A woman who fell to her death while climbing Yosemite National Park's legendary Half Dome this past Sunday became the park's 14th death for the year. Haley LaFlamme, a 26-year-old climber from San Ramon, California, fell 600 feet when a rain storm hit while she used a cable to descend the rock face. The accident brings the park up about even with its usual yearly total of visitor deaths, the Los Angeles Times pointed out on Tuesday. "Yosemite typically sees five or six deaths by the end of July and 12 to 15 by the year’s end, said Kari Cobb, a spokeswoman for the park." So why has this year turned out to be so much deadlier?
Big snow means big rivers: As an exceptionally heavy snowpack that accumulated during the winter of 2010 to 2011 continues to melt off, rivers and waterfalls in the park have swollen far past their usual levels for the time of year. After three hikers fell in a rushing river and were swept over the park's Vernal Falls last month, the Associated Press reported rivers were swollen statewide. "In California, the Sierra Nevada mountain range saw twice its normal snowfall. With high temperatures creating a fast melt, some rivers are flowing with twice the force as usual for a time of year when many might have slowed to a lazy run." On June 29, two other hikers were swept off a bridge at Wapama Falls and drowned.
Unseasonable storms can kill: The rain that hit LaFlamme and her group was unexpected for the time of year. The Associated Press reports, "For Haley LaFlamme, 26, it likely was the unseasonable rain that brewed on the day her group of four secured a rare permit to ascend the enormous, smooth granite dome, the park's iconic feature. They were among a group of about 20 hikers who were braving the trip to the summit despite the wet conditions, slippery granite and distant lightning and thunder." Signs warn hikers to stay off Half Dome's peak when it rains, but it would appear LaFlamme didn't get the message about the weather until too late. The AP says hikers started sending out text messages about the weather at 11 a.m. on Sunday, and the 911 call reporting the fall came in at noon.
Slippery trails can surprise: The first fatality of the year came when University of Austin professor Kent Scott Butler slipped and fell while hiking the popular Mist Trail to Vernal Fall. The mist from the swollen waterfall, which gives the trail its name, had made it slicker than normal, and Butler fell into the Merced River, where park officials said he drowned. That same day, another man, James Dunbar, tripped while running on a trail and hit his head, killing him.
Driving is dangerous: Yosemite, like anywhere, can be a dangerous place to drive, even in perfect conditions. Last month, a group of teenaged hikers was returning from Yosemite to Marin County after an excursion when their car left the road and crashed, killing one of them. There aren't many details, but the crash happened at 7:15 a.m. on a section of Tioga Road, "a well-traveled thoroughfare in the northern end of Yosemite, a popular summer tourist attraction." It's not really related to the park's dangerous conditions this year, but it's a reminder to be careful on the road.