Saturday, November 10, 2007

Traveling, photographing, and staying safe.

(It's been a busy few weeks, with a lot of images in progress, but none ready to post and talk about quite yet.
But because winter is approaching, and that makes traveling a whole more dangerous ( there's already been one big chain reaction accident in the California central valley thanks to tule fog), these thoughts are particularly relevant.....)

There have been a few news stories that have gotten anything from minor to major national media coverage in the last few years about people who have gotten into big trouble while traveling/hiking in the west.
James Kim, who died last winter while trying to use a 'shortcut' through the Oregon mountains to the coast, was... I am sorry to say... stupid. Driving down ANY unmarked mountain road with no center divider or route signs is hazardous, under any conditions - even if you are experienced and prepared. These are not publicly maintained roads, and as such, 'caveat emptor' - loosely translated as 'driver beware'!
There were numerous other 'risk factors' involved, but the guy ignored all of them - I guess he'd been spending too much time at a desk, and believed that if a road was shown on a Google map, that made it 'safe'.
No, sorry... that just means 'it exists(in some way/shape/form)' - and that's ALL it means.

A hiker in Yosemite recently fell to his death trying to climb to the top of Half Dome:
(SF Chronicle - 6/19/07)
"Deadly trek up Half Dome -
Rangers re-examining safety of popular hike after a fatal fall from cables during final ascent..."

The victim fell about 300 feet and landed on a ledge just before going over a cliff about 1,000 feet high - (the dome itself is 4,800 ft high).
"(the victim)..was not doing anything unsafe, according to the initial investigation".

How 'bout... just being there?
Click on the link above, and check out a picture of this trail.
No, not even the presence of Nat'l Park Service gaurantees your safety. They'll send a helicopter to scoop up yer bod...
and probably send your heirs the bill. Which, as a taxpayer, I hope they do - I don't want to pay for other people's stupidity.
(Alot of people seem to think that if they carry a cell phone, they can just call 911, and they'll get bailed out - yeah, right.
The helicopter that comes to save them will have to dodge between all the pigs that are flying, ya know?)

I have taken a similar trail, except it had no cables or safety precautions at all. It was at Canyon de Chelly (in Arizona) a few years ago. There is an NPS maintained road around the canyon, there are a number of places where you can turn off, park, and walk to a lookout/view of some sort.
There is one turnout parking lot that leads to a trail that goes down to the 'White House' ruins, a very well known place. That's one of the things I came (all the way from SF, CA.) to see. A sign at the beginning of the trail reads simply something like "Beware, hang onto your kids...". They don't make a big deal out of it.
Much of the trail is, indeed, easy.
However!......there is one section about 30 or 40 feet long that is simply a notch carved in a 75 degree angle cliff. It is not neat and clean, there's alot of gravel/crumbling rock to negotitate, and it's 2 feet wide, at the very most. There are no cables to hang onto, at all.
If I slip/loose my footing and fall?...well, even if I survive the fall, it may be hours before anyone finds me, and hours more before I medical attention.
I managed to do it (in spite of my great fear of heights/vertigo/lousy knees and hips), and really enjoyed seeing 'the White House' (west coast version ;-) )........but I won't ever do that kind of trail again - next time I'll take the bus tour driven by the Navajo - they'll drive me (or you) there, much safer.

At the end of this trip, on the way back to good ol' S.F., Ca., I drove through such a windy storm on US 40 around Flagstaff that half the wheels on the big rigs in front of me left the ground, they were being blown so hard!
I've also driven thru tule fog in the central valley that limited visibility to near zero.
In both cases, I was only too happy to take the next exit, and give my credit card a 'work-out' at whatever motel and restaurants I found. ( I don't watch hardly any television anymore, but every once in a while, channel-surfing cable TV in a motel room w/ a fresh pack of smokes and a bottle of wine is an excellent diversion.)

The bottom line on all this is:
I now have a rule of thumb I ask myself before I do anything that looks the least bit risky:
"If the worst that can possibly happen, happens... is the damage survivable/tolerable?"
If the answer is 'no'... then I don't do it!
Life is dangerous, nothing will change that...
as Warren Zevon put it so well:
"Life'll kill ya"!
...Just don't give it any more chances to do that then there already are......!!

That way we will all be around to trade travel stories.... and images :-)


Rick Deutsch said...


I am the author of the only guidebook to Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. It is called "One Best Hike: Yosemite's Half Dome" published by Wilderness Press. It is available at the park Sports and Mountaineering store as well as REI,, and bookstores. I also have a website and daily blog dedicated to safely doing this strenuous hike.

I feel that the Half Dome hike and cable ascent can be done safely with good shoes, plenty of water, gloves, training and education.

I have done the hike 21 times and would like to comment on your article.

The man who fell in June was reportedly wearing tennis shoes and an oversized back, throwing his balance off. It’s also said that he was reaching for a dropped water bottle. All unconfirmed. But what is also VERY interesting is that his death was the only death since the cables were erected in 1919 and in the UP position for summer visitors. Re-read that. What - maybe 500,00 ascents total?

Park literature states the hike as being EXTREMELY STRENUOUS. It is the only park trail that has that classification. It is a 16 mile RT hike with a 4800 ft vertical climb. Even the hike up Yosemite Falls is ”only” STRENUOS. People who attempt this hike with minimal water, smooth soled shoes and having never done any training or educating themselves are clearly not going to succeed. I commend their “go for it” attitude, but responsibility for SELF is paramount.

Thanks for the ear,
Rick Deutsch

Jay River said...

Loved your story about the White House trail at Canyon De Chelly. I took a guided Jeep tour through the Canyon, and thoroughly enjoyed the tour our Navajo guide provided.

I thought you might find this of interest since you've been to CdC.

For some detailed history on Canyon De Chelly, this film clip will give you some information. This clip is an excerpt from Edward S. Curtis's observations of CdC in 1911. It's part of a much larger film.
Canyon De Chelly:
Link:Film Clip