some rental options in the Valley such as tubes). While I personally am sorry for untimely death, I cannot easily empathize when peoples’ own carelessness and disregard cause their own injury. Time and again we volunteers have had to warn people about the Yosemite power. I always hope they see the park through the eyes of an artist instead of through the attitude of an atv driver. -Bob

A good, sensible piece, with an easy, excellent suggestion (the handout at park entrances). -Alexandra

I strongly agree with the LA Times that fliers should be distributed to visitors implementing what I would call the “Fair Warning” system.

While it’s true that Yosemite is wild and not a Disneyland it is also true that the majority of visitors do not have experience in the wild. It is this sad yet compelling fact that should persuade Park officials to immediately announce upon entrance the top dangers in the park and how to avoid them.

Announcing the number of deaths and injuries that occur annually would assist people in understanding the actual dangers in the park. Wasn’t this the thinking behind the “Red Bear, Dead Bear” campaign, to graphically connect the thoughtless act of speeding to the actual death site of the bear?

I’m not saying let’s erect a sign over the spot of every human death but I am saying that Yosemite needs to create an atmosphere of Fair Warning for people with the same vivid exactness that it has given to bears. The harsh reality is that both warnings are needed.

Other than the lack of a warning statement being issued upon entrance I think the park is doing a fantastic job and I’m privileged to live close and visit often. -Lee


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Category: Safety


About Loyd: For over 30 years I've enjoyed hiking, backpacking, fishing, photographing and exploring Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. More About the Author. View author profile.

Comments (9)

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  1. Niki says:

    I very much agree with you. I don’t go into the wilderness to see an overabundance of signs and railings. I go to get away from all the rules and do my own thing. If I get hurt or die due to poor judgement, so be it.

  2. Sean says:

    Yeah it’s ridiculous- accidents happen. People don’t take the time to learn about nature, to realize it’s beautiful and peaceful, but also dangerous and unforgiving. And if they tried to make it “safer”, they’d probably end up creating more eye sores on the landscape- we have enough of that- it’s called Los Angeles.

    Leave Yosemite alone- if there’s a cliff, stay away from it. If the river is rushing by incredibly powerful, watch your children and keep away from the slippery granite that has been polished for centuries. Learn about the wildlife that lives there and don’t try to hand feed them. Carry lots of water on every hike, and a jacket just in case, tell people where you are going, and know where you are going. Sounds pretty simple to me.

  3. Jeannette Hayashida says:

    I have visited Yosemite several times and I always read the signs because I assume if someone put a sign there it should be read. So I know there are sufficient warning signs in the park. Take heed of whatever the signs are saying and you will stay safe. And the rangers and volunteers do a very good job in warning about the wildlife and any existing conditions in the park. Even the shuttle bus drivers have given warnings when they knew about any hazardous conditions in the park. But park visitors will still visit with a Disneyland mentality and Yosemite being what it is will always have visitor accidents. It shouldn’t be changed though. It was there before any of us.

  4. Bill Rosenberg says:

    I have been hiking and camping in Yosemite since the early 50’s and have tried to avoid doing anything too stupid. I have done well by being a little cautious, but sometimes a little more information would have helped. This July I took my just-nine-year-old grandson on his first backpack trip. I chose the Hetch Hetchy Rancheria Falls destination because it seemed relatively flat, scenic, and would end with a creek to play in. Despite having been a Yosemite visitor for more than fifty years I had never been to the Hetch Hetchy area so I trusted the topo map and park trail information for my decision. Once we were well into the hike it became clear that the trail, while level on average, was very rocky and difficult for a kid. It was also hot and dry (we did take water and a filter pump so we were ok). Shortly past Wapama Falls, not knowing much about the remaining trail, I made the decision to turn back rather than push on and completely wear out my grandson. Turning back is always a hard decision, but I think that it was correct this time.

    A week or so later, while reading a Sierra Club magazine article about their outings, I saw that they rated the Rancheria Falls hike as moderate, rather than easy (3 on a scale of 5). If I had known that in advance I might have looked for a more entry-level destination.

    So, my feeling is that park entrance handouts are of limited value other than to highlight some acute situation such as a footbridge having been completely washed out, but a trail difficulty rating system (perhaps seasonally adjusted) on the Wilderness Permit web pages or in the visitor centers might help visitors make better choices. After all, the rock climbers, who are not known to be wusses, have a very detailed rating system for the Yosemite climbing routes.

    Another thought, not intending to minimize any death or near-death incident, is that there are actually very few incidents for a park with 4 million visitors per year. I don’t know how to compare Park visitor-days to town populations, but many small towns have higher incident rates than Yosemite. We shouldn’t be complacent, but we shouldn’t over react either.

  5. Janet says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. Can you imagine if they handed out flyers to everyone? Those flyers would end up all over the place. People need to use their God-given common sense.

  6. Given the number of visitors it’s impressive there aren’t more accidents and fatalities. The key is making sure people understand that it is wild and to take the needed precautions. It likely would be beneficial for visitors to receive a safety pamphlet or to have safety info more prominently included in existing material handed to visitors upon entering the park. It’s not perfect but at least the NPS would be doing their due diligence. Glacier National Park does this with Grizzly pamphlets. I think it’s a good tactic… still you can’t make people read and you can’t always dumb down your policy to the lowest common denominator.

  7. Joyce says:

    I agree with the idea that a lot of people come with the Disneyland mentality. I joke ‘Yosemite and Disneyland, two of my favorite parks’. But I know the difference!! Heed all signs, all warnings, do research before you head into the park. I know people study D’land websites before going on a vacation.
    Also, they do hand out a newspaper when you arrive at the park gate. READ IT. When you check in, read the paper they have you read and sign. ABIDE BY IT. You are visiting, really, one of natures’ most beautiful homes.
    I would like to bring a large group myself. If I do, I am hoping that I can have a ranger come and give us a little safety drill, of sorts. I would feel responsible for the people in my group, especially if they hadn’t been before.
    Love Yosemite, respect nature.

  8. zegor says:

    First off – the number of incidents is low, given the number of visitors (and the kind of visitors). So – not to worry too much.
    Secondly, we need to distinguish between correctable ignorance (e.g., there’re lots of city folks coming to Yosemite, and they simply do not have the tools to evaluate the level of danger of any one situation) and stupidity (refusing to learn, or ignoring information material and signs)
    For the latter there really is no remedy – stupidity will play itself out.
    For the former, there is the challenge of avoiding information overload: How much of what you hand a person at the gate will actually be read? How many of the signs posted are actually noticed and heeded? And at what cost to the wilderness experience and the constrained budgets?
    I think YNP is doing a good job at its current level of information/warning placement. There are already plenty of tools available (e.g., there are plenty of trail ranking publications to help decide where to go), and it is not really proper to require that they all be adopted and taken over by the YNP.

  9. Redbeard says:

    People cannot and should not be saved from themselves. There are plenty of warnings that you should not go here and do not walk there, but people that want to feed a bear are going to find a way. Unfortunately for the rest of us (and the bears) they are also the ones that scream that nobody told them that a 450 lb. bear might chew on their hand as they are feeding it. I also think that another paper describing the dangers of falling off cliffs, going over waterfalls, and dangerous animals is a good idea, I always need a little fire starter.

    “With fools forbear to argue–better strive to wake the dead”

    BHARTRHARI