By Steve Gardiner
A drowning in Yosemite National Park
A park ranger on a horse rode up behind Terry Rypkema and me and pleaded for our help. “You have a climbing rope,” she said. “Bring it up to the bridge, please. We have a possible drowning.”
Terry and I had driven from our homes in Wyoming to Yosemite National Park with plans to climb the Snake Dike route on Half Dome, the iconic mountain every visitor sees at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley. We had walked a mile up the Vernal Falls Trail to the footbridge.
Ahead of us, we could see a crowd of people standing on and around the footbridge. One man, with tear-reddened eyes, strode quickly toward us. He explained that he was the American sponsor for a group of Japanese students who were on a tour of the United States. They had been to several locations on the tour, and on this day, had walked to the Vernal Falls Footbridge to see the falls and have a picnic. Several of the teenage boys had been playing around near the Merced River, jumping from rock to rock and enjoying the day. One boy had slipped and fallen into the icy meltwater. A friend of his had tried to reach him and had either slipped in or jumped in to help rescue the first boy. The powerful current of the Merced River had swept both boys under the footbridge.
A young American man had seen their plight. He had tried to catch the first boy, but had missed him. Several people on the bridge had removed their belts and the American had made a makeshift rope out of the belts, but that had not worked either. In fact, for his trouble, the American ended up trapped in the violent white water, as well.
When Terry and I walked onto the bridge, we could see the second Japanese boy and the American stranded on a rock in the middle of the river. White water was crashing all around them. They were wet, cold, and shivering.
I tied our climbing rope to a tree, then belayed Terry down the bank to the river’s edge. Terry tossed one end of the rope out to the rock and the American helped the Japanese boy tie it around his waist. The boy moved to the edge of the rock. I held Terry secure with the belay while he talked to the boy, motioning him to leave the rock and swim to the bank. The boy hesitated. Terry motioned again for him to move. He shook his head. He had been in the freezing water once and had no interest in going in again.
“I asked him twice to come to me,” Terry said. “He froze up. He wouldn’t move, so I gave the rope a good tug.”
Launched into the water with Terry’s pull, the boy dogpaddled to the bank. He scrambled among the rocks, clawing to get up and out of the water. He was cold, stiff, and frightened.
“We reeled him in,” Terry said. “He was pretty banged up, and he was hypothermic. He was pretty happy to be on the bank with us.”
We had our backpacks with all of our clothing and camping gear next to us, so we pulled out a couple of sweaters and jackets and wrapped him in those. Two people from the bridge came down and helped him walk back to the bridge.
Terry threw the rope back out to the rock. The American tied it around his own waist and as soon as we had the rope tight, he jumped in and moved quickly to Terry. He seemed in much better shape, more coherent, than the Japanese boy, although he had scrapes and bruises from banging on the rocks in the river.
With the two safely off the rock, we returned to the bridge and met the ranger. She asked if we would help her search for the first Japanese boy. We talked to several people on the bridge and got different stories from each one. “That was the hard part for me,” Terry said. “We just couldn’t get any accurate information to help us search. It was frustrating. We weren’t sure who was still in the water and who was out. I was still hoping that we would find him clinging to the side and could help him get out.”
We walked along the river’s edge, gazing into each pool, trying to see through the tumbling water. Twice I stopped. An underwater tree branch took the form of an arm bent at the elbow. A tuft of grass waving in the current became a head of hair. Imagination. The mind sees what it wants to see.
We did not find him, so we returned to the bridge, knowing that if the ride through the cataracts had not killed him, that much time in the icy water would have. By then, a ranger with scuba-diving gear had arrived. He tied a rope to a tree for protection, lowered himself into a large pool below the bridge, and surfaced a minute later with the body.
As one, the Japanese students screamed. Their wonderful tour of America was forever marred. It was a painful scene, and we wanted no more of it. We wanted out, away. There was nothing else Terry and I could do. We took our packs and walked to the trail.
Behind us we heard a voice. The Japanese boy who had been stranded on the rock ran up to us and shook our hands. He was trying to talk to us, but he did not speak English. All he could say was, “Your name?” What could he say? What could we say? I held his hand and looked into his eyes. I won’t ever forget what they said. We couldn’t talk to each other, but our communication was real. I fought back the tears and turned up the trail.
Terry and I walked up the steep trail to Vernal Falls. We said nothing. It wasn’t just the roar of Vernal Falls that kept us from talking. We were both lost in thoughts about the dead Japanese boy and his devastated group of friends.
