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Back-to-back deaths at Yosemite a rarity, officials say

June 03, 2013|By Kate Mather
  • El Capitan, left and Half Dome, far right, in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan stands about 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor.
El Capitan, left and Half Dome, far right, in Yosemite National Park. El… (Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles…)

A busy weekend at Yosemite National Park saw rare back-to-back fatalities after a man was swept over a 600-foot waterfall and another was struck by a falling rock while climbing El Capitan, officials said.

Numbers shown that deaths at the park overall are not up, and officials said that having two fatalities in one weekend is rare.

“It’s not very often that this happens,” park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said.

On Saturday, a 19-year-old Sacramento man visiting the park with a church group stopped along the popular Mist Trail for a swim above Nevada Fall, officials said. Aleh Kalman reached a rock in the middle of the Merced River – about 150 feet from the edge of the waterfall – and was swimming back toward the bank when he was caught in a current and swept over.

Though Kalman’s body has not been recovered, park spokesman Scott Gediman said officials believe it was unlikely he survived the 594-foot drop.

“It’s almost a 600-foot vertical drop; we do believe it’s impossible to survive a fall like that,” Gediman said.

The search was scaled back Monday after high water levels made the effort too dangerous to continue, Cobb said.

“There’s too much water, the wind is too powerful and the mist is too thick,” she said.

On Sunday afternoon, a 28-year-old London man died as he attempted to climb El Capitan, the granite monolith that towers more than 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley. Felix Joseph Kiernan and his climbing partner were about 600 feet up the east buttress when Kiernan’s partner stood on a rock and knocked it loose, Cobb said.

The 1-by-2-foot rock fell about 150 feet before it struck Kiernan, officials said. Another climbing party below the pair used a cellphone to call for help, but Kiernan was pronounced dead when rangers reached him about two hours later.

The El Capitan death was the second on the popular climbing spot in as many weeks. A Montana man died May 19 after a rock dislodged and sliced his line, park officials said. Mason Robison, 38, fell about 230 feet before a second line stopped his fall, but was pronounced dead when search-and-rescue teams reached him.

Cobb did not have numbers available for El Capitan fatalities but said most climbing deaths or injuries result from problems with gear. Rock-fall-related incidents are “very uncommon,” she said.

“It doesn’t happen every year,” she said.

The weekend deaths mark the third and fourth accidental fatalities at the park this year, Cobb said, along with three natural deaths. The park typically sees between 12 and 15 deaths a year, with seven or eight considered accidental.

“It’s definitely hard,” Cobb said of the timing. “But we look at these as opportunities to teach visitors how to come to Yosemite to be safe.... It really does allow us to get that safety message even further than we would.”

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