Triumph & Tragedy in Yosemite

Picture: Hikers on the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: Hikers on the summit of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California

A couple days ago I returned home from a six day trip to Yosemite and the Mono Lake area. The trip was a mixture of triumphs and tragedies.

I left town fairly apprehensive. I originally planned to do a strenuous single day hike to Waterwheel Falls outside of Tuolumne Meadows. People that have known me for a few decades know that I’ve long suffered from knee injuries and chronic back pain, both of which have taken huge chunks of time to overcome. One of the ways I’ve overcome those problems has been by taking short 2-5 mile hikes in my local hills. But this hike to Waterwheel Falls was going to be 18+ miles in a single day. I like hiking, but I’m certainly no ‘super-serious’ hiker or backpacker like many that venture to the Sierra on a regular basis. I began by lengthening my ‘training’ hikes to 7 miles, then 9-10, miles, and a week ago I did a 13.5 mile hike in 5.5 hours. Ok… I think I was ready.

Then on a total fluke, a couple nights before I was set to leave, just for giggles, I checked online around midnight for Half Dome permit availability for later in the year. Nothing was available, save one permit for this last Tuesday. The process for obtaining a permit to climb Half Dome via the cables is convoluted, and sufficed to say getting one online is like winning a mini-lottery. The permit was only $1.50, so I grabbed it while I had the chance. Now the panic set in. Not only was I getting set to do the longest single solo-day hike I’d ever done, I now had a chance three days later to take what is considered the hardest day hike in Yosemite; a 16.5 mile RT hike to the summit of Half Dome, gaining 4,800′ on the way up, and losing the same 4,800 knee-smacking feet on the way down.

The total for those two day hikes came out at nearly 37 miles, and nearly a combined 15,000 feet of total elevation change. I survived. 🙂 *Triumph*

(More on both hikes in upcoming blog posts.)

The Tragedies: (The small) Twice my truck hit wildlife on this trip. The first instance was near Tenya Lake when a young deer just leaped out off the side of the road in front of my truck. I slammed on the brakes and skidded toward the side of the road, just as the poor animal was desperately trying to change its direction away from my truck. With a sickening thud the animal was sent sliding back across the road. Fortunately the animal was able to get up and get off the road. I got out to check on the condition, and we just looked at each other for a moment before it turned and slowly started walking away into the forest. It wasn’t limping, but I could tell it was stunned and sore. I can only hope it got away with a few broken ribs and will survive. What really pissed me off no end, was right where the deer had jumped out from the side of the road, I found an apple that had been carelessly tossed out by some tourist. I can only assume the deer was trying to eat the apple when the sound of my truck caused it to try and flee. Instead of turning and running back up the steep slope, it bounded out into the road. I wish I could find that tourist to return their apple with a note indicating how their thoughtless action might well have cost a deer its life. (Aside: What do you get when you cross a tourist with a moron? Answer: A Touron.)

Then as I was leaving the park, two birds were whizzing in tight ‘chasing’ flight formation as they came right at my windshield. Again, I heard that thump as one of them connected with my truck just at the very top of the windshield. I looked in my rearview mirror expecting to see a tumbling mass of feathers falling toward the car behind me. Fortunately, I saw no such sight, so again I can only hope that the bird survived with only glancing blow. (But I doubt it.)

Picture: Vernal Fall and the Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

Image: Vernal Fall and the Mist Trail, Yosemite National Park, California

(The Big) Death in Yosemite is unfortunately relatively common, and not just for the bears and deer which get hit along the road, but for visitors as well. They day I hiked to Half Dome, I went up the Mist Trail, which is arguably the most popular day-hike in Yosemite Valley. When I got to the top of Vernal Fall, it was clear that the water was still running much harder and faster than normal for this time of year due to the unusually wet Winter and Spring in the Sierra. I learned on my decent that several hours later, three people were swept over the edge of the waterfall, falling more than three hundred feet to their deaths. In an all too common circumstance, the people that lost their lives in front of horrified onlookers had climbed over protective barriers, and failed to head the warnings of prominently located signs and the repeated warnings voiced by other hikers as they tried to cross to some rocks in the middle of the river only 25 feet from the edge of the fall. When the first person fell in, the second fell in trying to help the first, and the third fell in while trying to help the first two. For them, it was all over in a few seconds. For the witnesses (especially those that saw the faces of the people as they went over the edge) and families of the three victims, the tragic impact of their poor choice will be felt over dozens of lifetimes.

