Yosemite not your ordinary walk in the park

By Bill Rozak, The Union Democrat

Yosemite National Park last month permanently closed 233 Curry Village cabins in the wake of October rock slides that hit the popular lodging and camping spot. The two slides damaged eight cabins, injured three park visitors and sent dozens scrambling for safety.

The Park Service closed the cabins after a just-released geologic assessment of Glacier Point, a nearly sheer granite face that towers more than 2,000 feet above Curry Village. The study concluded that the area is prone to similar slides in the future.

That is probably no surprise to those even remotely familiar with Yosemite. It does not take a geologist to know that rock slides - along with floods, bears, waterfalls, ice, snow, and more - are among the dangers visitors risk when they pay $20 and drive into the national park.

You take a chance when you visit Yosemite. This green-and-granite paradise is not a theme park. Federal and state safety standards were not observed during its construction, which spanned more than 200 million years of geologic upheaval and glaciation.

Visitors are not asked to sign legal disclaimers when they enter Yosemite. But what they should do is pay attention, know the risks involved and act accordingly.

Does it sound like we're stating the obvious?

Carelessness, neglect, abandon and outright stupidity have killed far more park visitors than rock slides.

Look at the numbers:

• Since 1857, according to a 2004 park-issued report, rock slides have killed 12 people.

• According to "Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite," a 2007 treatise by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Charles R .Farabee, 158 have died in motorcycle crashes, 144 have drowned, 124 lost their lives in hiking mishaps and 104 fell victim to climbing accidents. Sixty suicides and 44 murders are also part of the 870 deaths recorded in more than 150 years.

A surprising number of Yosemite deaths have involved drugs, alcohol, an almost incomprehensible stupidity or some combination of the three. Stoned swimmers, a drunken guy perched at the top of Yosemite Falls for a gag photo and a youngster feeding potato chips to a skittish buck deer were among the casualties.

Largely unavoidable accidents - due to lightning, rock slides, floods, wildlife etc. - account for only 50 deaths in Yosemite's history, less than 6 percent of the total. Rock slides, thus, account for fewer than 2 percent.

Do the math: The park gets about 4 million annual visitors, and rock slides kill about one every 12 years or so. That means your odds against being crushed by a falling boulder are better than 48 million to 1.

So was the National Park Service right to shut down a third of Curry Village's more than 700 cabins? Even though the move cuts further into a lodging inventory still depleted by the floods of 1997?

And, the just-released Glacier Point survey notwithstanding, Park Geologist Greg Stock said similar, slide-prone conditions exist on the slopes below Half Dome and other Yosemite promontories.

On the plus side, none of the park's other granite faces has the concentration of visitors that Curry Village puts in the path of rock falling from Glacier Point. One unfortunate slide, should it happen when Curry's resort cabins are jammed and its grounds are packed with vacationers, could tragically skew the statistics.

So we won't quarrel with erring on the side of caution, but at the same time would-be park visitors should not cancel plans to see this spectacular national treasure.

For the key to having a safe trip to Yosemite National Park is not avoiding Curry Village, but being aware of your surroundings and using common sense.

The Union Democrat
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