Yosemite National Park encompasses 1,169 square miles.
There are more than 800 miles of maintained trails with 750 miles of those in designated wilderness.
There are perhaps a dozen places where there are steel pole fences in the park with about half of them with signs warning people not to cross them. There are also signs along the heavily traveled Mist Trail to Nevada Fall that warns the granite rocks between the trail and the rushing and ice cold Merced River are slippery and dangerous.
In a 10-year stretch ending in 2016, an average of 15 people died each year visiting Yosemite. Most die from falls or natural such as heart attacks while hiking or climbing. Of those a fair number of the deaths occur in places that have posted warnings or fencing that you have to climb around.
Given more than 4 million people a year visit Yosemite with the overwhelming majority spending most of their time in the 7 square mile Yosemite Valley, 15 deaths may not seem like a lot. In comparison Disneyland averages 18 million visitors a year and while nine guests have died — all but two from their own negligence — since it opened in 1956 none were killed during the 10-year period ending in 2016.
What brings this up is the annual spat of summer news stories about people getting themselves killed while enjoying the wilderness. Virtually all the deaths have nothing to do with unprovoked grizzly bear attacks — black bears that are in California won’t attack you unless you are incredibly careless or stupid — or other pecking order deaths. Instead they center on being inattentive, reliant or fixated on modern tech, acting as if you are in Disneyland instead of the wilderness, and being either ill-prepared or not having a sense of respect (essentially healthy fear) of the wilderness.
Desert deaths are especially perplexing. What prompts someone to venture into the middle of nowhere with one bottle of water on a day when the air temperature is 100 degrees and the ground temperature a good 20 to 30 degrees hotter or more. It makes as much sense as walking back and forth across Interstate 5 at 2 o’clock on a moonless night while decked out from head to toe in black clothing.
Whenever I hike I carry 3 liters of water using a backpack bladder. In some cases when it is more of an extreme day hike due to mileage of exposed terrain I will take a couple of extra water bottles or a water filtration kit if there are sources of water along the route. That tends to be overkill for most of my day hikes but if something happens and I get stuck overnight I will have water. My desert hiking in Death Valley during late fall, winter or early spring can still push 80 to 90 degrees but I always carry enough clothing that will allow me to survive overnight should something happen as temperatures can plunge to 30 degrees with no wind break.
And the only time I have summer hiked in Death Valley we started at 1 a.m. when the air temperature was 92 degrees and got back to the car by 9:30 a.m. when the mercury was pushing 110 degrees.
Yet given the extreme summer weather the most difficult time I’ve had in booking a room in Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley was in the summer. That’s because casual tourists like being able to say they were in Death Valley during the summer. Fair enough, I get the appeal. But every year or so one of those casual tourists get killed when they step from an air conditioned car or bus that’s at 70 or so degrees, step into the 110 degree heat and explore areas such as the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes for 15 or so minutes where the ground temperature may be 160 degrees and then get back in a vehicle where the temperature is half that.
The shock to the body can trigger causes of death that are classified as natural such as heart attacks.
The same type of things can happen in Yosemite where people that eschew even taking walks when they are at home tackle a five-mile up and down hike.
I’ve seen people head up the most popular trail in Yosemite — the Mist Trail — in high heels, without water, pushing baby strollers, wearing sandals or even barefoot. It’s a 1,000 foot gain and three mile round trip to Vernal Fall and a 1,900 foot gain and seven mile round trip to Nevada Fall via the Mist Trail.
And while it is true you can come across a few seasoned hikers and trail runners that actually go barefoot, the key is that it isn’t their first rodeo.
I admit that sometimes it may seem I’m overkill with what I take on day hikes that typically are 10 miles or more round trip with a couple thousand feet of elevation gain, but there are a more than a few people over the years that were glad that I did.
I’ve had to clean and bandage myself up a couple of times after slipping and falling while climbing or traversing an obstacle but I’ve also doled out first aid supplies to others. I carry a rattlesnake bite kit I’ve never used myself although I did use it once to help someone else remove a wasp string.
The biggest item I share is water. And it’s not on 17-mile round day trips to isolated high Sierra lakes as people tend to such locales happen to know what they are dealing with. It tends to be on much shorter or well-traveled trips.
The first real hike I ever went on 30 years ago was to Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet, a 22-mile day hike that involves an elevation gain of 6,100 feet. The group I was hiking with that also consisted of a number of Scouts was ribbing me because I had stuffed what they thought was an inordinate number of water bottles in my backpack. Yes, the weight of 22 bottles killed my back to a degree but it was lighten a lot by the seven water bottles that others bummed off me when they ran out.
Then there are those who place blind faith and their lives in technology. The worst example was a Los Angeles woman and her teen daughter five years ago that decided on the spur of the moment to head to Death Valley specifically to explore the visitors’ center in Furnace Creek. They Googled directions and then relied on a GPS device.
They drove right past the visitors center — which is pretty hard to miss given the extreme lack of buildings in Death Valley — and ended up running out of gas on a remote and extremely lightly traveled back country road some 70 miles away that technology sent them to.
They were fortunate enough that they carried some extra water and were smart enough to stay with their vehicle. Almost three days later a “desert rat” happened along in his 4-wheel drive Jeep.
I use to think using Google and GPS technology exclusively to explore the wilderness was a fluke that only a very few people did.
Then one time on a hike to Taft Point via Tunnel View in Yosemite a couple stopped me and asked me if I knew the directions to Mt. Hoffman. When I explained to them they were a good 20 miles away from where they needed to be, they insisted I was wrong as they had Googled Mt. Hoffman before they left Yosemite Valley and lost their Internet connection. I insisted they were wrong given I had hiked Mt. Hoffman which is off Tioga Road and not on the South Rim above the Yosemite Valley floor. They were adamant. Google “told” them they were headed in the right general direction. With that they continued on their merry way.
Not saying whatever they Googled was wrong but it was clear they had no bearing as to where they were and were lost without technology to guide them.
Hikers I know research hikes they’ve never been on, consult maps, and may use GPS but also know how to use a compass as well to visually mark locations especially when they are cross-country hiking in the desert.
It is amazing that there aren’t more people killed in Yosemite acting as if they are on an outing to Disneyland. And we’re not even tossing precarious selfies in to the mix.
The safer technology has helped the world become the more dangerous we make it.