YOSEMITE – The Merced River pushes past spectators with enormous gusto, as a wide area is cordoned off under the trees at Happy Isle Bridge.
Yosemite Search and Rescue (SAR) teams are preparing to demonstrate swift water rescue techniques in order to convey a crucial message to the visiting public: stay safe out there.
A diverse group of experts has gathered to re-enact just a sampling of the effort that goes into search, rescue or recovery in Yosemite National Park (YNP). They include Rangers, rescue experts, environmentalists, paramedics, publicists and law enforcement officers and they all want to spread the word on recreational safety in the park.
Moose Mutlow is a swift water rescue coordinator who likens the extreme nature of river recreation to being trapped on a busy highway with cars speeding by.
“Would you stand on an interstate looking around when cars are going by at 90 miles an hour?” asks Mutlow facetiously. The answer is no.
“You should treat a river like that interstate, because if you fall in, things happen really fast, whether you’re getting hit by a side mirror on the freeway or you’re getting your breath knocked out of you in the river because the water is so cold. Then you’re completely disoriented. It’s the same level of danger and has the same outcome.”
Experience tells Mutlow that young men especially, are subject to the kind of short-sighted thinking he calls the “Yee-Ha!” moment.
“It’s ‘look at me, look at me!’ That false bravado coupled with water can end up in death. I’ve seen the impact that it’s had on families and the survivors. The devastation of someone’s carelessness or ignorance or bad luck has led to a lifetime of sadness. It’s just not worth putting anybody through it.”
Mutlow and others explained what’s necessary for safety and survival.
Having the right gear is essential.
The water temperature this particular day is 42.6 degrees and the river is running at just under 500 cubic feet per second, with much less volume than there could be, due to the light snow pack last winter. Still, the river is fierce.
“That doesn’t mean the danger has gone away,” says Mutlow of the deceptively shallow water. “It is cold enough that after 4-5 minutes your hands stop working effectively.”
As the demonstration begins, Protection Ranger Justin Fey prepares to enter the frigid Merced. He is wearing a special helmet and insulated dry suit, equipped with a rescue personal flotation device (PDF) which the team affectionately calls a “drowning vest,” because “if you don’t know how to use it, this gets you into a lot of trouble.”
Defensive swimming is a must.
As Fey makes his way carefully into the river, Mutlow talks about the need for defensive swimming, which includes positioning the body to avoid entrapment in the near-freezing water.
“The biggest danger in the river is the temperature. It takes people’s breath away and they lose their position and their feet come down. The problem is getting your foot trapped with a big rock or tree, where you get your foot stuck. Then the force of the water pushes you over and you wind up getting stuck and can’t get back up and breathe. The biggest thing to remember is defensive footing.”
Defensive footing means positioning yourself on your back with your feet pointing downstream, head above water.
“You aggressively point your feet downstream and do everything you can to get your head above water and be able to look at your toes,” says Mutlow as Ranger Fey demonstrates from the water. “If you can get in that position where you’re on your back, then your butt is taking the hits, not your stomach or your chest. Now you’re actually in a position where you can be defensive when you encounter an obstacle.”
It’s also important to avoid standing up in the river because “you’re never quite sure what is down there.”
Hazards of rope rescue and downstream containment.
Another essential trick used in swift water river rescue is rope throwing from the shore. This is extremely perilous for those who are untrained.
“You have to go out with the right equipment, otherwise you are going to become a statistic really fast. The motivation with young kids particularly, is that they automatically go to help, often creating a tragic situation where more than one person is lost,” explains Mutlow.
Next, Park Ranger Dave Pope helps demonstrate a technique for downstream containment.
“Maybe we’ve had a big raft flipped upstream and we are anticipating someone floating down. So we are going to provide protection downstream so they don’t wash ever further down the river. There could be a massive waterfall, for instance, so we really want to ensure that they don’t make it any farther down than this point.”
At the point of hypothermia, a victim may not even be able to grab onto a rope.
“We’re actually going to grab on to them and bring them back to shore, and it could even be someone who’s unconscious. The technique of rescuing a ‘baited swimmer’ is slightly more dangerous for us.”
