A hiker fell to her death on Sunday while descending Yosemite’s Half Dome in the rain.
According to an AP news story, Haley LaFlamme, 26, reportedly was among a group of about 20 hikers who decided to hike to the summit despite wet conditions, slippery granite and distant lightning and thunder. She fell off the Half Dome cables and fell approximately 600 feet, stated Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb.
My heart goes out to the friends and family of the fallen hiker. But my head cannot comprehend the decision she and other hikers made to scale Half Dome in the rain.
Experts have warned of the dangers of hiking Half Dome in good weather, much less bad, since the 19th century. In his 1870 Yosemite Guide-Book, California’s leading geologist Josiah Whitney pronounced Half Dome “perfectly inaccessible.”
In my guidebook, California’s National Parks, A Day Hiker’s Guide, I caution: “Even the most experienced hikers should remember that mid-afternoon summer thunderstorms in Yosemite are common. The last place you want to be in an electric storm is atop Half Dome, forced to make a hurried descent over slippery rock while holding on to wet metal cables.”
Warnings were even delivered in more high-tech fashion: On that tragic Sunday morning, people in the park began sent messages on Twitter about a raging thunderstorm with rain.
The hike to Half Dome is no walk in the park. From the Happy Isles trailhead to the Half Dome summit it’s a hike of 16.5 miles round trip with 4,800-foot elevation gain.
The trail to Half Dome leads past Vernal Falls, where just two weeks ago three hikers stepped around a guardrail into the raging Merced River and were swept to their deaths over the mighty waterfall. The final assault on the summit requires climbing at an almost 45-degree angle up slick granite with the help of twin cables that hikers grip to haul themselves to the top.
This latest accident makes fourteen people who have died so far this year in Yosemite, breaking a record for the deadliest in the park’s history.
But don’t blame nature for this increase. More than three million people visit the park every year. Most of those who get themselves in trouble in Yosemite are day hikers who lack hiking skills and are ill-prepared for the challenges of the trail and changing conditions of the High Sierra.
Yosemite is often on the same California tourist itinerary as Disneyland and Universal Studios. Many visitors are more accustomed to theme parks than national parks.
“A lot of people who visit Yosemite aren’t necessarily familiar with nature,” said park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. “They are really out of their element and may not understand the force of nature and what they may encounter in nature.”
Hiking is among the safest forms of outdoor recreation provided the hiker has some basic skills and respects nature and park regulations.
The lesson from this latest incident in Yosemite is NOT: “Don’t hike Half Dome.”
Rather it’s: “Prepare well for the wonderful and challenging once-in-a lifetime hike to the top of Half Dome.”
From the top of the 8,842-foot dome you get 360-degree vistas: up and down Yosemite Valley, Clouds Rest and Cathedral Peak, the jagged Sierra crest. The view from Half Dome is magnificent—but not worth dying for.