What is more dangerous: climbing Yosemite’s vertical granite cliff or playing near the rapids around places like the Merced River or Tenaya Creek?
A high number of experienced outdoorsmen and women feel safer climbing in technical terrain than playing near the water for a reason; climbing routes are mostly predictable and well-documented with little variation from their respective topos. Climbers themselves are appropriately skilled, well-equipped and aware of the hazards that the inherently dangerous sport presents. Every year, Yosemite Search and Rescue personnel rescue injured climbers off of our Park’s massive granite cliffs. Successful water rescues however, are a rare occurrence... even in very shallow water.
Visits to the riverbanks (or into the water) are usually unplanned and anyone who is unfortunate enough to fall victim to the current is rarely prepared for a mishap. In fact, most people who endanger themselves at the water’s edge have little appreciation for the totally unforgiving nature of Yosemite’s waters or they would probably keep a safe distance from it. Water can seem calm, slow moving, peaceful and even moderate rapids look benign to the average hiker.
Gravity is king, accelerating Yosemite's water down a steep gradient as it races down from the high Sierra collecting more water as it travels. The resulting forces are exceptionally powerful and there is not an Olympic swimmer who can challenge them. The rivers are also full of dangerous obstructions, many of which are unseen. The river bottom is 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. You will be unable to fight your way out of it.
White water is only half water and half air, offering no buoyancy. You sink right to the bottom despite your swimming skills and the bottom is where most of the danger lies. If you become entrapped, you quickly 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 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 often 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!