Thursday, July 21, 2011

Yosemite & waterfalls & fatalities... what to say?

Of course, this week's deaths at Vernal Fall are tragic. "Bear" saw the family and friends again yesterday, and said they looked "Stricken." It's so sad. I can't imagine the shock and pain they are enduring.

In June, I blogged about my various adventures with a visiting friend in Yosemite, including a hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls.

It was so beautiful.

And exciting.

And at times, borderline terrifying.

And I'd do it again. In a heartbeat.

People die in National Parks every year.

My first meeting with the (then) Superintendent at Mount Rainier National Park began with him telling me "Every year people come to this park for a day hike, and never are never heard from again. Every year. There are streams running covered by the snowpack, and the snow gives way, the person goes under, and their body is never found."

I just sat there and stared at him.


I thought it was a very odd way to start our first meeting, but now I realize it was a really good idea.

Impress upon the person, with the first sentence of your first encounter, the caution you MUST exert, and the risk that will nevertheless remain, when you get out there in the wild. Even if your goal is "just a day hike."

Part of why being in a park is so exciting is the wildness of the place.

There are so many unknowns.

There are wild animals.

There are spectacular vistas that are breathtaking in part because of the inherent danger. Geologically dramatic places are often potentially dangerous as well.

Who knows what may happen.

If it's just you and nature, you need to be careful. Educate yourself, work on your fitness, bring what you need, and ramp up your self-awareness, 'cause this is not a roller coaster ride with safety bars.

Nature does not care if you get into a life-threatening situation.

But, for me, it's worth it. I've been to beautiful places, and loved pretty much every minute of it.

I read the warnings.

I heed some of the warnings, I don't heed them all.

Some make me downright cranky because I think the dangers are so obvious the warnings are not needed, and I resent an ugly metal sign in an otherwise perfectly beautiful, natural place.

But, I will not enter the water, however enticing, above a giant ripping waterfall.

And I am tempted. I get it.

But, that stone surface has been washed and washed and washed and washed 24/7 for EVER and is as slick as can be.

And, I know that if something bad happens, it really would be my fault. And I not only have caused pain to my family and friends, I've affected other people, too.

Some poor ranger has to look for and, if found, retrieve my body.

Those are really bad days for rangers. You can see it on their faces. They get real quiet when the subject comes up. I can't imagine the dread they feel when they hear that call on the radio.

It's just a sad, sad thing. For everyone.

This is looking downstream, yards and yards above Vernal Fall, in June of this year. It was fascinating because the power and speed of that water was unreal.

It's kinda quietly terrifying to look at.

But it's also thrilling.

And there are places I've been and things I've done, that afterward I thought, "Yeah, that probably wasn't a good idea."

Like when I was at Canyonlands NP, in the Island in the Sky district.

I walked through (what I think was) Mesa Arch, out into this convex sandstone precipice which dropped BANG, to the valley floor, 100s, if not 1000s, of feet below.

 This awesome photo of Mesa Arch is by snowpeak.

I realized, standing on the sandy-slick, descending surface, that if I slipped, I'd fall to my death right in front of my mother and sister. There would be nothing to grab on to. I backed up slowly.

Not gonna do that again.

Even on a normal hike to North Dome, which offers an amazing view of Half Dome (stare across the valley at it, eye to eye), you end up on North Dome, which is, of course, a rounded piece of granite that has loose granite pebbles sprinkled everywhere which can roll under your boots and set you in motion. If you get too close to the edge and hit a patch wrong, it's thousands of feet down.

Again, scary, beautiful, and thrilling all at once.

I cherish this freedom to set off on adventures and see these beautiful places.

I feel like it's a huge part of being alive on this incredible planet.

I am not an adrenaline junky. I simply love nature and will forever insist that if I want to do this thing, which has some risk, but not off-the-charts-or-endangering-others-or-the-resource risk, I should be allowed to. I'm an adult.

The alternative, staying in your house, also has risks.

Not the least of which, IMHO, is living an experientially depauperate life. Watching other people on television go on adventures. I think that is tragic. And is not a risk I am willing to take.

Photograph by H. W. Bradley (1813–1891) and William Rulofson (1826–1878);
original source: Holt-Atherton Library, University of the Pacific, Stockton, CA
John Muir, age 34.

John Muir took a lot of risks. John Muir went on a lot of adventures.

His greatest outdoor adventures occurred after he'd been blinded in one eye in an accident in a factory, and was confined to a darkened room for six weeks.*

He was in civilization, not in the wilds, when he was very seriously hurt, wondering if he'd ever regain his sight.

Six months later, he walked from Indiana to Florida, 1,000 miles.

I don't think that's a coincidence.

Then he caught a boat to South America. Roamed around there. Then got sick and returned to the states, and headed for California, making a bee line to Yosemite Valley.

And his life was never the same. Nor was ours.

Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, at Glacier Point, 1906.
You can see Yosemite Falls behind them.

John Muir's experiences in Yosemite made him want to ensure that people everywhere have the opportunity to leave their work, the cities, the noise, the crowds, the pollution and the worries, and enter an entirely different world; one that is spectacularly beautiful, rare, and wild.

To drink in the amazing views, the fresh air, hear wind, water, and birds, explore meadows and streams and mountains; just breath deeply and roam free. Live your day by the rising and setting of the sun.

I am surprised by how often John Muir mentions "peace." How peaceful it is in the mountains, in the wild, and how much he valued that.

 These photos are also from Glacier Point.

The opportunity to explore and experience these places is precious to me.

And I am forever grateful for it.

But I do know that I need to prepare, and be aware. I need to wear the right clothes, keep fed and hydrated so my brain works well, I need to work on my fitness, so I don't get so exhausted and make mistakes, etc.

I also hope that I'm lucky.

But, where I can, I work on improving my chances of returning from that fabulous trip. Then I can rest, absorb, and share the experience, while getting back to my normal day-to-day life, which I also love.

Eventually, however, the thought will resurface:

"So, what's next?"

Because I don't want to spend my life, hidden in a darkened room,
wondering what I'm missing.


*All from Wiki


  1. Beautifully written. thank you.

  2. Magnificent post. You said it all.

  3. Eye-popping (I almost typed "eye-pooping")and thoughtful. Beautiful post bb. (And eye-pooping too.)

  4. Having recently dealt with a death on wildlands, I echo how unexpected and sorrowful it is. Gravity is cruel. I hope many people read your post and remember to be careful, and I hope they will be kind to the families and friends left behind, and people who must respond to these emergencies and tragedies as part of their job. Rangers and other emergency and park personnel are trained to respond and assist in these situations and they are somewhat emotionally prepared, but it is still something that wears away at their hearts. My sympathies to everyone involved.

  5. I am so glad you wrote about the horrible happenings at the falls. A little common sense would have saved heartbreak for so many. They meant no harm to nature or themselves. But they did not pay attention. This post was very thought provoking. Thank you. Lovely pictures too.

  6. @Cindy: you are spot on re: emergency personnel. Mentally prepared, it's NOT the same as what the families feel, but it does wear.

  7. You know - that pool - right where they went in - was so eerily quiet - and it was the ONLY smooth surface. It *was* actually quite attractive. I stared at it for a while the day we hiked here. But everything else - from the slippery rocks all the way up, to the relentless pounding of the water, to the visible SCREAMING speed of the rest of the current, spelled clear danger. I've thought about our hike a LOT since the news - it brought back all the mixed feelings of exhilaration, joy, and a primal fear underneath it somewhere responding to that sound.

    Thanks for the post. My heart goes out to those who were there that day and the responders.


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