If you’re a Bay Area outdoors enthusiast of any kind, you’ve seen the horrific news about the three Yosemite hikers who were swept away at Vernal Falls. The entire account by the Associated Press can be read here, but the gist is that the three hikers ignored warning signs and crossed over a railing to pose for photos while other hikers warned them to return to safety.

One of our sports columnists, Bob Padecky, is a veteran northern California hiker who knows Yosemite well – he proudly wears a Mount Shasta hat around the office, offered this guest blog post: (Remember, Bob’s job is to be opinionated. See his 49ers blog for sporting examples.)

From Bob:

“I have hiked up to Vernal Falls in Yosemite at least a dozen times and every time I have stood at the railing, looking down at the waterfall, this never, EVER crossed my mind: “Gosh, I just took my stupid pills so I think I’ll climb over this railing to get a better look. Let’s see how close to the edge I can get before I fall to my death.”

Yes, the recent accident at Vernal where three people lost their lives is tragic. But why it happened isn’t tragic. Tragic is hiking somewhere and an errant, falling boulder finds your head. What is so troubling about these deaths at Vernal is that it didn’t have to happen. It was totally avoidable. I don’t know if the people thought they were bulletproof or trying to impress someone or were just soft in the head.

Whatever the reason what they did trumped common sense. It trumped the basic human instinct of survival. It trumped the most obvious assumption that could be made: If I fall, I die.

Nature is a thrill ride but there are rules. Hike with a buddy. Carry water. Don’t drink or drug up. Don’t climb over a railing to inch up on a raging torrent. I hope the Vernal tragedy gets a lot of play, so those that somehow could be tempted to test common sense don’t.

You don’t walk up to a brown bear and wave a hamburger patty in his face anymore than you should climb over a guard rail at Vernal Falls.”


Share your Yosemite experiences in the comments below:



  1. Jennifer Ormond

    Thanks Bob! You summed up what I’ve been ranting about for the past 20 minutes. Where was that instinct anyway?? My theory: all these survival shows on television have created a desensitization (is that even a word) to the perils of wilderness. It’s the same with the bears. We went to Yosemite last year and a brown bear was up in a small tree in a meadow. People were trying to get up close to photograph it before the park rangers showed up. It just makes me wonder: if Yosemite was a hidden jewel, without a souvenier shop and concession stands, etc, would people still be so brazen? Or would they actually feel like they were in the wilderness and not so invincible?

    July 20th, 2011 6:07 pm

  2. Patricia Wilburn

    A similar incident occurred just recently when a young man was sucked into a blowhole on Maui, Hawaii, as other tourists visiting the site looked on in horror. He also was warned that he should not stand too close to the blow hole. A large wave came in and created a vacuum-like suction that took him down into the hole. His body has not been found. Nature is not to be ignored, or her power underestimated, and I think that sometimes young people have the perception that they are invincible, and that death can not touch them because of their youth. I’m sure that I could have used a lot more caution when I was young and living in a dream world. My heart breaks for those who were lost to us, and for their grieving friends and families.

    July 20th, 2011 6:11 pm

  3. Gary

    The scariest part of the story was related by one of the victims fellow hiking companions who reported that he could see the sheer terror on his friends face as he washed toward the waterfall.

    I read a book on Yosemite not long ago and it was pointed out that too many visitors mistake the title of “National Park” as the equivalent of the local neighborhood “park” with its minimal risks. The term “park” is merely a bureaucratic description. The boundary is political. Everything within Yosemite is just as dangerous as if it were back in the year 1850.

    The most common fatalities in Yosemite are due to falls off cliffs and into the raging river waters / waterfalls.

    So, honestly, the victims here paid a steep price for refusing to obey the warning signage. Their deaths are not anyone elses fault but their own. I hope thier families recognize that and accept it rather than attempt to assign blame via lawsuit.

    July 20th, 2011 7:09 pm

  4. Laura

    What IS tragic, is that so many people have so little experience of the wild. They go out on a trip, and treat nature as though it’s a walk through a parking lot, not a force greater than themselves. Yes, they lack sense. Because they lack experience. That’s what’s so very, very sad.