That same day, a 16 year old passenger in a van with seven young adults / teenagers was killed when the van they were riding in ran off Tioga Pass Road. Apparently the group had just finished a week-long backpacking trip, and were all exhausted and driving home when the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Take it from me, someone that’s seen and felt the consequence of something similar; the goal of any travel should be to arrive at your destination safely, and not necessarily arrive ‘when you want to’. Spending an extra night on the road is far better than falling asleep at the wheel and becoming part of a road.

And finally, as it should be obvious to most, if you see a sign warning you to stay out of the water above a waterfall, take the sign seriously and heed the warning.

Image ID#: 110719_YOS-0162 (Hikers on Half Dome) & 110522_YOS-0137 (Vernal Fall and Mist Trail)

Hikers on Half Dome:

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Vernal Fall and Mist Trail:

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18 Comments on “Triumph & Tragedy in Yosemite”

  1. Greg Russell Says:

    Congratulations on your hiking achievements! Last summer, we hiked up Half Dome on our way down from the John Muir Trail. It really is quite spectacular up there. I’ve never been to Waterwheel Falls.

    I can feel your pain about hitting wildlife. I recently blogged (link below) about roadkill and driver responsibility in Joshua Tree National Park–the same night we witnessed the great snake massacre, I did hit a jack rabbit under similar circumstances as you hitting the deer. I felt horrible.

    My heart goes out to the people involved with the falls incident…that’s horrible.


  2. G Dan Mitchell Says:


    First, congratulations on managing that very long round trip to Waterwheel. I’ve done a few of those 18-22 mile Sierra days, and they are far more grueling than many people can image – especially now that I’m nowhere near being in my 20s anymore. (I’m over Half Dome at this point. Did it a number of times in the past, including an ascent of Snake Dike back when I fancied myself to be a climber.)

    Second, and perhaps more significantly, thanks for sensitively addressing the subject of the tragedy at Vernal Fall and the other accident that I had not heard about. I think that several factors can contribute to these things, and it is worthwhile to have a bit of a discussion about these things where more people will become aware:

    1. First, we have to acknowledge that life is inherently unsafe. While we must and we do take steps to minimize risks, everything we do carries risk and visiting the outdoors – especially the wilder and less controlled parts of it – will always carry some risk. I’m usually a careful person in the back-country, but I’ve had a few close calls, too.

    2. With this in mind, for some people more than others, one of the very attractions of the “wild” is the risk or the perceived risk. (This is no longer really the case for me, though I understand.) This is not entirely a bad thing, but it can go very wrong, especially when people fail to understand the nature of the risks they take or to really come to term with the consequences they risk.

    3. The latter point is related, I think, to the fact that among the visitors to these places are quite a few whose only real experience with them is “virtual” – seeing something on a computer screen or television or perhaps a movie, or maybe reading on the web. This problem is enhanced, I believe, by an orientation to the world overly colored by the online adventure of computer games or of the manufactured reality of movies, in which it seems possible to do terribly risky things and almost always defy the odds. The real world is not so forgiving.

    4. It is hard to know how to respond to people doing overtly risky things in these places. It is complex. When we go to these places at least partially to face challenge and stretch ourselves, a person who tells others that they are behaving in risky ways can look like a curmudgeon. (I’ve had to endure my share of lectures from people telling me that my outdoor life is too risky.) I’ve seen a few examples of incredibly and stupidly risky behavior and said nothing. (The worst I think I ever saw on a one-day out-and-back ski trip to Glacier Point when I saw a person – on skis! – standing on a couple of feet of snow on top of a rock sticking out over the Valley, with skis pointed into the void! I was unable to look and had to go elsewhere.)

