July 21st, 2011
02:51 PM ET

Yosemite tragedy underscores dangers of deceptive rivers

The Merced River's unusual force for this time of year made wading near a waterfall particularly deadly for three Yosemite visitors.

Three hikers are presumed dead after being swept over Vernal Fall, a 317-foot waterfall at Yosemite National Park, on Tuesday, according to a National Park Service news release.

Witnesses said the visitors climbed over a guardrail to put their feet in the water about 25 feet from the waterfall's edge. The hikers have been identified as Ramina Badal, 21, and Hormiz David, 22, both of Modesto, California; and Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock, California.

Park officials announced Wednesday that they were presuming the visitors to be dead and will intensify search efforts as soon as the  river reaches a level low enough to look for bodies.

The Mist Trail, where the visitors were hiking, sees about 1,500 guests each day, according to the Park Service. In May, another hiker slipped from the popular trail into the Merced and drowned. Counting Tuesday's accident, there have been six water-related deaths at Yosemite this year.

Western rivers have been at record levels this summer due to large snow packs and a cool spring.

At this point in the year, the Merced would typically be at about a “trickle” at Vernal Fall, said Dave Steindorf, California stewardship director for American Whitewater. Instead, the water is still gushing at levels that are rarely seen past June. Steindorf said this is great news for experienced paddlers but can create especially dangerous situations for hikers, bathers and waders who are less familiar with river hazards.

“Walking out into a river, if you’re up to your knees, that’s about as far as you can go with being able to maintain your footing, even with just moderate force,” Steindorf said.

Steindorf pointed to U.S. Geological Survey data that say the historic median level for the Merced just below Vernal Fall is 298 cubic feet per second. Right now, it’s at 1300 CFS. That the Vernal Fall races over a solid piece of slick granite compounds the area’s danger, he said.

“When you get this late in the season and people are used to those rivers being a trickle, they don’t understand how powerful they can be,” Steindorf said. “People wouldn’t consider walking out into a blizzard without any clothes on, but unfortunately, people will go into a river that’s higher than normal and not have life jackets or really the ability or the skill to avoid (accidents).”

No matter how forceful or gentle the flow of the Merced, Steindorf said, he would never recommend entering a river above Vernal Fall.

“Getting in any river above a significant hazard. You have to exercise even more caution, and the right answer is that you shouldn’t get in the water,” he said. “One of the big messages here is (to) provide some education on what is safe.”

Yosemite places guardrails and multilingual signs in places that are hazardous, but deciding to heed those warnings is a decision left up to individual visitors, Kari Cobb, a Yosemite Park ranger, said Wednesday.

"Visitors that want to go around guardrails ... it's up to them," Cobb said. "It's something that does happen, and it's completely up to the visitor to know what safety concerns are around and take responsibility for their own actions.”

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Filed under: California • Hikers • Nature • Travel • U.S. • Uncategorized
soundoff (170 Responses)
  1. AAA

    Heading to Yosemite high country (Tolumne) in a couple days. The adventure...the danger!! Can't wait!!!!!!!!!! As Al Pacino would say in Scnet of a woman, HOO-RAH!!!!!!!!!!

    Very sad and tragic that human lives were lost. BUT HOO-RAH!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 22, 2011 at 2:51 am | Report abuse |
    • S&G

      Here's to hoping your not next. HOO-RAH!!!!!

      July 22, 2011 at 3:02 am | Report abuse |
  2. Steve

    OK, climbing over a guardrail...not so bright...Falling into a raging creek that leads to a 300ft drop waterfall (onto some rocks) = Darwin award candidate(s). Thinking you can save someone that was ignorant enough to put themselves in such a bad situation also qualifies. Yes it is sad, but stupid is as stupid does. I pray for those who knew they could do nothing but watch the horror.

    July 22, 2011 at 3:28 am | Report abuse |
  3. borisjimbo

    Darwin wins again.

