Which is more dangerous, climbing Yosemite’s vertical granite cliff or playing near the rapids around places like the Merced River or Tenaya Creek?
Some experienced people feel safer in a difficult technical climb than playing near the water; climbing routes are predictable and well-planned and climbers are appropriately skilled, aware of the hazards, and are properly equipped.
Visits to the stream banks or into the water, on the other hand, are usually unplanned and such persons are rarely prepared for a mishap.
Indeed, most people who endanger themselves at the water’s edge have little appreciation for the almost totally unforgiving nature of Yosemite’s waters or they would probably keep a safe distance from it.
Most climbers have enough experience to know their sport is dangerous while the average person approaching one of our streams is almost completely naïve about swift water.
Almost everyone is afraid of heights to some extent, but most people are not fearful of water and even moderate rapids may look benign to the average hiker.
Every year, Park Rangers successfully rescue injured climbers off of our park’s big cliffs. However, successful water rescues are a rare occurrence, even in very shallow water. Why is this?
Yosemite’s waters usually run at a steep gradient. Gravity is king, accelerating the water as it races down from the high Sierra collecting more water as it travels. Water is exceptionally powerful and there is not an Olympic swimmer who can challenge it.
The streams are also full of dangerous obstructions, many of which are unseen. The river bottom is very uneven with rocks of all sizes waiting to trip or trap an unsuspecting person wading in the shallows.
The banks along the river may have loose soil and the granite rocks can be slippery, even when dry. Once off balance, you are at the mercy of the current and you will be unable to fight your way out of it.
White water is only half water and half air, a pretty bubble bath, but offering no buoyancy, so you sink right to the bottom despite your swimming skills.
The bottom is where most of the danger lies and if you become entrapped, you discover that the “half air” is not enough to breathe.
Poor footing, aerated water, and powerful currents will conspire to drag you to your death.
You are not safe even 50 feet from the river if a slip will get you wet!
What draws people to the water? You might be surprised that 75% of Yosemite’s water victims were not trying to swim; most were innocently scrambling on the boulders next to the river, wading, cooling their feet, taking photos or posing for photos, or getting drinking water when a minor slip turned into a major life-changing event.
Another large category of river victims were trying to assist someone already struggling in the water and this explains why drownings sometimes occur in pairs.
What do all of Yosemite’s water victims have in common?
Not one of them ever thought their innocent activity would demand such a terrible price.
Watching a loved one or even a stranger perish might be the most difficult thing a person ever has to do, but it is probably your best option so as not to double the numbers.
Better yet, why not prevent loved ones, and you, from becoming threatened by Yosemite’s waters?
Enjoy the water from the safety of established trails and other developed areas. RESPECT THE RIVER!
Go here for more Swift Water Rescue photos.
Other photos are also available through the Multimedia > Yosemite Photos tab in the left sidebar of this page.