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Guardians of the Yosemite (1961) by John W. Bingaman


Chapter VII

ACCIDENTS—LOST PEOPLE—AND RESCUES

The art of rescue requires special training in order to be successful and protect both the one who needs help and the rescuers. A ranger is thoroughly trained in rescue techniques.

One memorable rescue was in April, 1928, while I was on Valley Patrol. I was reporting in to headquarters from the phone booth in front of Camp Curry when I thought I heard a faint call for help from somewhere up on the mountain. It seemed to come from the direction of Glacier Point. Listening more closely I heard the calls for help repeated several times. I reported this to the Chief Ranger over the phone and he told me to take Ranger Reymann, who was on duty in the ranger office, and investigate. The time was 9 p.m. so we took lights, rope and gear and proceeded up the Ledge Trail. The Chief’s orders were, to flash back signals three times in succession if additional help was needed. There was snow on the ground and Ranger Reymann and I climbed slowly up the steep Ledge Trail listening for the calls and watching for tracks. We reached the place where the trail turns left going towards the top and there, as we looked down the rock chimney, we saw foot tracks in the snow. We followed the tracks over a brush covered ledge to where they became skid marks in the snow, here they lost their footing and slid down the brush covered ledge, stopping just before the drop off. Flashing our light we called and got an answer, a woman’s voice saying there were two of them hanging onto some bushes on a narrow ledge. We assured them we would bring them up safely as soon as we had our rope securely anchored to a rock. We let out 100 feet of rope before it reached the ledge where the two women were clinging for dear life to some bushes. With Reymann watching the rope and lighting the way from above I let myself down to where they were. Needless to say the women were very glad to see me. Ten feet more and it would have been a thousand foot drop off and they would not have been living to tell the story. With the aid of the rope and Reymann and I pulling, we got them back up on the trail without mishap.

They were cold, frightened, scratched and bruised but not seriously hurt. We gave them first aid, a drink of water and were soon on our return trip down the trail, reaching the bottom by 1 a.m.

The women were Miss Wilbur, daughter of the Secretary of the Navy at that time, and a Miss Ring, both school teachers in the schools at Lindsey, California. They were somewhat reluctant in giving their names and addresses, but we explained this was necessary to our reports of the incident. They also reported to their families their safe return from the mountain experience. The newspapers published an account of the rescue and this resulted in publicity for the Park and the rangers. We received letters and telegrams of thanks

Park Rangers on rescue of visitor—1921
Park Rangers on rescue of visitor—1921
from the Secretary of War, Curtis Wilbur, and Director of the Park Service, Stephan T. Mather, also from Horace M. Albright, Assistant Director of the Park Service. We appreciated the thanks received even though the incident was just a part of our day’s work. I received special recognition for my part in the rescue.

In August, 1934, Mr. and Mrs. Rettenbacker of San Mateo, California, were reported lost or missing when they did not return io their camp in Tuolumne Meadows, from a mountain climb up Banner Peak, just over the East Park Boundary. They had registered with me at Tuolumne Meadows five days previous, and reported they would return on a certain date. The following day I reported them over-due. A search party was organized by the Forest Service, headed by Norman Clyde, a noted mountaineer in the Sierra region. All Park Rangers in this area were checking trails and high camp sites for a trace of the couple. A few days later Norman Clyde found the bodies in a rock and snow slide on the side of Banner Peak. Permission was granted to bury them near the spot.

During the winter of 1939, there were several heavy snow storms about the latter part of February. A big transport plane with eleven people aboard was reported lost over the Sierras. No trace of it was found until the first of July when a CCC boy from the Wawona camp found the plane up on Buena Vista Peak, twelve miles east of my Station at Wawona.

This CCC boy had volunteered to search for the missing plane all through the spring months. Each week-end he would take off from his camp with a few supplies and a blanket and would systematically take a set course and cover as much distance as possible. This particular trip, he told me later, would have been his last. It was about 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon when he located the wreckage. The weather had turned warmer the past week and the snow had melted off the plane leaving it exposed. The plane apparently had hit the peak about twenty feet from the very top. All aboard had evidently been killed outright as the bodies were intact with little destruction. There was a reward of one thousand dollars posted by the T.W.A. Company for the finding of this plane.

I was on duty at the Wawona Ranger Station when the CCC boy came to report his find and in turn I reported it to the Chief Ranger. Headquarters notified the T.W.A. company office in Fresno, California, and assigned a ranger for the rescue operation.

Pack animals and packers were furnished by the Curry Company for it was a hard, long trip up the Chilnualna Trail to Buena Vista Peak. The upper creeks were running bank full with melting snow waters and fording them was hazardous. One pack animal lost its footing and was washed down the rushing stream for some distance before being rescued. The job took sixteen hours to recover the bodies and bring them down the mountain where the Madera County Coroner had ambulances to take them to Madera, California.