    I don’t know what I would have done had I see these poor folks cavorting on the wrong side of the safety railing. I’ve seen plenty of others step across it and stand at the edge of the raging water, and I’ve seen people swim in the pool above the fall. Would I have said something? Would I have looked away? If I had said something, would I have been dismissed as a know-it-all curmudgeon? Who knows…

    Take care,


  3. Richard Wong Says:

    Truly appalling series of events, Gary. I can’t believe those people would try skipping rocks above Vernal Fall.

  4. Richard Wong Says:

    Congrats on the hikes btw.

  5. Russ Bishop Says:

    Very thoughtful post Gary. I’m glad you had such a successful trip and am sorry that tragedy had to be a part of it. I certainly know the feeling, as I was hiking/shooting the Mist Trail in May a few days after the first fatality of the year occured at the same spot.

    Our job is to capture the beauty of these special places, but what our images don’t reveal is the danger often present in these locations. It’s important for everyone to remember and take seriously the “wild” in wilderness.

  6. enlightphoto Says:

    Russ, same with the above image of Vernal Fall, shot in May a few days after the accident where the guy slipped and fell from the side of the trail.

  7. QT Luong Says:

    I’ve done worse, Dan, at Dewey Point. My skis were not only pointed into the void, but also sticking out over the edge. I’ve even have a photo.

  8. enlightphoto Says:

    QT: that must be what they mean with the phrase, ‘touching the void’. I skied to Dewey Pt. before I ripped my knee out of it’s socket. Not the spot I’d wanna be in to have my skis suddenly slip out from under me. Glad you’re still here to share the stories.

  9. Today’s Shared Links for July 22, 2011 – Chuqui 3.0 Says:

    […] Triumph & Tragedy in Yosemite […]

  10. James Fowler Says:

    A monumental task in itself and someday before I am to old I want to make the trek up Half Dome. Living in Mississippi my trips to Yosemite are somewhat limited, but a place that is worth the trip. My route to and from work is wooded area with a large population of deer and unfortuanely I have hit several and in most cases fatal for the deer. This last June I was able to make a one day trip to Yosemite and was apalled at the people climbing and jumping on the rocks to get a better vantage of the falls and rivers, some slipping and coming close to falling into the water. They had no respect for the land nor their own safetly, little lone the safety of those that will have to search or rescue them, if they are lucky. Again congratus on your triumphs.

  11. David Sanger Says:

    thx Gary:

    reminds me of the Goal of Mountaineering:

    “to get to the bottom safely”

  12. LG Says:

    Hello Gary, I was a little disturbed when you blamed someone else discarding an apple at the side of the road for you hitting a deer. I think that by far the vast majority of accidents involving cars/wildlife are the fault of the driver of the car. Were you speeding, even just a little? If not, and if you were paying attention, then you likely should have been able to see the deer well in advance and slowed right down as you approached it. Accidents happen. Wildlife gets hit. Perhaps you could not have avoided it at all no matter what. Fine, but don’t blame others. Take responsibility when it is your fault. Deer are always going to be in or beside the road, whether there is an apple there or not. We all make mistakes or do things really stupid from time to time (like climbing over a guard rail at the top of a waterfall – though hopefully not anything that stupid), but we do need to take responsibility for our actions. Just my thoughts. p.s. It was not me who threw the apple there. 🙂

  13. enlightphoto Says:

    Hi LG: Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment. Unfortunately I think you are making a few assumptions and / or putting words in my mouth. I don’t blame the person that threw the apple for me hitting the deer. I blame the person who threw the apple for attracting the deer to the roadside. I understand your assumption about drivers being at fault for hitting animals, but I’ve had other incidents that have included a cat, a dog, an owl, and including these two instances, there was nothing I could do to avoid any of these encounters. Unless you’ve never had an animal ‘appear out of nowhere’, it’s easy to stand by your assumption. Thanks also for asking about the specifics. No I wasn’t speeding, in fact I was doing about 32 in a 40Mph zone, nor was I distracted. There was a V-shaped steep-sided gully where the deer and the apple were. From my direction, the deer was completely hidden by a tree. It may well have been visible to some oncoming traffic, and for all I know, it was the oncoming traffic that caused the deer to jump out into the road.

