Ignoring Warning Signs Leads To Four Accidents In Four Days At Same Location In Yosemite National Park

The pool below Lower Yosemite Falls on a typical summer day. NPS photo.

The Lower Yosemite Fall Trail at Yosemite National Park is a favorite with visitors, but despite warnings from park officials, some tourists just can't resist getting off the trail. The result earlier this month was four consecutive days with 911 calls due to accidents near the footbridge over Yosemite Creek.

There's a good reason this trail is so popular with visitors—the short, easy walk provides what the park website calls "spectacular views of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls" during the months the water is flowing. The park staff also has some good advice that they try to disseminate via a variety of methods, including a description of the trail on the park website. It cautions:

"Stay on the paved trail. Above the wooden footbridge that crosses Yosemite Creek, the rocks and boulders are slippery even when dry. Scrambling off-trail in this area has led to serious injuries."

That's good advice, but of course some visitors assume it doesn't apply to them, and on many days you'll find quite a crowd scrambling around on the boulders near the bridge or swimming in the river. That activity resulted in a recent rash of injuries that prompted calls for help to the park's Emergency Communications Center on four days in a row.

On Sunday, August 3, a 45-year-old male was upstream from the footbridge, standing on a rock, when his foot slipped out from under him and he slid down the face of the rock to the ground. As he slid, he struck his head on the rock, and was bleeding behind his left ear.

On Monday, August 4, a 19-year-old female, while scrambling on a slick boulder at the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, slipped and took a five-foot sliding fall off the boulder. She was unable to walk, so she was extricated by a Yosemite Search and Rescue carryout team. She suffered a serious ankle fracture that will require surgical repair and will have an extensive period of recovery.

The following day, August 5, a 14-year-old female lost her grip while scrambling on a boulder, slid headfirst down the rock and injured her left wrist while trying to slow her fall. The victim told emergency responders she was nearly certain she had fractured her wrist; the good news: no fracture was noted on a subsequent x-ray, and she was diagnosed with a severe sprain.

Finally, on Wednesday, August 5, a 45-year-old male slipped and fell while scrambling on uneven terrain not far upstream from the footbridge, spraining his ankle.

After a four day pause, yet another incident occurred in this same area on Sunday, August 10. A 26-year-old male was scrambling on the rocks between the footbridge and the base of the waterfall when he slipped and fell, sustaining a large scalp laceration which required "repair" at the Yosemite Medical Clinic.

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The bridge near the falls is close enough to get pretty wet from the spray when the falls are flowing strongly. Photo by Jay Bergesen via Flick and Creative Commons .

Park officials note that "Although it is not illegal to scramble up to the pool, it is strongly discouraged due to the risk of injury and also for the risk to responders of these incidents. While you may see many people doing this during your visit, please remember how truly dangerous it can be and make smart choices."

"Even though it is tempting to leave the trail and scramble to the bases of Yosemite’s waterfalls, especially as water levels drop, the boulders at the base of waterfalls are always treacherous. Even when dry, the granite rocks remain surprisingly slick, having been polished smooth by the pounding, falling water most of the year."

Is convincing everyone who visits parks to use good judgment in such situations a lost cause? Based on the above recent examples, that seems to be the case.

A review of this trail on a popular on-line travel site help sums up the difficulty in promoting public safety in locations such as Yosemite:

"Once you reached the Lower Falls, just enjoy the view and take a photo or two from the bridge. Then you walk around the bridge towards the boulder and climb around the obstacle to get close to the water fall...We get very closed to the water fall and had fun getting across the boulder, rocks and people who are coming down. It is fun experience but there is a warning sign that it is "Danger" so be careful and make sure you have a good shoe to walk up and down these boulder which could get slippery when wet."

And a second on-line "reviewer" of this trail notes:

"Most people stay back at the fence area snapping pictures from far away but if you have the inclination to look past the "dangerous to climb" signs you'll be able to really appreciate the beauty of nature."

It's pretty clear that far too many people "have the inclination."

Comments

Seems like the NPS should start charging folks who get hurt when they've obviously ignored warning signs.

If an ecologist were to request $20,000 for a serious study of genetic resistance to Asian blister rust infecting the subalpine whitebark and other five needle pines, chances are there would be little respect shown for that study by the NPS supervisors biased toward law enforcement, search & rescue.

