National parks are places of wonder, places for adventure. Every day folks head to national parks to appreciate nature, marvel at the grandeur, and to test their skills in some fashion, whether it's by tackling a 5-mile hike or trying to reach the top of Half Dome.
But the parks aren't to be taken lightly. They are backdrops of wildness against which you measure your mettle. And that wildness comes with a fair measure of danger.
Six years ago a climber in Yosemite National Park was killed by a rockfall. Now his family is asking a judge to award them $10 million in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the National Park Service.
It's a request I struggle with.
A friend of mine, who happens to be an attorney, once outlined to me what he called his "prudent man" theory. His point was if someone got hurt (or worse) by doing something a prudent man wouldn't consider doing, they shouldn't be able to seek judicial relief.
I don't mention that to belittle the death of Peter Terbush. It was tragic. But I don't think litigation is the key to responding to what really was a tragic accident.
I was in Yosemite several days after Terbush was killed. As I recall, he was belaying a fellow climber when the rockfall occurred on a pitch beneath Glacier Point, just to the east of Curry Village.
In asking for $10 million, Terbush's family maintains that the Park Service was negligent in not warning climbers that rockfalls had recently occurred beneath Glacier Point. The government's lawyers, meanwhile, replied that Congress has given rangers discretion as to when they should warn park visitors about dangerous conditions. Furthermore, they added, the 22-year-old Terbush was an experienced climber who knew the inherent dangers of his sport.
Down through the years there have been scores of deaths in national parks. Two books I mention in my Fireside Reads, Death in Yellowstone and Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, list many of them. More recently, a man recently fell from the top of Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park, a death being investigated as a suicide. And earlier this year a canoeist drowned in one of Yellowstone's lakes, and that park also saw a father and son mysteriously fall to their deaths from a bridge.
If litigation followed every one of these deaths, the legal quagmire would be incredible. That's not to say the Park Service, or any business or organization, should be excused from being held accountable in the case of negligence. But at some point individuals also need to shoulder a measure of accountability, assume some personal responsibility.
Climbing is an inherently dangerous sport. So, too, are canoeing and kayaking. Even hiking in national parks carries a measure of danger, what with precipitous trails, wild animals, and stormy weather.
In the Yosemite case, the lawyer for Terbush's family maintains that because the rockfall occurred in the park's "front country" and could just as easily have killed a bird watcher or hiker beneath Glacier Point, park rangers had an obligation to place signs warning of potential rockfalls.
But those who head to parks to recreate also have an obligation to make prudent decisions. The area where Terbush was climbing had been the scene of numerous rockfalls in 1998, the year before his death, and there were rockslides in the area just days before his death.
Now, what the Fresno Bee didn't mention in its story on the courtroom arguments was whether Terbush had sought a ranger's advice before climbing. That could play a significant role in the judge's ruling.
But with or without such advice, an individual still has to consider the risks involved with their actions and make a prudent decision. And that decision should not be cushioned by a lawsuit.