    Personally, if I’m gonna blame anyone for this accident, it’ll be the US Gov’t, because they should have budgeted programs to teach wildlife how to look both ways before crossing a road years ago.

  14. David Leland Hyde Says:

    Congratulations, Gary on overcoming your fears and limitations and making it to your goal.

    The deer hit and the falls accident are much the same in that people don’t believe it can happen to them until it does. Sometimes people’s belief in their own immortality and untouchable smugness take on dimensions of bad judgement that lead to unfortunate tragedy. Meanwhile, deer do come out of nowhere very suddenly. Hitting them is actually less than half the time due to driver error. Near my home in remote Northeastern California, I hit a deer last year and did over $2,000 worth of damage to my pickup and the deer unfortunately died instantly. At the body shop I had a sobering discussion with the body shop owner. He said he had deer accident cars in for repair consistently every week all year long except for two of the worst months of winter. He said that a recent deer crash had resulted in the death of the right side passenger and $17,000 worth of damage to the vehicle. It makes you wonder about whether we belong blasting through the forest in huge metal contraptions at all, at any speed faster than we would normally walk.

  15. Lesli Says:


    Thanks for sharing your photos and your thoughts. Congrats for making it to Waterwheel, and Half Dome – Whew! Great job on those! Secondly, you have decidedly highlighted two of the most challenging and tragic results of a National Park (or any wild area) – bad encounters with wildlife and people who feel that the things that are there to protect them don’t mean them. I know the NPS has struggled with how to protect wildlife yet still allow them their habitat – and how to allow visitors access while still maintaining that protection. It’s a tough call especially given the cuts that have been made in NPS budgets. The answers are difficult at best, and unfortunately those who decided to ignore warnings (fences, signs, etc.) become part of the loss. The best we can do as photographers is make sure we are staying within the guidelines, and hope that some learning is taken away from the tragic loss of life. Take care!

  16. Julie Rorden Says:

    The perspective given by the folks in your first image hints at the incredible height and massiveness of the Yosemite’s granite mountains. Well done, Gary! Were they doing controlled burns again the day you took this picture? There seems to be a little more smoke in the valley than I’m used to seeing.

    It’s sad that some people have such little respect for the power of nature. From Glacier Point last summer, I could see a lot of resources (rescue workers on the ground and helicopters above) being used to find some one who went over a waterfall across the valley. At the same time, other group of rescue workers told me they were looking for a couple of children who got lost near Glacier Point. Yosemite is an amazing place to explore, but care must be taken!

    Since there’s rarely a time when I’m not sharing a road with a deer, or ten, I finally broke down and installed what I refer to as a deer buster onto the front of my xterra. Fortunately, it hasn’t been tested, but there have been some very close calls! It won’t solve all potential damage to me, the car, or the deer, but hopefully it’ll help. In our area, the deer are attracted to the roads because of the salt that’s used to de-ice them in the winter. Decades ago, I learned to follow larger vehicles, such as semi’s, when driving in areas the deer are known to hang out. There aren’t many semi’s cruising around Yosemite though, are there? 😉

  17. Ron Jensen Says:

    Only a Californian could be quite so certain that a “tourist” (and surely an out-of-state one at that) pitched an apple near the roadway to lure an innocent dear to a collision with an auto. It would be interesting to know the thought process that led you to that conclusion.

  18. enlightphoto Says:


    Thanks so much for your comment. I appreciate your taking the time to express your thoughts. I think I used the term consequence, rather than an implied or intended act to lure a deer into a collision with an auto. Perhaps you can let me know the thought process that led to that conclusion? 😉

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