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Yosemite deaths point to nature’s risks

Yosemite National Park has seen an increase in visitor deaths this year, prompting rangers and park visitors to reconsider the risks and safety precautions inherent in a park visit. As of late September, the annual count stood at 18 deaths inside park grounds.

Welcoming four million visitors last year, Yosemite is a popular draw for Stanford students, whether on dorm camping trips or hikes led by the Stanford Redwood Club.

Many deaths in national parks occur due to common causes, such as heart attack, though several this year in Yosemite have been accidental; two falls occurred on Half Dome, and three people were swept over a waterfall. Despite the increase of deaths in Yosemite, national park deaths have not increased overall this year. As of Sept. 5, 113 deaths had occurred in national parks this year, fewer than at that point last year, according to Park Service spokesman Jeffrey Olson in an interview with The New York Times.

The Stanford community knows what it is like to experience loss due to the dangers of Yosemite.

In July 2010, Christina “Chris” Chan M.S. ‘08, a former doctoral student in political science at Stanford, died in a climbing accident at Yosemite at the age of 31. In March 1997, Henry Tien, a 21-year-old senior majoring in biological sciences, died from head injuries sustained when he fell while hiking in the park.

“It’s unfortunate when accidents happen, but if there’s one thing we can predict, it’s that they will happen,” said Andy Fields, director of Stanford Outdoor Education. Fields noted that Yosemite has high levels of usage and many members of the public are unaware of the risks involved in a visit to the awe-inspiring site.

“It’s almost an amusement park kind of feel, but it’s still a very dangerous place – beautiful, too, and that’s what makes it the wilderness,” he said.

Fields highlighted how Stanford uses decision-making, as opposed to a protocol-based system, to train student outdoor leaders.

“We like to empower the students, our leaders, as much as possible because conditions always change in the backcountry,” he said.

“Our main approach in outdoor education is to give adequate training, that’s been our primary philosophy,” Fields said. “The wilderness is a place to be enjoyed and respected constantly – no matter what skill level.”

Rebecca Castro ’12, an environmental anthropology major who grew up in and nearby Yosemite, said she sees many accidents as evidence of a “lack of respect for the powers of nature and the warning signs nature provides.”

Castro spent the past summer in the park as a cultural anthropologist and American Indian liaison intern. This fall, she led a Stanford Pre-Orientation Trip to North Lake Tahoe and emphasized that communication, respect and responsibility were key to the safety of the trip.

“There are still risks you can take and you have to know your limits,” said Jeremy Caves, a graduate student in environmental earth system science. Caves was a teaching assistant for the recent Sophomore College course “Environmental and Geological Field Studies in the Rocky Mountains,” taught by geological and environmental sciences professor Page Chamberlain. The course took students on a trip to both Yellowstone and Teton National Parks, where they saw firsthand the “spectacular beauty” and dangers associated with geological field research.

Cave described safety steps the students learned, such as carrying and knowing how to use bear spray and hiking in at least pairs, but ideally groups of four or more.

“That’s the important part, training people,” Caves said.

“If we provide people with the right tools they can have great experiences,” Fields said, discussing how calculated risks make the substantial benefits of outdoor education possible.

“I want to encourage people to go into the wilderness, but I want them to go in adequately aware and prepared.”

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