The Yosemite Falls Trail leads dramatically to the top of North America's highest waterfall. Park rangers and veteran hikers know it as strenuous and a potentially dangerous hike in the winter.
Its steep switchbacks rising 2,700 vertical feet were a big challenge for Luis Alberto Ramirez Jr., a 12-year-old from Modesto who had joined the Boy Scouts months earlier and was on his first big outing with his troop.
Until that day, Feb. 16, 2008, Luis had never set foot in the mountains.
The 11 boys and four adults started at 8:30 a.m. Just one mile from the trail head, most of the troop was already exhausted and decided to turn back.
The scoutmaster pressed ahead with five boys, including Luis. Three hours later the troop was waist-deep in snow. The boys were cold and their feet soaked. Luis was tired, his seventh-grade hiking partner said later.
The group turned back, and soon spread out along the trail, leaving some boys on their own. They began taking dangerous shortcuts between switchbacks. After stepping off the trail, Luis lost his footing and slid out of control over an edge. He plunged 300 feet to his death.
The account of the accident comes from a park investigation, which took statements from the scoutmaster and the other boys.
"They told me they were going to the forest," Marta Anguiano, Luis' mother, recalled in an interview.
"They never told me what they were doing was dangerous," said Anguiano, a field laborer in Modesto.
In an examination of law enforcement reports, lawsuits and news accounts, The Times identified 32 Scouts and Scout leaders who have died in the last five years in various outdoor activities. Investigations by rangers and sheriffs have documented deaths resulting from heatstroke, falls, lightning, drowning, electrocution and burns, among other causes.
In many cases, adult leaders appear to have miscalculated the abilities of individual boys to handle the risks and difficulties of outdoor activities, and failed to follow Scout rules and recommendations on adult supervision, safety equipment and trip planning.
Andrea Lankford, who was a district ranger in Yosemite in the mid-1990s and has worked at national parks across the country, said many adult Scout leaders "are not that physically fit themselves. They are not that knowledgeable. They are complacent. They are naive about the hazards. They bite off more than they can chew. As rangers, we would be extremely concerned. I have seen it time and time again with a gamut of consequences."
The Boy Scouts of America, the parent organization based in Irving, Texas, would not release its own records of the incidents, say how many fatal accidents it knows about or discuss the causes of specific accidents. But the group defended its general practices, saying safety is emphasized. After a rash of deaths in 2005, the Boy Scouts ratcheted up its safety program, including hiring a new safety director and imposing new fitness guidelines.
In the five years prior to 2005, The Times identified 16 fatalities in outdoor Scouting activity, based on news accounts and public records. Boy Scout spokesman Deron Smith said "the overall number of incidents has not increased and does not reflect a trend."
"Thousands of Scouts across the United States safely explore the outdoors every day," Smith said in a statement. "There are just too many variables to be able to predict how an accident might occur."
Paul Moore, the Scouting executive for the Los Angeles Boy Scouts council, said he believed the fatality rate during organized activities for the 1 million boys in Scouting is below the national average for boys going about their daily lives. But Moore also acknowledged that parents have an expectation that the organization knows what it is doing, and that fatal accidents are unacceptable.
No agency tracks outdoor deaths in all the state and federal mountains, forests, lakes and rivers, let alone the fatality rate for Boy Scouts compared with other visitors. The U.S. Interior Department reported 151 fatal accidents in national parks in 2008, including 49 boating and swimming deaths and 33 hiking deaths. There were about 275 million visitors to the parks that year.
Since its founding 100 years ago, the Boy Scouts of America has introduced millions of boys to the wilderness, giving them a unique opportunity to learn outdoor skills. In the process, the organization has promoted an agenda of honesty and good civic conduct. Currently, there are 1 million Boy Scouts, led by thousands of volunteer scoutmasters and assistants.
What concerns outdoor experts is the experience level of many of those volunteers. Local Scout leaders said the only requirement set by the national office for escorting a day hike, for example, is that volunteers take the youth protection program to prevent sexual abuse, and that they file proper tour permits, health forms and other documents.