There was a tragedy at Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park last month that you may or may not have heard about. It was given a decent amount of media coverage because there were a fair number of witnesses. Plus, there have been 17 deaths at this falls since the park began maintaining records.
On July 19, 2011, three hikers at the top of Vernal Fall on the man-made observation deck hopped over the fence and approached the water, made higher and more forceful because of the winter snows still melting from heavier-than-normal amount. During an attempt to take a photo beyond what the park officials deem as safe, they were swept away and over the falls. There were no survivors.
The author of Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches, Jill Fredston, has some fantastic observations about human behavior in nature. She applies it to snow covered mountains primarily but much of it applies elsewhere in wilderness as well. What I want to draw on from her work is the notion that aside from the natural terrain’s condition, our experience, confidence and comfort in the backcountry – or on its fringe – can actually increase our exposure to risk!
Comfort and confidence is an allusion. Fredston statistically demonstrates that most avalanche accidents happen on slopes the victim is familiar with, just as most car accidents happen within only a few miles from home. Where we are comfortable and let down our guard the chances of dangerous incidents occurring rise. Why else do many climbers gash their leg open on “easy” terrain?
This waterfall was primed for power this summer. The Sierra Nevadas received more snowfall and it is still draining down. Vernal Fall is relatively accessible and includes a viewing platform. Perhaps the victims felt their experience in the backcountry said to them, if we were off trail and deep in Kings Canyon, we would just walk up to the water; the platform is just for convenience and for the less initiated.
Similar thoughts guided my buddy and me to hop the fence at Exit Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. In retrospect, this could have gone horribly wrong. Exit Glacier is the most accessible glacier in Alaska. Within a ten-minute or so walk from the car you can take in the blue-refracting ice and glacial silt.
Where a warning sign says it’s dangerous and risk of life and so forth, we jumped the fence, took a photo with the sign and sprinted across the wet-ash-like silt for the glacier. The photos turned out great and we came home unscathed. We could have been pummeled by a ton or more of ice fracturing off.
That’s the other aspect of risk in the backcountry. As Fredston points out in a more articulate way than this: We are likely to do stupid things with our friends. We often defer to the most confident and say to ourselves, it’s not that bad. We ought to listen to our own judgment and risk-o-meter more.
Sources: 1) Wozniacka, Gosia, “Yosemite deaths a reminder of rivers’ risks,” Seattle Post Intelligencer, 24 July 2011; 2) “Vernal Fall deaths over the years,” Merced-Sun Star, 21 July 2011; and 3) Fredston, Jill, Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches, Harcourt 2005.