Tragedy at Vernal Falls
Yosemite National Park, California
After standing in line for most of the morning to get our campsite at Camp 4, we didn’t have anything remotely resembling a plan for our visit Yosemite National Park. We had talked to some other people in line at Camp 4 and decided to hike up part of the well-known John Muir trail to Vernal Falls and maybe on to Nevada Falls at the Southeast end of the valley.
To say the hike until the first bridge across the Merced was “frustrating” would be an understatement – it was a paved footpath with shoulder-to-shoulder, huffing and puffing “hikers,” many of which were pretty likely to have probably just stepped off a Coach America bus. (Props for everyone to be out enjoying themselves, but it was very far from my ideal hiking environment.
Just as we began to be able to hear the faint roar of the falls, a shirtless heavyset man came sprinting down the path, basically forcing everyone else to jump out of his way. It happened real quickly, but thinking back on the moment, he had a terrified and haunted look on his face. But at the time, we didn’t really think anything of it and continued trudging along with the rest of the masses.
Just out of view of the base of the falls, we approached a ranger who stopped us by raising a hand, traffic-cop style, and said, “the attraction’s closed.” What do you mean the waterfall is closed? It took a minute of him stumbling around for the words, but he eventually spit out, “someone went over the falls.”
Reality didn’t really set in immediately. Being a national park with thousands of inexperienced people around, our first thought was that it was probably someone trying to jump rock-to-rock across the river or some other similar idiotic decision typically witnessed in any of the the parks. It wasn’t until later when standing up top the 317 foot falls talking to another park ranger, did we learn that it was just a dad from Texas hiking with part of his family. He had courteously stepped slightly off the Mist Trail to let some other hikers pass, slipped on the wet rocks, and as his family watched, he went into the river. He was swept a couple hundred feet down river and with the incredible waterflow, he was partially submerged and pinned against some rocks; His body still visible to everyone on the Mist Trail. The man sprinting down the trail earlier that afternoon was a family member; running to give the bad news to the rest of the family touring the valley floor.
It was around 5 p.m. that evening when we were talking to this park ranger on top of the falls and they still hadn’t recovered the body. The force of the raging water had pinned him so tightly against the rocks, they couldn’t wedge him free. It was a full 24 hours before they were able to get him out.