However, if a search and rescue operation required $20,000, approval would occur immediately even if the search ultimately failed as in the case of the 8-year old boy allegedly lost at Crater Lake NP near Cleedwood Cove (October 2006).

It seems NPS's refusal to charge visitors for rescues hinges on a "command-control" acceptance to purge other accounts for priority rescues even when other worthy critical natural resource projects are expected to share the final total rescue costs.

There are many incidents when visitors are clearly at fault, and yet the "general taxpayer" is expected to fund recklessness !

It ought to be illegal, darnit. And the punishment should be the cost of the search and rescue team's time and equipment to rescue the person.

And we're talking about the low-lying fruit here, the ones who obviously are flunking their social IQ test. The problem is making an agency-wide, or even a park-wide, rule that can equally be fairly applied. I'm certain that there are within the same park people who simply step in a hole and snap their ankle, or take their hat off and have their bald pate attacked by birds, or whatever, and are simply unlucky. The question is where to draw the line on the grey areas between the two extremes.

The question is where to draw the line on the grey areas between the two extremes.

Unlucky or "flunking their social IQ test" people need to take responsiblility. Buy insurance or pay the price - your option. True for front country, backcountry, driving your automobile or living your life.

It's not only our national parks that spend enormous amounts of money on S&R.

One of the things I learned recently down at Timpanogos was that at least some of the fees paid by national forest and park users down there is passed on to the county to help pay for expenses incurred as they rescue forest users. At least taxpayers who never use the federal lands are not stuck with 100% of the bill.

Where to draw the line and how to separate unlucky from just plain dumb?

How about some sort of S&R Court to make that determination when necessary? A jury of our peers.

Lee,

The court of individual responsibility.

If you are in a car accident, assuming you are insured, they pay no matter who is at fault or even if there is no fault. S&R should be the same. Insure for S&R or pay.

That might be fine for people like us who are out and about all the time. But what about a family from Brooklyn who might visit a park once in their lifetime?

And are you really certain that auto insurance always pays no matter what?

The subject of charging for rescues has come up before on NPT:

http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2008/04/national-park-search-and-re...

I have known quite a few SAR folks, both volunteers and paid NPS; most were opposed to billing victims because it might cause some to delay calling for help and make their situation worse. I agree with Rick B that there is very large gray area between irresponsible and unlucky. It's really difficult to envision even more bureaucracy deciding quickly & fairly who gets charged and who doesn't:

"...society rescues people all the time–auto accident victims, home fire victims, mumbling homeless people, war refugees, plane crashes, hunters, illegal immigrants, single mothers, old folks, the jobless, drunk local bubbahs – and at far greater cost than wilderness hiker rescues. Many of those lamentable situations are the result of life decisions every bit as poor and irresponsible as the most careless hiker, but few thinking people would dispute the value of providing these safety nets."

http://www.backpacker.com/blogs/62

I agree tahoma, not to mention floods, earthquakes, rockslides, etc. Thank you for the post.

But what about a family from Brooklyn

Easy. When they come in the gate they get an envelope offering S&R insurance. They put a buck or two per person in the envelope and drop it off at the visitor center or other location - or even pay at the gate. They are covered for the length of their stay.

And are you really certain that auto insurance always pays no matter what?

If it is a covered loss the insurance company pays.

it might cause some to delay calling for help and make their situation worse.

And whose fault is that?

Actually a stronger argument would be that it creates moral hazard. But then having the public pay already does that.

Interesting. Someone who is usually calling for smaller government and less expense to taxpayers now wants to expand the role of a government agency and turn them into an insurance company.

;-}

As noted above, the question of charging for rescues has been discussed a number of times on the Traveler, but the concept of visitors buying insurance raises an interesting question.

Why not allow parks to use revenue from entrance and other user fees to pay for search and rescue costs, rather than tapping appropriated funds? In a sense, anyone paying an entrance fee would then be helping underwrite SAR costs.

The legislation authorizing fees is currently under review, so this would be a good time to consider that approach. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't believe SAR costs are among those currently allowed for funding from fee revenue.

