YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. – A woman slipped to her death Sunday while descending Half Dome in the rain, the latest accident at Yosemite National Park in a year that is breaking records for the deadliest in recent history.
Fourteen people have died so far this year, including three who were swept over Vernal Fall two weeks ago while taking photographs upstream in the Merced River. In 2007, seven people were killed at the park, the most in any recent year until this one.
One factor in the high number of deaths is a record snowfall that has created treacherous snowmelt, swelling streams and rivers at a time of year when nature in Yosemite is supposed to be relatively tranquil.
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.
The permits limit traffic on the popular 8.5-mile climb. LaFlamme was using the cables that park officials install during the hiking season to help with the steep and sometimes slippery footing up the final pitch of the granite dome.
At about 11 a.m. people in the park began to send messages on Twitter about a raging thunder storm with rain. At noon, Yosemite's emergency communication center received a 911 call reporting a hiker had fallen at the bottom of the cables, where the granite trail becomes less steep and the cables end. Cobb says LaFlamme fell 600 feet from the shoulder. She was dead at the scene.
Between 2006 and 2010, 38 people died in the park and 1,225 had to be rescued at a cost of more than $3 million. Nearly 4 million people visit the park every year.
Most of those who get themselves in trouble in Yosemite are day hikers who are unprepared for the challenges and changing conditions of the wilderness, according to Search and Rescue records at Yosemite.
By far the single biggest age group of people who get into trouble is young adults ages 20 to 29, records show. The second largest: those over 60.
The allure of the park's treacherous features combined with a population of tourists more accustomed to Disneyland than the great outdoors can contribute to a false sense of security.
"A lot of people who visit Yosemite aren't necessarily familiar with nature," said park spokeswoman Kari Cobb. "They are really out of their element and may not understand the force of nature and what they may encounter in nature."
The three people swept over the 317-foot falls last month apparently didn't realize the upstream pool in which they were wading for a photo had a strong current running underneath. The bodies of Ramina Badal, 21, of Manteca; Hormiz David, 22, of Modesto; and 27-year-old Ninos Yacoub Turlock are still trapped somewhere in the raging Merced River.
The trio ignored warning signs by climbing a barricade to take a photo, then lost footing on the slippery granite bottom.
"If the trail isn't closed, people tend to take that as a source of information: Wouldn't they tell us not to do it if it were dangerous?" said psychologist Paul Price, a professor of psychology at Fresno State.
The last person to fall and die on Half Dome was also from San Ramon. Majoj Kumar died in June 2009. The hikers who witnessed the fall were so frightened that 40 people refused to move and had to be rescued from the dome, Cobb said.
In 2007 Hirofumi Nohara slipped on the cables and died. Two other deaths on Half Dome — Jennifer Bettles in 2007 and Emily Sandal in 2006 — occurred when the cables were down.