More Half Dome Deaths and the Death in Yosemite Book (Off the Wall by Ghiglieri & Farabee)


Crowds on the Half Dome Cables

[update: this page is two years old. On June 13, 2009, another hiker died on Half Dome while descending in the rain. I think everything in this article still aplies]
Yet another hiker has died on the Half Dome trail. This trail has in the past couple of years claimed several victims who have drowned or been swept over Vernal Fall. This year was no exception and, despite the very low water flow, has claimed one victim who fell in the Merced River. Before this year, however, the fearsome looking Half Dome Cables had nevertheless not claimed any lives. This year, all of the sudden, however, there have been three deaths in about eight months. There was one death last autumn after the cables came down, another this spring before they went up (when the cables are "down" they are still present, but the stansions that hold them off the ground are not there, so you have to bend down to reach them). The most recent death, however, occurred on a nice day, in good weather, with the cables up, claiming the life of Hirofumi Nohara, age 37, a Japanese citzen who was finishing up a three-year stint in the United States.

What can I say about this tragic event? I have seen people drop cameras on the slabs and thought about what would happen to a person who fell and have almways been amazed that there haven't been more accidents. Unfortunately, I'm not wondering that anymore, but rather thinking about what can be done. The Park Service is hoping that, as the human-bear incidents have been reduced by a program of education, so too can a program of education make people more aware of the risks in the park, and especially around fast-flowing streams and the Half Dome cables.

Just this year, Mike Ghiglieri and Butch Farabee have published a book called Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite. This book is pretty damned fascinating and, I think, can help people differentiate between perceived risk and objective danger. For example, nobody has ever been killed by a bear in Yosemite, but at least one person has been killed by a deer and many people (ten I think) have been killed by falling trees. Like the stuff that John Dill writes in the forwards of the climbing guides, there is more than prurient interest there. Literally, this book can keep you alive.

This is a somewhat touchy topic for me since Theresa came so close to getting killed in that rock fall in October. Todd Skinner, who died one day after Theresa's accident is the last death listed in the book, and every time I see the book, I think how grateful I am that she is NOT in that book. It still gives me the chills and makes me wince just to write that. Yosemite is a beautiful place, but you can get the chop in an instant if you are not vigilant. Maybe that's overly dramatic, but it sure feels that way lately. Anyway, whether you will be visiting for the first time or you are an old hand, get on down to your library and check out Off the Wall. If you can't find it there, you can use the links above to buy it from Amazon.

So, in hopes that my site will catch some visitors and make them just a little more cautious, PLEASE BE CAREFUL!

Please note, I have disabled comments on this page, because last time I posted about a death, visitors made several insensitive comments about the victim. If you have something to add that other readers might find useful, use the contact form to send me a message and I'll add it manually.


Rules and Dangers of the Wilderness

[editor: This useful warning was submitted via email by John (my response follows below)]

This past weekend's accident on the cables of Half Dome was unfortunate,
and in this case, which is often times not the case, the hiker that was
killed was doing nothing wrong or unusual. He was out with friends having
a good time, which is what Yosemite is all about.

As you well know though, most deaths occur in Yosemite because the person
who died, or those around him, broke some rules. Whether it was wading in
water despite warnings, hiking a trail that was closed due to some sort of
danger, or rock climbing on marginal equipment. The fact remains that most
deaths occur because rules were broken.

Year's ago, a friend that was teaching me to rock climb said; "Rock
climbing is safe, so long as you follow the rules. If you step outside of
those rules, the sport presents you with more danger no matter how good
you are." World Class Rock Climber Todd Skinner unfortunately learned that
lesson the hard way.

People that visit Yosemite and go hiking into the backcountry forget that
they are in a wilderness area and by definition that area can present you
with lot's of dangerous situations. So I guess if there is a lesson to be
learned it is that you need to be aware of where you are and be alert to
all situations. Yosemite is not your local city park. Always hike with
caution and be prepared at any given time for dangers that exist.

More than just following rules

John prompts me to think of lots of issues that I comtemplated putting in the first draft, but decided not to. This is perhaps a bit of a ramble, but hopefully will jog somebody's mind and get them to think a bit more about risk. I must say, though, that regardless of circumstances, my heart goes out to anyone who gets seriously hurt and to the families of anyone who gets killed.

I agree with the general idea in John's note and definitely agree that many (though I'm not sure I could say most) deaths in Yosemite happened when people were breaking some "rule" and often being foolhardy. As you also point out, even for those who follow all the rules, the backcountry in particular, but any natural area presents risks and dangers that people expect to be cleaned up. When my wife was seriously injured and almost killed by a boulder that rolled over her, we were shocked at the number of non-outdoor people who asked if we were planning to sue the Park Service. That inability to accept that the natural world is dangerous is, I think, the more important aspect, rather than the rule-breaking or foolhardiness.

Foolhardiness is often only evident in retrospect and for the victim, that's too late. Todd Skinner's harness was worn, but was it too worn to trust? Evidently so, but was that clear in foresight or only in hindsight. I don't like to judge that sort of thing. A healthy respect for the risks is the key to survival, whereas following rules or failing to follow rules will only get you so far. I think I would modify your advice to say that if you are going to ignore a rule, you had better have the tools to evaluate the risk on your own, and most people do not. I think the key mistake people make is thinking that, for example, the Half Dome Cables are not that difficult and therefore not that dangerous. In fact, the connection between difficulty and danger is loose at best.

