The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

June 11, 2013

Pondering deaths along Yosemite path


When Heath was fighting fires in the park, he’d go on all-day hikes. He didn’t always exercise caution, he conceded, “But, I’ll tell you what, I never went swimming above a waterfall.”

Glacier-cold water flowed under the bridge. In some spots it looked deceptively calm, with clear pools revealing every pebble.

A boy about 8 years old stood on a large boulder in the river. It was near where the young brothers, on an extended family outing, went for a swim last summer and were immediately swept downriver.

“You can’t save someone who falls in this river. If you try, you’ll die too. It’s granite. It’s wet,” said Doug Chavez, 42, with a hint of anger even after the boy had rock-hopped back to shore.

On the day Kalman went over the fall, Chavez, a San Francisco Outward Bound instructor, had been hiking with his nieces and nephews in Yosemite Valley. He heard the helicopters.

“I didn’t even know what had happened, but I told the kids, ‘Someone just died.’ I wanted to scare the crap out of them,” he said.

“Especially my nephew. He’s 8 and he keeps” — he interrupted himself to yell — “Andrew! Get down! That rock is too close to the water.”

At the end of the bridge, the Park Service had posted a bright yellow warning: “Stay back from moving water.”

Soon the trail became a staircase blasted out of granite. Irregular steps, many of them 3 feet high, climbed alongside the fall. Big clouds of mist floated over, drenching hikers as thoroughly as a log ride at an amusement park.

The staircase changed direction and crossed to the granite expanse above Vernal Fall — one of Yosemite’s most popular spots. A summer day can see 2,000 visitors.

A jovial group took turns posing for pictures in the corner of a guardrail in front of the fall. In the 2011 tragedy, two people in a church party — first-time visitors — stepped over the rail to pose for a photo. One slipped. Both fell. Another friend tried to save them. All three died.

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