I was at the edge of a cliff, contemplating a little scramble to get onto a rocky ridge that looked slightly more interesting than where I was. I was slightly nervous because it was very cliffy. As I looked at my two route options, I realized that the easier route was actually very easy. But, then I asked myself, “What would happen if I slipped or lost my balance?” My answer: “I would die.” There was no doubt about it. I decided to enjoy the view from where I was.

Last week, I was working on a swiftwater safety poster that points that, when near the river’s edge (or crossing it), you should look where the current will take you. As I was at the cliff’s edge, I realized this was good advice for hiking, too, especially when off trail. “If I slip here, where will gravity take me?” It’s not so much that you should never take risks–life is full of risks–but that you should at least be aware of the risks (and their consequences) so you can make an informed decision.

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If you didn’t see it when it came out a few months ago, you really need to take an hour or two and read Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek by John Branch of The New York Times. Not only is it a presented effectively, with audio and video nicely incorporated into the article (in a non-intrusive way), but  it’s just a great read and really interesting if you like to think about how people get themselves in trouble while recreating outdoors. In this case, a group of experienced, skilled, and (mostly) well equipped backcountry skiers went out for a quick backcountry ski, with tragic results. Even if you’re not a backcountry skier (I’m not), this story contains a lot of lessons about communications and decision making within groups. I found this article especially interesting because I’ve been involved with preventive search and rescue work the last few years, and especially this past year, when we started up a preventive search and rescue blog. I’ve been working with the amazing YOSAR staff to try to figure out how to more effectively communicate search-and-rescue-related safety messages (which, after all, is very similar to trying to more effectively communicate wildlife & food storage messages, which I’ve been doing for many years). So, anytime there’s a story like this one, I think of it through the “how did these people come to this decision?” mindset. Our last post of the season contains some of the lessons learned in 2012, including links to all of this year’s posts. (Disclaimer: our posts aren’t as well written or as interesting as Snow Fall is!)

Several people have had fatal accidents in Yosemite this year, which has brought up the question of why people die in Yosemite. In his classic, Staying Alive, Ranger John Dill mentions three states of mind that cause people to die or be injured: ignorance, casualness, and distraction.

Ignorance may be the most important of these, at least for casual visitors. I don’t mean to say that casual visitors are unintelligent, but many of them are ignorant. Put me in a rural town in China and I’m ignorant. Put anyone in a place they’re not very familiar with and they’re ignorant. (By calling some casual visitors ignorant, I’m not insulting them–just saying that they’re not fully aware.)

Three people slipped into the Merced River and went over Vernal Fall recently, yet they were no more ignorant and only slightly less lucky than dozens, if not hundreds, of other Yosemite visitors that day. Many, many visitors get too close to the water in dangerous places every summer day without realizing the peril they’re putting themselves into.

An article in which a coauthor of the great book Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite tries to explain how these accidents occur says, “But this is all conjecture. No one has survived one of these and has been able to say” prompted me to ask John Dill why these accidents happen. After all, plenty of people have gone into the river and almost over the waterfall, and he has 40 years of Yosemite search and rescue experience, which includes countless victim interviews.  Not surprisingly, he gave me a great insight.

Slippery slope below the Mist Trail

Here’s a section of the Mist Trail. It doesn’t look very scary (to most people) and most people wouldn’t be too scared to walk along the left (river) edge of the trail. Yet, a slip from the trail would result in almost certain death–if not from the slide, then from the river below (as happened this year and in 2009). Indeed, the slope you see here is just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff. But people don’t perceive it that way. Most people have an innate fear of cliffs and are (usually) extra careful when less than several feet from the edge. However, along this section of trail, most people don’t exercise the same amount of care because it just doesn’t look as dangerous as a cliff.

Rivers and creeks in Yosemite attract people, if not just for the joy of being close to water, for some practical reason like washing their face or getting drinking water. But, in many places, these rivers and creeks are also just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff, and most people don’t perceive them that way. This may explain why the three people went over Vernal Fall–they didn’t understand (they were ignorant of) the danger of the river and, as a result, made a poor (ignorant) decision. Like most people, they didn’t have an innate fear of the river; they didn’t equate the river with a cliff.

Most people also don’t understand how that “cliff” known as the river is surrounded by a slippery slope (literally)–the smooth granite adjacent to rivers is slick, and extremely and surprisingly slippery when wet. So, while some people are un-ignorant enough to avoid going into the water, they’re just ignorant enough to feel safe on the figurative crumbly rocks (slippery slope) at the edge of the cliff (river). I’ve known rangers who’ve made this mistake. I’ve made this mistake. My ranger friends and I made a poor (ignorant)  decision, but were just slightly more lucky than the three who went over Vernal Fall.

So, “ignorance” isn’t just a lack of knowledge, it may also be a lack of instinct, at least in some cases. Once again: a slippery slope or a river is just as dangerous as a 3,000-foot cliff.

Ignorance leads to casualness, one of the other factors. Casualness can operate on its own, though, and perhaps explains the case of the two hikers swept off one of the Wapama Falls bridges as water flowed over it [see also this near miss] and perhaps also the case of the hiker who fell off the Half Dome cables during a thunderstorm (where wet, slippery rock and/or lightning may have been a factor). In these cases, I believe these hikers knew the risk (i.e., they were not ignorant) and made a judgment call, which turned out not to be a good one. Travel in the wilderness involves a lot of judgment calls and any experienced wilderness traveler has made plenty of bad ones, but a little extra skill or luck has prevented tragedy. Crossing a high creek is akin to dashing across a road with oncoming traffic because you think you’ll make it across just quickly enough to avoid getting hit. With decent judgment, you usually will. But not every time.

