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Published: Monday, 8/29/2011

National parks’ inherent dangers are an acceptable risk

BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST

From Acadia to Yosemite, it’s been a dangerous summer at our national parks. Call it the Summer of Bad Behavior by people who took absurd risks and paid the ultimate price.

Yosemite National Park is one of the world’s most beautiful places — and one of its most treacherous if disrespected. Every year, people die because they ignore the dangers of the steep trails and the roaring waterfalls.

Three young tourists were swept over Yosemite’s spectacular Vernal Falls in July because they disregarded barricades and signs that warned them they were just yards away from an unsurvivable 317-foot plunge.

The problem at the top of Vernal is that the Merced River, fed by the melt of massive winter snows in the higher elevations, slows a bit as it approaches the falls, gathering in a pool that can look deceptively inviting. It even has a gentle, benign name: the Emerald Pool.

But the threat is immediate and the fate almost certain for those who step over or around barriers meant to save their lives. When my daughter and I climbed Yosemite’s Mist Trail to Half Dome last year, I took a photo of her pointing to the warning sign at Vernal Falls. She posed with a “thumbs up,” as if to say: “Not to worry. They don’t have to tell me twice.”

Six people died in water-related accidents this summer in Yosemite, in part because the record-setting winter snow melt kept the waterfalls roaring at spring-like levels well into July. In all, 14 deaths had been recorded in the park this summer by the end of July, twice the normal average.

That some people don’t get it is the conundrum of our national parks. The National Park Service puts reasonable precautions in place to protect visitors, but the NPS is not so arbitrary about it that the park experience is compromised.

As many as 2,500 people a day climb to Vernal Falls and thoroughly enjoy it. Occasionally, however, somebody will fatally underestimate the danger.

In other words, you can’t fix stupid, and you can’t make wild, natural places completely safe. The park service insists it has no plans to install additional barriers or signs at the head of Vernal Falls. Good for the park service.

A 7-year-old girl drowned at Acadia National Park in Maine when a storm surge swept her and her parents into the sea. Signs warned of the unusually high surf, the dying gasp of a hurricane, but again signs were ignored.

Back at Yosemite, another summer tragedy took the life of a young woman attempting to climb the cables at Half Dome.

The Half Dome day hike — 16 miles or so round trip — is Yosemite’s most demanding. It’s described by one Internet site as the hike “you can’t die without doing and the one you’re most likely to die while doing.”

The final portion is a steep incline of about 400 feet or so. Steel cables are anchored in the rock to help climbers pull themselves up. The granite is well worn from the shoes of thousands of climbers and can become quite slippery.

The weather in Yosemite Valley can change abruptly, especially at the higher elevations. The top of the cables are 8,800 feet above sea level. Apparently the young woman lost her footing and fell to her death.

Yosemite has 800 miles of trails. It’s impossible for the National Park Service to station a ranger everywhere danger lurks.

So if the question is how much risk is acceptable, what’s the answer?

Do we wall off our national parks and render their most wondrous features viewable only from a safe distance?

Or do we acknowledge that some people among us are determined to do foolish things, and realize that it’s the price society pays for raw encounters with nature’s wonder and occasional fury?

I vote the latter.

Some of our national parks have become so commercialized with souvenir shops and overrun with traffic that visitors can lose the reverential respect that should be automatic in these great scenic places. But the inherently dangerous forces of nature must remain accessible.

Safely negotiating the natural wonders of Yosemite or any of our other magnificent national parks can be a spiritually and emotionally rewarding experience. No reasonably cautious person should be denied that experience because of somebody else’s terrible, foolhardy decision.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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