If you look at the "big picture" of all dollars available to a park from all sources, ultimately SAR costs will take money away from some other projects, no matter which account is tapped for those expenses ... and not every park collects a fee. However, for those that do, this approach would at least eliminate the argument that taxpayers who never visit a park are having to help pay for rescues, including those described in the above story that could have been prevented by more prudent decisions by visitors.

No Lee, I would expect the insurance program to be privately administered and fully self funding thereby reducing the expense to taxpayers.

Oh. Private insurance companies with death panels like we had before ACA?

Perhaps Jim Burnett is on to something.

As for insurance companies always paying for covered losses -- tell that to my neighbor whose company refused to pay medical costs for an injury until she got one of those awful attorneys to go after them. In the end, the company paid out seven times the original claim. I guess they win some and lose some when they try to protect their bottom line. But in the end, we all pay for higher premiums.

Oh. Private insurance companies with death panels like we had before ACA?

I think you got that one backwards - but lets not go too far astray.

In my view, the closer we can get the cost to those that use (or might use) the services, the better.

Right.

Isn't that just what I said in my original post? Glad you finally understand.

Isn't that just what I said in my original post?

No. Your suggestion was to create another governmental beaucracy that would continue to place the burden on the general public for those it arbitrarily deemed "unlucky".

Wasn't that what you wanted to do with collecting insurance premiums at park entrance stations? That was what you said before you said you didn't except that you would before you wouldn't. It appears that you may be confusing yourself with your own arguments.

Wasn't that what you wanted to do with collecting insurance premiums at park entrance stations?

Nope. I wanted it done by a private insurance company. I wanted it fully self funding. And, I wanted those placing themselves at risk paying for S&R expenses.

No new tax payer beaucracy and no "tax" on those not likely to use the service nor on those willing to self insure.

Lee...

Of course he's wrong. Fighting insurance companies to cover the injuries of my patients that were due to be covered was one of the situations that infuriated me as a nurse. Grisham's novel/movie The Rainmaker was far from fiction. Some Wall Street folks put much more faith in insurance companies than real life experience would warrant.

I could support requiring SAR insurance for those visitors participating in high risk activities.

But what concerns me is how much of the expense the unforutunate individual or insurance company should pay. The NPS and other government agencies have the ability to spend large amounts of money on SAR, often times beyond what might be warranted. There needs to be a review system in place to decide what is appropriate.

Rick,

I put my faith in the Constitution and its judicial system. If an injury is actually covered, the insurance company will pay. The overwhelming majority of claims are paid with no dispute. There may be disputes as to whether the coverage actually applies. That is where our judicial system comes into play. If the courts determine the coverage applies, the insurance company will pay.

Ec...

There is absolutely no factual basis behind your emphatic and absolute statements. You are talking to my strength here, over 20 years of experience which time after time has shown you wrong. Deny, delay, defend, is truly the soulless and profit based reality. You are arguing based on ideology and your 'faith'. I wish experience could allow me to have the same faith, but that's not the case.

A legitimate concern Roger. Yet I wonder how many would consider any efforts to rescue them " beyond what might be warranted" Kind of comes under the "moral hazard" issue when you seperate the receipient from the payor.

But to be clear. I wouldn't "require" SAR insurance. I want the rescuee to be responsible and have the option to buy insurance if he wants.

There is absolutely no factual basis behind your emphatic and absolute statements.

Which statement are you claiming has no factual basis? Perhaps you would like to provide some evidence than any of my statements are wrong.

Nah. I'm comfortable with my years of experience in this versus your corporate apologist stance, and am not going to parse sentences and suchlike with you. Please feel free to claim you "won" this discussion if it's that important to you.

My original point is that charging those who clearly and stupidly screw up past warning signs is fine, but fnding the point where to draw the line in the gray territory in between "wrong" and "innocent" is difficult.

Nah. I'm comfortable with my years of experience

I will go with the facts. You can live in your la la experience.

"where to draw the line in the gray territory in between "wrong" and "innocent" is difficult."

Agreed. So lets not make drawing the line necessary. Put yourself at risk - you are responsible. Whether you want to insure against that or not is your choice.

