Are Yosemite National Park Officials Overlooking Safety of Curry Village Guests?

An analysis by The Associated Press says rockfalls from Glacier Point in Yosemite Valley, such as this one, are increasingly frequent. USGS photo.

How safe is a night spent in Curry Village in Yosemite National Park? According to an analysis done by The Associated Press, in recent years there have been an increasing number of rockfalls from Glacier Point down towards the village and its camp of tent cabins.

For a decade, the National Park Service has known that the 3,000-foot granite cliff hanging over a tourist village at Yosemite is susceptible to colossal rockslides like one last month that crushed cabins and sent schoolchildren running for their lives.

An Associated Press examination of records found that rock falls in and around 600-cabin Curry Village have been happening more frequently in the past several years, with two people killed and about two dozen injured since 1996.

And yet, the park service has repeatedly rebuilt and repaired the lodgings rather than bar the public or post warnings.

That's a pretty strong accusation by the news service. But the AP (Disclaimer: For which I worked for 14+ years) is not alone in questioning the National Park Service's handling of visitor safety when it comes to rockfalls. Indeed, three years ago the family of a rock climber who was killed in 1999 by a rockfall from Glacier Point filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Park Service.

Peter Terbush died while belaying another climber on Glacier Point's face. In asking for $10 million, his family maintained that the Park Service was negligent in not warning climbers that rockfalls had recently occurred beneath Glacier Point. The lawsuit is still in the courts.

That was three years ago. Now the AP is pointing out a growing frequency in rockfalls.

Last month, after visiting Yosemite at the time of its most recent rockfall, I asked Delaware North officials, whose company operates Curry Village for the Park Service, whether they planned to relocate part of the tent cabin complex away from the footprint of Glacier Point's rockfalls. I was told that was not a decision the concessionaire could make, but rather one that would have to come from Yosemite officials.

Park officials, in response to the same question, said they were awaiting a geologic report on Glacier Point before deciding whether to close part of the village. A decision could come at any time.

Now, in the wake of a 2003 rockfall Yosemite officials permanently closed seven of the village's cabins. Some might question why more weren't closed, and even why park officials need another report in the wake of the latest rockfalls to make a decision on the village's boundaries. After all, as previous geologic studies have shown, and as the AP's latest story found, Glacier Point is not the most stable of granite cliffs.

While rockfalls, like earthquakes, are unpredictable, minimizing risk seemingly is the key issue at stake in Yosemite. While individuals have a personal responsibility to watch out for their own safety, how many, when making reservations for Curry Village, think they need to ask where the tent cabin they're reserving is located in relationship to Glacier Point?

Comments

The problem is that although the risk of injury is quite small per person-day of residence at Curry Village, because of its year-round operation, the relatively high density of tent cabins, and the fact that rockfall has occurred during the crowded summer season, the occurrence of any such event above Curry Village is likely to result in injury or death to a few, unless cabins are relocated.

It seems to me that park visitors who reserve space at Curry Village should be made aware of the relatively small risk of rockfall occuring during their stay in this section of the park. In this manner, what appears to be an unadvertised risk can be turned into a voluntary risk that the individual chooses to take.

Of course, there is always the concern that negative information of any kind, such as official warnings of rockfall above Curry Village leading to injury and death, might affect overall reservations and park visitation as a whole, which would have a local and regional economic impact.

At present, a major section of Curry Village remains closed due to the last rockfall that occurred in October. I stayed at the end of that month in an unheated tent cabin at Curry Village for nearly a full week. The risk of rockfall was less of concern to me than how to get access to food after hours.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Use the occasion to move some lodging out of the valley. And in a few years some more. The floods were a good start. Safety is a strong argument, but ultimately it should be about restoring serenity in the valley.

I was present, staying in a tent cabin at Curry Village that morning. What the article doesn't mention is the afternoon before a smaller rockfall sent boulders sailing through unoccupied tent cabins in the same area as the larger one. If the concessioner and the NPS cannot take responsibility to warn visitors and take appropriate action during a known hazardous period, how can we expect them to take the proper management direction on the larger safety issue?

safety of yosemite