The third factor, distraction, can affect even the most careful person. This was probably another factor in the Half Dome incident, given the storm and the fact that lightning struck Half Dome around the time of the fall (it’s not clear, to me anyway, whether lightning was a factor or not, but undoubtedly, the storm was distracting and probably also caused the hiker to be rushed).

Finally, I should point out that many people have scolded all of these victims for crossing a bridge with swiftwater flowing over it, for going over a railing and into the water immediately above a waterfall, or being on the Half Dome cables during a thunderstorm. We’ve all made similarly bad decisions, but were a little luckier and possibly more skilled/better prepared than these six people. I’ve gone off trail and put myself into potentially dangerous situations before. Anyone who has spent time in the wilderness has done the same, and has a story (or two). In the urban environment, you’ve sped up to get through the intersection before the light turned red, rushed in a left turn with oncoming traffic, and maybe even made an unsafe pass.  In these cases, we all made poor decisions. We’ve been ignorant, casual, and distracted, and the only difference between them and us, between living and dying, was a little luck and maybe a little extra skill.

Last Friday, I hiked the Pohono Trail, which begins at Glacier Point and ends at Tunnel View. I see that I called the Panorama Trail under-appreciated in a previous post. Well, the Pohono Trail is even more under-appreciated. While a fair number of people have heard of the Panorama Trail, it seems very few people have ever heard of the Pohono Trail. Indeed, I frequently get questions about the Panorama Trail, but only rarely get them about the Pohono Trail.

What’s so nice about this trail? Well, it has great views of Yosemite Valley from a variety of progressively different viewpoints. Each viewpoint provides a view that is pretty similar to the previous one, but the small amount of change from viewpoint to viewpoint adds up fast. The view from Glacier Point is very different than the view from Tunnel View. If you like 360° panoramas, this trail has it. If you like those edge-of-the-cliff experiences, this trail has lots of those. To top it off… hardly anyone hikes on most of this trail.

Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Dome

Half Dome, Clark Range, much more, from Sentinel Dome

Half Dome, Nevada Fall, much more, from Sentinel Dome (which provides a 360° panorama).

Mount Starr King and the Clark Range from Sentinel Dome.

Mount Starr King and the Clark Range from Sentinel Dome.

Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan from Taft Point (one of my favorite places in Yosemite).

Cathedral Rocks and El Capitan from Taft Point (one of my favorite places in Yosemite).

Yosemite Falls and Eagle Peak from Taft Point

Yosemite Falls and Eagle Peak from Taft Point

View east from Dewey Point

View east from Dewey Point (and Katrin, one of our hiking party)

Crocker Point

Crocker Point

Closeup of Bridalveil Fall from Crocker Point (this is the first view of Bridalveil Fall, despite being closer to it at Dewey Point, it's not visible)

Closeup of Bridalveil Fall from Crocker Point (this is the first view of Bridalveil Fall, despite being closer to it at Dewey Point, where it's not visible)

And, Stanford Point

And, Stanford Point

I didn’t take pictures from Glacier Point or Tunnel View (or any of the Inspiration Points), but you’ve seen those before, probably.

As far as 14-mile hikes go, this one is relatively moderate. (Half Dome is the same distance, but dramatically harder.)

Yesterday, I hiked the Panorama Trail from Glacier Point. This under-appreciated trail travels nearly eight miles from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley, with views of four waterfalls (passing three of them) and panoramas of eastern Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, and Yosemite’s high country. While I have to say the Four Mile Trail from Glacier Point to Yosemite Valley is quite a nice hike, Panorama Trail is better (yet less popular).

Vernal and Nevada Falls from Glacier Point

Vernal and Nevada Falls from Glacier Point

Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point

Yosemite Falls from Glacier Point

Of course, May is the best time to do this hike because the waterfalls are typically at their highest flows of the  year. Although, having visited Illilouette Fall during spring, summer, and winter, I have to say this waterfall looks great no matter the season, unlike most of Yosemite’s other waterfalls.

Illilouette Fall

Illilouette Fall

P5160089smIllilouette Fall joins the Merced River in Yosemite Valley as the river’s largest tributary and is the only tributary waterfall, other than Bridalveil, that actually flows all year. Unfortunately, the view of Illilouette Fall is a bit uncomfortable and not very good (this view can only be seen from a few square feet, and trying to get a little better view can lead you right over the edge).

The trail climbs up from Illilouette Fall, finally reaching the top of Nevada Fall. The overlook of the waterfall is mightily impressive when the river is high. Of course, the Mist Trail continues down the steep, misty steps below Vernal Fall.

Nevada Fall

Nevada Fall

Vernal Fall from Lady Franklin Rock

Vernal Fall from Lady Franklin Rock

I’ve sat at Lady Franklin Rock for hours, staring at Vernal Fall. There are times I think it’s my favorite. But, then Illilouette has a special place in my heart. And I can’t forget Yosemite Falls, which I see most often; this one may be my favorite. Who cares which is my favorite? They’re all awesome.