    July 20th, 2011 7:15 pm

  5. Scott

    Jennifer, you are full of it, because there are no brown bears (Ursus arctos) remaining in California.

    July 20th, 2011 8:37 pm

  6. Jen

    I think people equate tourist attractions like Yosemite and Maui’s coast with Disneyland. Disneyland is a safe place, where you wear a seatbelt in the rides, which thrill you without danger. Somehow, people think national parks and wild areas are actually tame. I don’t think they understand that the cliffs are REAL and that you can be hurt or even killed if you don’t take care.

    July 20th, 2011 10:01 pm

  7. Joy

    Or perhaps, Scott, Jennifer was describing the color of the bear’s fur: “Yosemite is home to an average of 300 to 500 black bears in its 750,000 acres. Despite their name, about 95% of bears in the Sierra Nevada are not black but rather various shades and blends of blonde, auburn, and brown.” http://www.yosemitepark.com/bear-facts.aspx
    Why assume she’s “full of it”?

    This story is tragic for those who had to watch those people die. Not to sound callous, but those people had a responsibility to themselves and the people they were with, which they completely disregarded for a moment’s thrill…now their loved ones have to suffer with those images for the rest of their lives.

    July 21st, 2011 7:42 am

  8. Dave

    Scott, RELAX. Jen said she saw a brown bear in the park, nothing more – nothing less. I see brown bears in Yosemite ALL the time. I am certain she was referring to the cinnamon or brown phases of the black bear (ursus americanus if you need to know). That coloration is actually surprisingly dominant by a large margin in northern California and Yosemite specifically. If you had known a little more about the coloration, maybe you wouldn’t have been so quick to belittle an thoughtful post. Besides, most of us refer to the brown bear as Grizzly, Kodiak, or Alaskan Brown.

    July 21st, 2011 7:52 am

  9. Dave

    And yes, I was referring to Jennifer Ormond’s post above, not Jen’s.

    July 21st, 2011 7:55 am

  10. Dave Charleston

    Bob, you are correct but I think the reason is really more like “these rules don’t apply to me, just to those idiots over there”. Yeas ago, living in Phoenix, I was astounded at all the people who stepped over the edge at the Grand Canyon to their deaths. A Ranger explained that most (of the survivors)didn’t think the rules applied to them but to someone else. Hell ! people still drive drunk, down the wrong way on a one way street, text while driving, why not ignore a safety sign, a speed limit, etc.

    July 21st, 2011 8:05 am

  11. Jim

    Debate? What is the debate? it wasn’t only these 3 morons who jumped the railing. There was a man who dangled a kid over the edge showing off. The media missed this one. They were part of a church group. The only debate is whether any lines should be given to this story.

    Darwinism. Three less idiots are around.

    July 21st, 2011 10:49 am

  12. Paul B

    This wasn’t an accident, this was suicide by stupidity.
    Hopefully the coroner writes it up that way.

    July 21st, 2011 11:11 am

  13. Tom

    Makes me wonder how cyclists in spandex can trump ” the basic human instinct of survival” by assuming everyone can see them and think “share to road” is a safe common sense policy ( especially on some of these rural roads with blind corners and little space).

    July 21st, 2011 11:15 am

  14. smartcookie

    A thoughtful piece turned vicious by bitter trolls.

    July 21st, 2011 11:30 am

  15. trailhead

    Thanks, smartcookie. Maybe other commenters will help get this back on track into a decent exchange about the responsibilities of hikers and the perils of Mother Nature.

    July 21st, 2011 11:33 am

  16. Jim

    I’m not sure why cyclists are mentioned in the comments. The vast majority of cyclists aren’t suicidal. These people, by climbing over the barrier, after their friend did (read my previous post), were washed away just as they should have been.

    The sign on the railing says if you go into the water you will die. Not sure how much cleared it can get. Tough, knowing the overreaching ridiculousness that the government has become, this nanny state will come up with something. Maybe they’ll damn the falls. No water means no one will get washed over. That wouldn’t surprise me.