In fact, this is why I think the Off the Wall book and the annual Accidents in North American Mountaineering (published annually by the American Alpine Club) are so valuable and why I wish more people would read them (I think the latter is only available to AAC members). You can read and see the ways in which normal people, like you and me, who sometimes follow rules, sometimes break them, sometimes pay attention and sometimes get distracted, end up getting themselves into trouble. That, I think, helps improve your own judgment and teaches you how to survive whether there are signs to tell you what to do or not.

Regarding the Half Dome death, was this person so rare in that he was doing nothing wrong? Well, I guess you can say that anyone who dies did something wrong, but I know that you mean that preliminary to the cause of death (slipping, let's say), the person was violating some rule. I'm not at all convinced that's "usually" true. Many times the person was doing something that seems obviously foolish such as feigning falling off Yosemite Falls while drunk and, whoops, actually falling off, but to my knowledge that person broke no rule and ignored no sign, foolhardy as that behavior may have been. What he failed to do was have the tools necessary to recognize danger in the absence of a sign.

Even more to the point, though, none of the three deaths on Half Dome happened to someone who did something wrong except overestimate their abilities or, in the last case, have a momentary lapse of attention. Two died while the cables were down, but there's nothing wrong with climbing Half Dome when the cables are down (one could argue that it's safer because there is less crowding and jostling on the route). Perhaps they didn't watch the weather, but I can say that on numerous occasions I've gotten in the car and driven in dangerous conditions because I didn't watch the weather and I've been caught in numerous storms in the mountains. Was I doing something wrong? Perhaps in the strictest sense, but I'm probably also doing something fatally "wrong" right now in the strictest sense right now and when I die from cancer due to the toxic chemicals in my computer, will someone say I more or less deserved it because I did something wrong (inadequate ventilation at my work station)?

Or take the person who was swept down from Emerald Pools over Vernal Fall last year. As far as I know, he did nothing wrong and disobeyed no sign. He didn't set out to go wading or swimming (which the signs warn against). He slipped while refilling his water bottle and was unable to get a grip on the smooth rock. My wife almost died last year in a serious accident. We were hiking off trail in an area some might think is dangerous, though I had been there often before, and we did not break any "rules" but a confluence of events and a moment's inattention led to a serious incident. A friend narrowly missed being killed by a falling tree in Yosemite two years ago. He was on a designated ski trail, obeying all the rules. Another person, who was also obeying all the rules, was killed near that same spot by a falling tree some years back. It can sometimes just be dangerous out there and I can say that since those incidents, I tend to observe boulders and trees more carefully, but I thought I was observing them carefully previously.

Also, I have rock climbed pretty actively since 1972 and for years and years believed that rock climbing was absolutely safe if you followed the "rules". Like your friends, I told that to beginners all the time. Experience has taught me that it is simply not true. I have seen people die and get seriously hurt who did nothing wrong and broke no rule other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, dying and coming to grief in places where others go by the thousands without incident. Rocks fall unexpectedly, holds break, people check and double check their knots and still miss something critical. Lightning even comes out of the clear blue sky (I have not actually seen it myself, but on a clear day in the Alps I felt a buzzing in my hair and looked to see my friend's hair standing on end; there were some clouds building, but they were totally hidden to us behind the mountain at that moment).

I tend to emphasize the part you end your note with. That is, rather than worrying about following rules or obeying signs, it is more important for people to be cognizant of risks and evaluate them for themselves, to recognize that you can follow all the rules and still get the chop, that the very nature of wilderness is that it has not been sanitized of risk and that the unexpected may happen even if you follow all the rules. I ignore many "rules" like carrying the so-called "10 essentials". I've been going out solo hiking since I was five years old (literally: my mother would pack me a lunch and tell me to be home for dinner and I would spend the entire day in the forest beginning when I was five). There was a time in my life about 25 years ago where I experimented to see how little I could get by with and would go into the mountains for three days with just a jacket, a water bottle and one piece of emergency fruit for energy to hike out on if needed. There was one time it got bad enough that I was hallucinating and perhaps mildly hypothermic, but did I do something "wrong"? Did I break a "rule"? Whose rules? The consequence is that I'm quite comfortable in the outdoors now and probably safer than many of the folks who are following all the rules, but I built up slowly, leaving items behind bit by bit, starting out close to the car and extending myself as experience and judgment allowed. And I got lucky and, frankly, would not repeat the experiments, but the knowledge has helped me out in life.

At the same time, in other situations, I have insisted that people rope up in places that the group deemed to easy to rope up for. Everbody thought I was foolishly cautious. In one case, everyone refused. There as a girl there that was only seventeen and as a minor I told her that if she didn't rope up, she and I were turning around, but that I couldn't do anything to force the adults to follow my advice. She was embarrassed and bothered by my rule. I have never heard of anyone else roping up in that spot. With someone else in that same spot, we were actually laughed at and ridiculed by another party while roped up there. Anyway, later that day, recrossing the same spot, the most vocal and recalcitrant of the adults who refused my request to rope up slipped and fell to her death. She violated no rule, did nothing unusual, was generally a careful and experienced person and yet... It's 15 years later and I'm still drawing lessons from that incident.

Anyway, the main thing is this: unless you actually have the equipment and the experience to back it up, don't stray from the trail, don't ignore the signs and recognize that Yosemite is still a natural area and that even if you follow all the rules, keep your Spidey Sense active.