Pope acts as the “baited swimmer,” a reference to bait on a fishing line. Fey belays him.
“He’s going to allow me to swim out, give me enough slack, and then as soon as I have a really firm grip on our victim who went in the water, he’s going to set that rope and I’m going to come right back to the shore.
“You would never want to attach a rope to yourself that you couldn’t get rid of very easily,” cautions Pope. “These jackets are designed so that as soon as I pull the red cord, I become free of the rope.”
Pope places his hand atop his head, a signal that he is ready for Fey to let him out. After battling the current with strength, wit and precision, the SAR team is back on shore and the “rescue” is a success.
Team communicates with signals and whistles.
Pope takes time in the water to explain the use of signals and whistles in critical situations.
“It’s one blast for attention, two blasts for something up stream, three blasts for downstream. We have three long repeated blasts for an emergency, for instance if someone’s hurt or there’s something that needs immediate attention.”
Noise canceling headphones and other technology such as radios are available to assist communication during a rescue, but rescuers agree the age-old techniques work best most of the time.
“I can tell you that in the water, the whistle will always work. Our ability to swim, and our ability to use simple flotation devices are the things that affect the rescue the best probably 90 percent of the time, as opposed to technology.”
SAR demonstrates highline technique used for rescue and recovery.
Park Ranger Aaron Smith asks for volunteers to be hooked up to a highline – a series of ropes, weights and pulleys suspended over the Merced River as part of the demonstration.
“We use the highline if someone is in the middle of the river and we need to rescue them, or if there is a recovery in the middle of the river. We send someone out there to get them and get back,” says Smith.
One by one, reporters are harnessed and attached to the highline to experience first-hand the sight of rushing water underfoot as one is lowered down toward the river, the way it would be done in a highline rescue or recovery situation.
“We pick them up here at this station, then carry them out to the river in the middle of the water and then simulate what it is like going out into the middle of the river for someone to be rescued or recovered.
About a dozen people are involved in pulling and releasing lines in order to maneuver the rescuer precisely over the spot in the river where they need to be. The ride is surpsingly smooth and somber.
“Highline is used for either rescuing someone from a place that’s too dangerous to swim out to, and to recover someone who is stuck.”
Paramedic warns of under-estimating danger while over-estimating ability.
Tom Healy is a paramedic in YNP who is also part of SAR, which can include dozens of individuals from all over Yosemite if a situation warrants. Fortunately, search and recovery is not as frequent a scenario as the lower body injuries that park personnel see day in and day out during the height of visitor season.
“In the summer we see a lot of lower leg injuries and sprained and broken ankles. We also deal a lot with dehydration and hyponatremia, which is when people might be drinking a lot of water and then sweat out their electrolytes and salts. If they haven’t been eating all day, it can appear to be like dehydration.”
The best advice from all the experts is to follow the rules when hiking.
“Stay on the trail. It’s pretty much the number one thing that gets people into a lot of trouble, when they go off trail, in terms of injuries or being lost or injured or killed.” Healy also warns people to know their own limits and understand the perils of the park.
“Don’t come unprepared or out of shape for whatever activity you’re doing. Know your own limits and be respectful of the park. There’s a lot of beauty here and a lot of danger as well. Respect the water, respect the mountains, respect the cliffs. They are beautiful, but they can hurt you.
The bottom line: have fun, stay safe and respect the park.
Dave Steindorf is the area director for California Whitewater. He says the biggest mistake people make is not understanding how powerful water can be.
“Water weighs 8 lbs. per gallon. When we look out at the river today, it doesn’t look particularly high but it’s flowing at about 500 cubic feet per second. That’s an incredible amount of force and you need to treat it with respect.”
That doesn’t mean we should be fearful, according to Steindorf, who echoes the theme of respect.
“You just need to know what you’re doing. Rivers are great places to recreate, but they do require a certain amount of skill and to be honest that’s part of the allure – to understand what rivers are about.”
Photographs by Virginia Lazar