    July 21st, 2011 12:18 pm

  17. Phil Maher

    I’m torn between sympathy for the families and friends of the dead, as well as those unfortunate to have witnessed it a spectators and having some sense that the people that died got exactly what was coming to them. If the railing wasn’t the first clue, or the numerous signed warnings of imminent death the second, how could anyone not understand the dangers of absolutely raging and roaring water shooting at high velocity through a narrow channel of highly polished and slick granite? It boggles the mind how anyone could be so foolish and irresponsible.

    July 21st, 2011 12:26 pm

  18. Brenda

    These guys will get my Darwin Awards vote this year…. Darwin observation that the fittest survived, apparently these hiker were somehow not the fittest and perhaps the dumbest, and or God decide it was their time….
    What scare me is that the Parks will close off or construct a very ugly, and expensive, barricades for idiots that ruin the experience for everyone else!

    July 21st, 2011 12:38 pm

  19. Eleanor

    As a former NPS Park Ranger, I can attest to the silliness of some park visitors. Yes, they cross railings in front of warning signs, they feed animals when told not to, they chase bears, bison, moose and other ungulates with big horns or antlers…they play in hypothermic waters and tempt fate. And some of them die. And some will sue a park for not being told often enough to be smart. I feel for those who witnessed, helpless to do anything except be haunted by the sight.

    Why in the world did comments turn to local bicyclists? Good grief–any chance to rant, I guess.

    July 21st, 2011 12:56 pm

  20. lyn

    Wow, Scott, you are being harsh. You missed Jennifer’s point I think. Perhaps when some hikers and campers sees a “brown bear” we don’t realize that Black Bears come in all shades of brown and auburn. Not everyone is as knowledgeable on the subject as you. Nor grandiose for that matter. Calm down dude! ;-)

    July 21st, 2011 1:09 pm

  21. DanFox

    Gee. A few weeks ago, a couple (neither of whom can swim) are fooling around in a dangerous part of the Russian River; the woman gets sucked under, the man tries to save her and drowns. And he’s lauded by the PD and its commenters as a hero.

    And then we have a woman who does something stupid at the edge of a river; two men try to save her, and all of them drown – and all are widely reviled as “idiots”.

    What’s the difference between the two stories? Not all that much, I don’t think.

    July 21st, 2011 1:14 pm

  22. Tupac

    These people were as smart as your average cyclist. No human instinct to survive. But , hey that got to go outside and experience nature

    July 21st, 2011 2:35 pm

  23. Joe

    If you cant see the correlation between these hikers and cyclists that take unnecessary risks and lack common sense for a brief enjoyment of nature, you are slow. Good analogy to the person that brought up cyclists

    July 21st, 2011 4:54 pm

  24. vincent

    There is more than just mere stupidity at work in this tragedy – there is the lack of self-awareness – that I am alive and I could – die. This sensibility does not seem to be there in these folks. Perhaps there religious upbringing is a factor in this – there were no gods or angels waiting at the edge of those falls to lift them to safety – they were very mortal and are now very dead… or maybe it was just stupidity.

    July 21st, 2011 5:53 pm

  25. National park deaths: Random or reckless? | Niagara Falls Travel

    [...] the recent accident at Vernal is tragic. But why it happened isn’t tragic,” writes Santa Rosa Press-Democrat columnist Bob Padecky. “Tragic is hiking somewhere and an errant, falling boulder finds your head. What is so [...]

    July 22nd, 2011 10:01 am

  26. DukeLaw

    Why do I picture big fat overweight males when it comes to criticizing cyclists in an article about ignoring warning signs. Did I miss the assertion that natural hazards are the same as human one(i.e, cars). Oh, wait, I didn’t…..

    July 22nd, 2011 3:16 pm

  27. jeremyrenne

    As reported from local news, the 28-year-old Jake Bibee, who grew up near the park knows that “You have to respect the water.” http://bit.ly/qEJsIQ

    July 23rd, 2011 10:41 pm

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