Just past Emerald Pool, the main trail continues east into Little Yosemite Valley, then turns north to the base of the east side of Half Dome. The standard climb, a system of cable handrails supported by steel posts drilled into the rock, leads to the summit of Half Dome. We intended to climb the west side, descend the cable route, and return to the valley the next day.
To get to the west side, we took the cut off between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap. Here, we finally stopped and talked about the drowning. We were both rattled by the events of the afternoon. We considered turning around, but decided that since we had driven all the way from Wyoming to California, we should at least set up camp at Lost Lake and see how we felt in the morning.
We began our descent from the saddle between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap to Lost Lake as the sun was fading. The shortcut turned out to be “true bushwacking,” as Terry noted, and too soon, we found ourselves stumbling through the trees in darkness. We corrected our route and ran into a swamp which we soon determined to be Lost Lake. In the confusion of the events at the Vernal Falls Footbridge, we had not refilled our water bottles. We had no water, so we filled one bottle from Lost Lake. It was clear with no bad taste, so we drank. We didn’t really have a choice. The next day we noticed a few bugs and weeds in the water, but no side effects. Perhaps, as comic relief to the serious events of the day before, we joked throughout the day about critters crawling around in our insides creating a condition we called Swamp Water Deleria.
In the morning, we found our climbing route easily and had an exciting climb on the Snake Dike. The focus on the climbing helped both of us clear our minds of the tragedy. We reached the summit and sat down for lunch. Moments later, a family arrived after climbing the cable route. The kids ran around the summit, excited about the adventure. They ran much too close to the north edge which drops a vertical mile into Yosemite Valley. Terry and I did not want to witness another disaster, so we packed up, hiked down the cable route and followed the trail down past Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls. At the footbridge, we stopped. We were the only people there. It was so peaceful, so beautiful. It was hard to imagine what had happened at that same spot only 24 hours before.
The drowning in Yosemite National Park had happened on August 21, 1978. Over the years, I thought about those people. I thought about the family of the drowned boy. I thought about his friends. I wondered what happened to the Japanese boy we pulled off the rock. I wondered how the American man had recovered from his injuries. I felt sorrow for the sponsor who wanted to help the students have an incredible experience in the United States and had had to live his life with the memories of the incident at the footbridge. I did not know any of their names. I did not know anything about them except for the few scraps of information we heard during the brief time we were at the bridge. I assumed that I would never hear any more about any of them.
Then, on February 9, 2016, more than 37 years after the drowning, I discovered a book called Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite on a library shelf. I picked up the book and saw a section on drownings. It did not take long to find the event Terry and I had witnessed. The authors, Ghiglieri and Farabee, analyzed over 900 deaths in Yosemite from falls, drownings, murders, suicides, and various other causes. The account of the drowning covered a page and a half.
The boy who drowned was 16. His name was Chol Han from Kyoto Fu, Japan. The boy who ended up stranded on the rock in the middle of the river was Uchi Urano. The American who tried to save the boys and attempted to use the rope made of belts was James Sumpter from San Diego.
The authors interviewed many witnesses about the drowning and concluded that Han had been showing off while rock-hopping, leading to his initial fall into the river. They explained that after he attempted to grab the belts, “the current swept him away. Indeed, Sumpter had ventured so far out into the river to help Han that he too was swept downstream in Han’s wake. Two unidentified rock climbers who happened along the shoreline at this moment now rushed forward into the river to save Sumpter. By the time they hauled him out of the water, he had suffered cuts and bruises and head injuries. This helpful pair of climbers-now-rescuers then quickly turned their attention to yet another Japanese student, Uchi Urano. Also 16 years old, Urano too had jumped into the Merced to help rescue Han, and he too had been swept down the whitewater for his troubles. Luckily the two mystery climbers managed to snag Urano, too. In short, had it not been for the timely advent of these two climbers, Han’s episode may very likely have resulted in the deaths of Sumpter and Urano—his two would-be-rescuers.”
We were strangers, gathered in an instant of white water death in the icy currents of the Merced River. We had only a brief time together at the Vernal Falls footbridge, but that experience is a thread that runs through nearly four decades of our lives and leaves us with a sense of tragedy, a very human moment, amidst the beauty and grandeur of the rivers, trees, and mountains of Yosemite National Park.
Steve Gardiner recently retired after teaching high school English and journalism for 38 years. He is the 2008 Montana Teacher of the Year and is a National Board Certified Teacher. He has published over 600 articles in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, and many others. He has published three books about mountain climbing and one about teaching reading.