Nature is not your friend

There’s a sad story in the news, about three young people missing, and probably dead, after being swept over a waterfall in Yosemite National Park.   Accident?  No, not really.

Witnesses say the three hikers ignored warnings and climbed guard railing at the top of Vernal Fall on Tuesday to wade into the Merced River, several dozen feet from the water’s drop.

They put themselves in a situation where they were in real danger, and  it cost them their lives. The story tells of others that day who also ignored the warnings and the guard rail, but fortunately for them, nothing happened to them.   One of the witnesses, who has been on the trail many times  said “People come up here and they think it’s Disneyland.”  I’ve seen this attitude for most of my life.  People come to the wilderness, and “expect” it to be “just like the nature shows on television,”  or “just like home.” It’s not.

That used to be known by almost everyone, but it has been forgotten.  Many of the dangers that our ancestors knew, and took care to avoid, have been replaced by a lackadaisical attitude, and an expectation that things will be  or have been “made safe.”  Predictably, this story appeared:

While the families plead with park authorities to do all they can in the search, they also are concerned for potential dangers facing future hikers. They asked Romina Kiryakous, founder of Genesis Behavior Center to have her firm conduct an assessment of the safety measures in place at Vernal Fall.

Quite frankly, anything that the park does, besides entirely closing the trail and posting a guard to make sure that no one goes there, will turn out to be “insufficient.”  People will continue to ignore signs, warnings, and fences.  Over the past few decades there’s been a lot of initiatives to make things “safer,” often driven by litigation.  Someone will do something stupid, and then sue because they weren’t prevented from doing something stupid.  Even when extra safety measures are implemented, it turns out that someone will bypass them.

Anyone who has lived or worked in wilderness areas knows this.  There’s a reason there are footbridges, guard rails, and signs in places.  There’s a reason we warn people to stay on the trails, and to take certain precautions.  It’s not because we’re trying to stop you from having “fun.”  It’s to keep you alive.   You see, we know something.  Nature is not your friend.  It can – and will – injure or kill you if you’re not careful.  There is no perfect safety out there.  If you’re going to act like there is, Nature will quickly demonstrate why you’re wrong.   If you’re lucky, you’ll survive the lesson.



Filed under Parks

10 responses to “Nature is not your friend

  1. I hope a lot of people read this diary. I will add that people need to take extra care with young children when visiting any wilderness area, as well. My daughter still puts a harness and lead on their six year old son when they go hiking because he can’t be entirely trusted to stay close and not wander off the trails. They have taken some criticism for this but her attitude is “better safe than sorry.”

    • Yes, true. One of the “crash responses” the rescue groups have up here is “lost child.” It happens now and then 😦 and the turn-out (and speed) is remarkable to see. One wishes it wasn’t necessary in the first place.

  2. Very true. People have been living in civilization for so long that they’ve forgotten it originally arose in defiance of nature and as an escape from the numerous dangers posed by nature. The safety of cities is not the way the world naturally is.

    Those who go out into nature without respecting its dangers are prone to become examples of the working of another natural phenomenon: natural selection.

    • Exactly. 🙂 I make that point several times a year to various people and groups. It is not a zoo, the trees are not taken care of to remove the dead ones or dangerous branches, there are toxic and poisonous plants, the water is not treated, rocks and cliffs have been known to give way, streams flood, and there is no shelter from bad weather. That’s in addition to the fact that you are a very long ways away from help, and you may not be able to call for it. If you do not pay attention, any number of bad things may happen to you, up to and including death.

  3. Eric

    Good post Norbrook! Here in Oregon, we routinely have folks being rescued from getting hurt or caught in bad weather in the Mt Hood wilderness, who don’t take GPS’s, don’t notify people that they are going out into wilderness areas, and are ill-equiped to be out in those areas. Costs a boatload of money to the state to rescue their sorry asses

    • Same in this state. This past month, three people have had to be carried or airlifted off of one of the local mountains because of broken legs. It’s very popular, since it’s not a “difficult” hike, taking about 2 hours to the top if you’re in reasonable shape. There’s a fire tower up there, and several scenic views along the way. However, if you’re not wearing the right shoes, you’re not paying attention, or you’re doing something dumb, the trail is bedrock and loose soil in places, and you can seriously hurt yourself. The cost of a team of forest rangers, local emergency personnel, and a helicopter is not negligible.

  4. When I used to do a lot of downhill skiing, there would often be Trail Closed signs with that orange meshing over the entrance to them. Invariably, someone who fancied himself a daredevil would decide the sign was not meant for him. And unfortunately, it would then fall to the ski patrol to then venture into the dangerous area to rescue (or recover).

    People will continue to ignore signs, warnings, and fences.

    You can’t legislate sanity and you can’t create any kind of sign that will stop the most reckless.

    Important post, Norbrook. I hope others read and heed.

    • Early this spring, the Dept. of Environmental Conservation was warning everyone to stay out of the back country. It was all over the news, their website, and even posted as warnings on a number of trail heads. The spring flooding had made most of those areas inaccessible and downright dangerous. Speaking as someone who normally gets out into some of those areas at that time, I wouldn’t go in there. The one trail I did do a short distance on was “sink to your ankles” in the part that’s normally a hard-pack sand and gravel truck trail. I made it about 100 yards in before turning around, and I was only supposed to go another half-mile to where I needed to go. So you can imagine my shock to find the next day two trucks parked near the trail head with a note saying “going camping at X site” – which is three miles in on that trail. I told the local forest ranger, and his response was “they’d better hope nothing happens, because we are not going in there after them.” 🙄

  5. majii

    This is a very sad and tragic ending to the lives of three young people with bright futures ahead of them. I guess they thought they could take a “chance” by climbing into a restricted area to take a quick pic, doing it, and going on about their business. They never reflected upon the fact that Nature is unpredictable. You’re right, Norbrook, those signs, warnings, and fences are in wilderness areas for a GOOD reason.

    • One of the reasons they thought that they could take a chance was because there were others doing the same thing. That those people were complete idiots who were risking not only their lives, but in one case the life of their child, was what didn’t register.

      One of the things I remember from my childhood here was the dumps and the bears. Yes, we used to have open dumps, and they were a bear magnet, along with being a tourist attraction. You could go to the local dump and watch the bears. Locals stayed in their vehicles and fairly well away. Tourists used to do stupid things like get out of their cars and walk up to the bears. 🙄 That these were not “nice” or “tame” bears never crossed their minds.

      The local papers around here print the “Ranger Report,” the calls responded to by the state forest rangers. There’s the scattering of “bad things happen” to even those who do everything right, but mostly they’re “idiot got in trouble” incidents. Things like climbing the highest mountain in the state in early spring (snow still on the mountain) wearing only a hoodie, not bringing water with you on a 10 mile hike, or deciding to cut cross-country to save some distance on a hike. All things that basically add up to “you asked for it, you got it.”