Yosemite National Park. An untouched expanse of breathtaking beauty, formed from immense emerald plains, glacier-carved canyons, and effervescent waterfalls. It spans 747,956 acres, 95% of which is designated as 'wilderness.' Its highest, stomach-churning peak stretches 13,114 feet high, and is home to a climate that is truly schizophrenic, with temperatures ranging from −6 °F all the way to a scorching 115 °F.
But these numbers only tell half the story. The other, much darker side of Yosemite - the side you'll rarely hear about in tourist pamphlets - concerns the countless lives that have been claimed by its deadly terrain.
While it's the source of such stunning natural beauty, it's also the source of much untold grief. Yosemite Park was the final resting place for the unlucky some, who, just a moment before their life was whisked away from them, were most likely admiring the majestic landscape that swiftly and indiscriminately erased their existence.
Leading Causes of Death
Although it's not known exactly how many people have perished on the harsh landscapes of Yosemite, Michael P. Ghiglieri, co-author of 'Off the Wall: Death at Yosemite,' puts the number at over 900 (since the park's establishment in 1890). Keen not to understate the severity of this haunting statistic, Ghiglieri once called it "the deadliest park in the country."
What's most shocking, however, is the sheer variety of gruesome ways it has taken lives. As of 2012, 48 people were killed by waterfalls, 8 by the cold, 11 by falling trees, and 133 from freak hiking accidents. Alarmingly, 23 people wandered off the paths and were never found again.
Even if you do manage to avoid the slippery walking trails and rogue falling timber, you're most likely to be swept away by one of the area's rapidly churning rivers, with 158 people spending their last, drowning breaths submerged in Yosemite water.
With such a diverse landscape, there's no shortage of nature's death traps here. What follows are some of the most dangerous areas of the park, each the setting of far too much human tragedy.
Vernal Fall - Death By Selfie
Though it might look like a pleasant place to stop for lunch, Vernal Fall has killed at least a dozen people in the last decade. At 317 feet (96.6 m) tall, it is a gushing behemoth. As Ghiglieri wrote:
These are humongous, gigantic, scare-your-pants-off kinds of waterfalls.
However, as is often the case, it is people who present the biggest danger to themselves. The alluring beauty of the falls' picaresque surroundings has led to the very real threat of 'death-by-selfie'; a fate that tragically befell these three young hikers:
Ghiglieri believes that accidents often occur when tourists risk life and limb in their quest for the perfect Facebook cover photo, condemned by their own vanity.
On July 19, 2011 these three 20-something visitors fell 317 feet, plunging towards the Merced River, their fall broken only by the jagged rocks waiting below. Witnesses said they saw one victim hop a safety fence, before slipping into the falls. The other two died attempting a rescue.
Jake Bibee, who saw the accident said the threesome were:
"Taking pictures and being stupid. We had to watch the fear on their faces as they knew they were plunging to their death. It was awful."
No picture in the world is worth that kind of sacrifice.
The Half Dome - America's Mount Everest
Yosemite's fabled Half Dome - a granite crest that ominously looms 4,737 ft. above the valley floor - is home to some of the park's most unforgiving, life-threatening terrain.
The peak of the dome can only be reached by a treacherously steep trail (pictured below), and is referred to by regular visitors as “our Mount Everest.” Climbers must scale a 400-foot segment of cable positioned at a perilous 45-degree angle.
Nature's Stairway to Heaven
In 2011, 26-year-old Hayley LaFlamme was descending these cables when she fell 600ft to her death. The same year, 23-year-old man Ryan Leeder suffered the same grim fate. His horrified screams as he fell were described by a witness as "the sound of a commercial jet near landing."
The exposed nature of the Half Dome also presents other, more Biblical dangers. On July 27, 1985, five hikers were ascending the peak when they were struck by lightning, resulting in two fatalities - a harsh reminder of nature's indiscriminate wrath.
Taft Point - A Botched BASE Jump
A recent Yosemite victim, extreme sports legend Dean Potter (pictured above) was found dead after attempting an aerial descent from Taft point. His body was found along with Graham Hunt's. Both of their parachutes were left unopened, suggesting they'd accidentally veered too close to nearby rocks.
Potter was well known for taking his dog, Whisper, on his adrenaline-fueled adventures, smuggled in his backpack:
A friend and fellow climber spoke candidly about the inherent risks involved in the sport and the courage it takes to seek such thrills:
"They were very well-aware of the risks but they chose to live life fully and completely … looking death straight in the eyes. I just can’t help but want to celebrate what these two men did. They lived life to the fullest and that’s inspiring."
A Heartbreaking Tale of Love and Loss
It's the human, personal stories that remind us of Yosemite's power to tear families, and people apart. No story makes this this more apparent than Brad Parker's.
Parker was truly on top of the world when he proposed to his girlfriend, Jainee Dial, at the top of Cathedral Peak. After she said yes, the pair were preparing to descend when he told her it was "the happiest day of my life." Little did he know, it was also his last.
It's still not known what exactly happened, but after saying goodbye to his new fiancée, the 36-year-old climber lost his footing and fell to his death, leaving his family and Jainee were stunned with grief.
If there's one thing the harsh conditions of America's most dangerous park reminds us, it's that nature must be treated with the respect and reverence it deserves. Yosemite's staggering beauty can be disarming, and those who were charmed into thinking such beauty wouldn't kill them made their last, fatal mistake.