Search and rescues are but a miniscule fraction of the NPS budget but they sure know how to get the most media exposure out of them. It is an unfortunate by product of an agency that continually justifies its own bloated, bureacratic payrolls. It is titillating and salacious but absolutely negligible in the grand scheme of the NPS. Not nearly as riveting as crime statistics for a trailhead, for example. I would suggest someone delve into that story and see how fast the NPS squirms to avoid showing the public how they have dealt with known problem areas. Simple solutions such as trailhead cameras are dismissed in favor of nothing and the public gets victimized at areas with documented high thefts. These car clouting incidents cost the taxpayers millions per year but in order to get those stats, you must file a freedom of information act request. It is just another example of bureaucratic diversion and Jarvis' "make the public feel the pinch" mentality. By doing nothing about trailhead crime, for instance, the NPS can cry for more rangers, most end up jockeying not steel horses but desks. Every now and again they can jump up and push a litter up a trail and wheel someone down with a sprained ankle and be touted as heroes. Then the NPS sends their employees to these blogs and elsewhere to say that we should pay more to use the National Parks because their entry fees are not in line with Disneyland. You really can't make this stuff up. Its almost as ridiculous as a national park saying they have 9 million visitors when in fact, the truth isn't even a fraction of that number because a main road happens to intersect it and folks have no choice but to drive through it. You get counted coming and going and soon you have 9 million hits. Then you can cry to the public that you are being loved to death when most of those "visitors" never even really knew they were even in a national park.

Jarvis brought this on himself. But what can you expect from a guy whose brother is a lobbyist for a rafting company on the Grand Canyon. I'm sure he received no special treatment from his sibling. Maybe Jarvis brother can align himself with global rescue and come up with a capitated rate for rescues in the NPS? Theres an idea, boys!

Ohh boy, another fine day at the National Parks Troller comment section.

1. 4 days in a row of S&R were performed in the same spot, because people that were over their heads ignored signs and warning which led to their injuries. What's the alternative? Having a park ranger stationed at that area 24/7?

2. Interestingly (or is it more ironically), it seems that middle aged men, many of which are suffering from middle-aged crisis's for reasons known only to them are some of the biggest accounts of expensive S&R. Quite a few of these mid-life crisis accounts usually require a military helicopter to rescue them. When such a greenhorn gets in over their head, and their own stupidity almost kills them, I guess they can write a book about it to try and justify their actions so they can try to profit off their stupidity. But anyone with a brain, could realize that this guy is over his head, inexperienced, and should have not attempted something he had no business trying to do. Happens a lot. There's a big difference between the guy that was just unlucky in the woods and had a tree fall on him, or a boulder come down on him, and the guy that was well over his head, and in a situation he put himself into because he wasnt prepared, which of course puts those "unimportant rangers" and "meaningless helicopter pilots" at risk in order to save their butts. Talk about ungrateful.

One thing is for sure. People who have the courage to venture off trail are not cowards who shy away from challenges and hide under their wife's skirt. They don't talk about doing things, they just do them. And I'm fine with my tax dollars helping the occasional guy who gets in over his head. I know someone here who recently got way in over his head and has been cowering ever since. He will likely be cowering for the rest of his life because of his inability to win the battle with fear.

There's a difference between courage, and being over your head and unpreppared. There are many skilled outdoorsman out there that have cut their teeth over the years on terrain and weather conditions that they could manage, before trying to attempt something more challenging. All require some courage, regardless. What's ironic are the types that are way out of their element, all the sudden think they are Ed Viesturs, when all they have done was a few minor peaks, and attempt peaks 5 times the size of what they have done, and in weather conditions far removed from anything they have ever dealt with. I can name a few instances just this year where this has occurred. This happened last year in the smokies when a group of unpreppared 20 year olds from the warm climate of South Carolina thought they could trek 10 days in the Smokies during winter, when they had ZERO days of experience in such conditions. Didn't even make it 6 miles before realizing they were in over their heads, and all started succumbing to frostbite. This same sort of scenario also seems to have also happened to someone else that posts here, that loves to bash S&R on any occasion, but sure did need it once when he was way out of his element too. I also find it very ironic that someone who makes their money from taxpayer funded school districts, thinks they are "private sector" and thinks that makes them immune from the same hyperbole that they dish out. But hey, logic and reason escape some people, and they are usually the ones that end up being the ones that need a "bailout". Hypocrisy, much?

Okay, folks, we're wandering off track into personal battles in the last couple of comments, so let's get back to the topic at hand, or bow out of the discussion.