I’ve peered over the edge of glacier carved Yosemite Valley no less than 21 times. I’ve also taken my share of selfies near the edge of sheer drop-offs to the valley floor ranging from 3,000 to 4,100 feet.
To be honest, I’ve been in scarier spots whether it was slipping on scree on an extremely narrow “trail” in the Funeral Mountains of Death Valley, the narrow trail past the first chimney near the 13,000 foot mark on the way up Mt. Whitney where I tripped over a hiking pole that came loose from my backpack, losing my footing on a dry fall in Death Valley hiking solo and falling just under 10 feet, and nearly tumbling in an unexpected gust of wind easily in excess of 35 mph after scrambling to the top of a narrow peak off the Pacific Crest Trail south of Sonora Pass.
I’d like to lie and say I wasn’t scared in any of those instances. The shakes set in after each situation was under control.
I have a healthy dose of fear every time I’ve been near the edge of a vista point along the rim above Yosemite Valley.
The death of two tourists this week while apparently taking a photo from Taft Point overlooking Yosemite Valley reminded me of that fear. It’s a fear not shared by too many others I come across when I venture out on trails along the rim.
I’ve never been a fan of heights. But what really solidified my heathy fear was a hike to the top of El Capitan seven years ago. Just as I arrived the only other person on top was leaving. It’s not exactly a jumping destination for day hikers.
Unlike other granite outcroppings you can hike to above the valley, the views from El Capitan are not that great. That’s mainly because it slopes somewhat to the edge compromising your view of the valley. I had read about the need to be cautious atop El Capitan as the smooth granite surface combined with patches of fine scree makes what looks like just a slight slope dangerous.
Since I had hiked more than 8 miles I wanted a better view. I figured I was a good 50 feet from the edge. With that in mind I figured if I got halfway down the slope before the 3,000 foot drop to the valley floor I could get an awesome view and still be safe.
I started to gingerly move ever so slowly down the slope. Each step was an adventure in caution. Then about 10 feet down I started to lose my footing. I ended up going down in slow motion fashion and then it happened — I started sliding.
I really didn’t slide that far but rest assured my heartbeat was so loud I felt as if my eardrums were going to burst. It was not safe to try and stand up. I literally crawled on my stomach ever so slowly the 15 feet or so to where the granite started to level out. It took all of perhaps two minutes but it was one of the longest two minutes of my life. I wasn’t too sure for a while whether I could make it back up the smooth granite slope.
Since then, I have approached every drop-off, every log crossing a raging creek fueled by spring runoff, and every narrow path hugging a mountain side featuring substantial drops with a healthy dose of trepidation.
I am not Tarzan, an Army Ranger, or even a world-class hiker or rock scrambler. I never have been nor will I ever be.
With 100 or so higher elevation hikes under my belt you might think I would be able to let go of the fear and not hesitate before walking across a log above fast running high Sierra water or while maneuvering on a mountainside. Most of the people I come across hiking have no such issues. Sometimes I admire their ability to do so but to be honest after the El Capitan incident which — when compared to a couple of other situations I got myself into — wasn’t the closest call by far, I’m content that I pause before proceeding to determine what I will do if something goes wrong.
That seems paranoid but it’s not. When I’ve reached over the edge of the Upper Yosemite Falls vista or been on my stomach peeking over the edge of Dewey Point to take a photo with my smartphone, before I do I constantly remind myself if it starts to slip out of my hand to let it go.
That said, it is amazing that research shows only 259 people have died worldwide during the last eight years while taking selfies in places where one wrong step or a gust of wind can cost you your life.
More and more people venturing out in the wilderness aren’t attuned to what is around them. They are often listening to tunes through their ear buds, clicking photos with their smartphones oblivious to their surroundings or — in cases that are becoming less and less rare thanks to the intrusion of cell towers in some areas that once were off the grid — texting or even surfing the Internet for directions.
Having no fear is not good, nor is having no idea where you are going and instead hoping you can Google it when you are on a trail.
Treating a hike in Yosemite — or anywhere in the wilderness for that matter — as if it were a trip to Disneyland can have deadly consequences.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.