Heroics and Tragedies at Yosemite’s Vernal Falls

A hero was made when Alec Smith leapt over the protective barrier at the top of Vernal Falls to save the life of a young boy. Most rescues don't turn out successful.

A hero was made in June of 2013 when Alec Smith leapt over the protective barrier at the top of Yosemite National Park’s Vernal Fall. He did so just in time to save the life of a young boy caught in the Merced River’s turbulent flow and its impending rush toward the 317-foot fall.

Smith and his family had hiked up the slick trail to the top of Vernal Fall, and as they stood enjoying the view, a woman nearby began crying, “Save my baby! Somebody save my baby!” reports the Silicon Valley Mercury News. The mother’s son was bobbing along, swept up in the raging current roughly 30 feet from the waterfall’s plunge downward.

“When I heard the scream and saw the boy, I thought, ‘Oh no, oh my God, no,'” Melissa Smith of South San Jose told the News. “Then I blinked and saw (my son) going after him.”

Without thinking, Smith, who the News describes as a “beefy 16-year-old linebacker at San Jose’s Leigh High School,” raced over the guardrail and toward the young boy, hooking his arm around a nearby rock and reaching out his other arm to grab the child.

“I got half my body in the water and kept the other half out,” Alec told the News. “I grabbed the kid, and got a good hold, but I could feel him slipping a little bit, but then his dad grabbed me.”

Smith managed to haul the child out of the river roughly 20 feet before the drop.

Kari Cobb, a Yosemite park ranger said she couldn’t comment directly on the incident because it wasn’t reported to park officials. Still, she said they estimate that many of these rescue attempts are made each summer; however most of them are unsuccessful, perhaps most memorably the deaths of three California hikers in 2011.

“It is very common that rescuers will drown when they are trying to rescue the initial person who went in,” she told the News. “And in a situation with rushing water it’s extremely dangerous for everyone — that’s exactly what happened in 2011, each one was trying to rescue each other.”

Another hiker’s story however ended much less happily. A Yosemite news release reported in May of 2013 that the body of Minnesota resident Kenneth Stensby, 73, was found at the base of Vernal Falls after park officials used a dog team and California Highway Patrol helicopter to look for the body. Stensby had last been seen when he told the concierge at the Ahwahnee Hotel he was planning to hike to the top of the Vernal Fall on the Mist Trail.

“Nobody has ever survived going over the fall,” said Cobb.

The following precautions come directly from the Friends of YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue) website as ways to avoid injury when hiking off-trail near water and waterfalls:

  • Don’t trust smooth, wet, sandy, mossy or loose rock for a foothold. Slipping on this stuff in your backyard or on the trail is one thing. Losing your footing next to a cliff or swift water is something else again.
  • Don’t get careless next to, or in, streams, e.g., simply filling your water bottle, swimming above dangerous water, boulder hopping, wading across, etc.
  • Remember the current is stronger than you think. Cold water saps your strength and reflexes. Rocks are everywhere and hard. You’ll be over a 15-foot drop before you know it. Whitewater is half air/half water-you can neither float in it nor breathe it. Hydraulics, entrapments, and strainers hold you under.
  • Cliffs are obviously dangerous (innate fear of heights?). The dangers of whitewater may not be so obvious, and, when standing next to a stream, there is often no height difference to ring the alarm. The risks may have to be learned, hopefully not the hard way.
  • Don’t think your skills in one environment (e.g., a strong swimmer in surf) will transfer into a new one (e.g., swift water).