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Yosemite: The nature of danger

Nature has a power and thus an unpredictable danger all its own; that is its very attraction.

August 04, 2011
  • The top of Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park.
The top of Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park. (Craig Kohlruss, Associated…)

There were times when the trail up Half Dome was so crowded it looked like a human freeway at rush hour. So much so that last year, Yosemite National Park started issuing permits for the climb because of basic safety concerns. Vernal Falls is another hugely popular spot for tourists.

This summer, those landmarks also were the sites of four deaths within two weeks. Three people died July 19 when they reportedly climbed over the guardrail at the top of Vernal Falls and waded into the river, where they were swept over the falls. A woman died Sunday when she lost her footing near the top of Half Dome,, despite the cables that were installed as handrails.

There are a dozen or so deaths each year in Yosemite, but so far this year there have been 14 — more than twice the usual number at this point. The increase in deaths may be a coincidence, or it may be that the park is more dangerous this year. The swollen rivers are faster; rain fell in the park Sunday morning, and signs warn hikers away from the cable hike in wet weather, when the rock is slick.

Predictably, questions have been raised about whether the park has adequate protections in place. Families of the three Vernal Falls victims hired a consultant who, after viewing the site, announced to the Sacramento Bee, "I'm not content with that skimpy little rail." Rangers said their preventive measures are adequate and they have no plans to change them.

As saddening as the deaths were, the rangers are right. The guardrail is clearly there to keep people out of the river, along with dramatically worded signs in multiple languages. A sign also warns Half Dome hikers not to attempt the cable climb during wet weather. Could more be done? More could always be done. The park could keep people out of the rivers with extensive fencing, perhaps with peepholes for viewing the scenic wonders of the park. It could litter the trails with signs and barriers. But then visitors might as well be on a freeway.

Some tourists are injured or killed because they purposely seek out risk; others innocently or ignorantly think a river or an animal or a hillside can't be more dangerous than it looks. Some people enter wilderness areas woefully unprepared, without water, wearing flip flops, and go off-trail. And some visitors don't do anything wrong, but bad things still happen. We can't guard against it all and shouldn't destroy scenic beauty in an effort to fend off liability. Nature has a power and thus an unpredictable danger all its own; that is its very attraction.

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