    July 22, 2011 at 3:38 am | Report abuse |
  4. CF

    Now THAT'S a waterfall.

    July 22, 2011 at 3:51 am | Report abuse |
  5. marcthegimp

    did the 3 people drown or did they go over the edge and die from the fall? maybe i should reread it

    July 22, 2011 at 4:34 am | Report abuse |
    • Amber

      You are seriously lacking in intuitive cognisance. With water gushing 25 ft. from the drop, they probably didn't have time to drown until their bodies slammed the cement force of water at the bottom which then likely kept forcing them under from the pressure. Since the bodies have not been recovered, and thus no autopsy, it would be impossible at this point to say they died on impact or were held under the force of the raging Merced UNTIL they drowned. What difference does it make? They're dead from their stupidity and lack of respect for nature.

      July 22, 2011 at 5:41 am | Report abuse |
    • jeff

      They didn't die from drowning or the fall but from stupidity.

      July 22, 2011 at 7:09 am | Report abuse |
  6. troothdekay

    The odds are almost never in our favor when we confront nature one-on-one. Jump that guardrail, and you are not taking your life into your own hands - you place it at the mercy of unfeeling natural forces instead. A raging, 300-foot waterfall will whip your behind every time. Look before you leap, kiddies.

    July 22, 2011 at 5:01 am | Report abuse |
  7. Skotm35

    Darwin Awards all around........

    July 22, 2011 at 5:09 am | Report abuse |
  8. joey

    just read another article that said other people there were yelling at them to get out of the water. they ignored.

    tsk , tsk, evolution doesnt like smartazzes

    July 22, 2011 at 5:46 am | Report abuse |
  9. works4me

    The entire world is a dangerous place... for idiots! And what's with the "presumed dead"? I would certainly presume so...

    July 22, 2011 at 6:08 am | Report abuse |
  10. Jon

    I have hiked the Mist Trail and beyond many times. Every time I do I see people doing dangerous stuff and not paying attention to safety rails and even signs that are posted above the falls. I used to say something to people on occasion but I would always get ignored or they would get angry at me for not minding my own business. Now I just walk by them and this story doesn't surprise me at all. Just another group of idiots thinking the laws of nature don't apply to them, oh well.

    July 22, 2011 at 6:11 am | Report abuse |
  11. benrisher

    The park’s search-and-rescue crews scoured the area Tuesday and continued on early Wednesday, but in the end the search was called off and the three were believed to forever be one with the falls. http://bit.ly/qEJsIQ

    July 22, 2011 at 6:29 am | Report abuse |
  12. Cindy

    Last time I was there, about 15 years ago, I recall the warning signs saying something to the effect of "get in the water and you will die". I think that is about as clear as it gets.

    July 22, 2011 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Ch

      Cindy, you are right. Here is a link to a picture of the sign they ignored. http://www.saroy.net/trips/halfdome/warning.jpg

      It says:

      "Stay out of the water! Powerful, hidden currents will carry you over the fall. Stay back from the slipper rock at the water's edge.

      If you go over the fall, you will die."

      July 22, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Mike

    Its idiots like this that make the rest of us suffer by creating even more restrictions.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:02 am | Report abuse |
  14. SAR

    The worst part is the unnecessary diversion of Search and Rescue resources. Not saying there was one, but what if there had been a genuine emergency somewhere else in the park? Their idiocy can actually negatively impact others. Thank you to the Park Rangers and staff for their work, sorry that some folks insist on making it harder than it ought to be.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:02 am | Report abuse |
  15. MOCaseA

    Rule #1 about water – If it is moving, it is dangerous
    Rule #2 about water – If there are signs posted about danger, it is dangerous
    Rule 3# about water – if it is deep enough to pass the second knuckle of your pointer finger, you can drown in it, and it is dangerous
    Rule #4 about water – If it falls of the side of a mountain, it can wash you off the side of the mountain too, and is therefore dangerous.

    July 22, 2011 at 8:06 am | Report abuse |
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