Two months later the mother of two children, young students from Stanford University, who had been killed on the plane, came to the Park and insisted on seeing the spot where the plane had crashed. Her request was granted and Gladys Gordon and I were assigned by the Chief Ranger to take her up the trail to Buena Vista Peak. She had brought a small bronze plaque along to place where the plane was found.

It seemed rather a strange ritual but it appeared to relieve her mind when the plaque was placed on the mountain side. She told us that her husband, the father of the children, had died at their home town in Michigan just before the news of the untimely fate of the children was delivered.

Another plane episode happened in the spring of 1940, when an Army P. 38 Night Fighter with two pilots aboard was reported lost and probably down somewhere east of Fresno in the Sierra. This plane was not found until early summer when Arch Westfall was guiding a party of visitors into the Moraine Meadow area. As they neared Givens Creek his horse snorted and made a ruckus. Arch investigated and found the plane and two pilots in a clump of trees just off the trail. The plane was partly burned. One dead pilot was on the ground and the other still in the cockpit. Both apparently were killed with the plane crashed. Arch rode fifteen miles to a phone and his report was relayed to me. Ranger Jack Bell and I were ordered to the crashed plane to take charge so that no vandals or trophy seekers would tamper with the valuable military equipment. We took enough food and camp gear to stay on protection duty until the army authorities arrived to handle all details. An army major arrived the next day and ordered the plane broken up and buried. The bodies were packed out to Wawona and sent to the Army Base in Fresno, California. Jack and I assisted the major in bringing out the equipment that was salvaged.

All was calm and peaceful at the Tuolumne Meadow Ranger Station that September day in 1950, when Louis A. Miller, age 73, was reported missing somewhere in the vicinity of the Mono Pass Trail, south of Tioga Pass at the end of the old road. He and his son were fishing that afternoon. They had separated, with Louis going up the Dana Fork and his son fishing downstream. They were to meet at the car about 5 p.m. Louis did not return as planned, so the son, L. R. Miller, came to my Station and reported his father was missing.

I organized a ranger search team immediately made up of Ranger Lowery Brown and another ranger, and two members of the Miller family. We searched along the stream with lanterns until midnight with no success. Early next morning we got additional help from headquarters. Thirty searchers spent all day without finding a trace of Miller. We had searchers out in the area for ten days without success. Mounted rangers combed the area in the hope of finding Miller or a trace of him but found nothing. Notices were posted on the east side of the Sierra at various points with the hope that if he was a victim of amnesia or made his way out on foot some one would recognize him walking along a trail or road. Miller disappeared without a trace and what happened to him has remained a complete mystery to this day. Anyone With information concerning the missing man should contact his son, L. R. Miller, at 917 14th Street, Antioch, California.

In 1955 I was in charge of Tuolumne Meadow Ranger District and while patrolling along the Tioga Road, one mile above my Station, I discovered a man at the side of the road in a dazed condition. I stopped and he pointed to a car partially submerged in Dana Creek. “My friend,” was all the dazed man could say. The man inside, Chas. S. Welch, was dead when I reached him.

The car had turned over as it went over the bank. The driver, Jack C. MacKechnie, had been thrown clear and was in profound shock. I gave him first aid and made a report of the accident which I radioed into headquarters with a request for help. A doctor and ambulance arrived and the body of the dead man was removed to the Valley. The accident was caused by the driver going to sleep at the wheel.

Another fatal accident that summer was the case of Donald Hugh Genereux, of Stockton, California, age 14, who was killed by falling off Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows. He had been climbing around the Dome with several other boys and lost his footing. Rangers Mullady and Jessen recovered the body several hundred feet below on a ledge. He died of skull fracture. Lembert Dome is a prominent land mark some five or six hundred feet above the floor of the Meadows.

It is smooth and rounding, but is quite accessible from the East side and is a popular hiking spot as it commands a beautiful view of the surrounding country. It was named after John B. Lembert who homesteaded in Tuolumne Meadows in 1885.

Another tragedy occurred in May 1956. Doctor Robert F. Johnson of San Francisco, age 28, fell to his death, seven hundred feet from Castle Cliff, near Yosemite Falls. He had taken a climb up Indian Canyon alone and had tried to take a short cut back down the mountain. He was reported lost by a friend when he didn’t return. Dr. Johnson had not registered with the rangers about his hiking route and it took several days of intensive searching before we found the body. Bloodhounds were used without success and finally a helicopter with Ranger Glen Gallison as observer located the body. A party of rangers and Sierra Club rock climbers reached the spot after much difficulty. It was impossible to take the body out of such a precipitous place, and permission from relatives was granted to bury the doctor at the scene of the fall.

On June 21, 1954, Assistant Chief Ranger Scarborough was killed by a rock slide off a cliff near Clark’s Point. Scarborough was traveling with Ranger Herb Ewing to the Merced Lake Ranger Station at the time. Suddenly and without warning, rocks ricocheted down the mountain and struck the horse and rider, knocking them both off the zig zag trail killing Scarborough instantly. The horse was seriously injured and had to be shot. This was the first accident of its kind where a ranger had been killed while riding the trails in Yosemite National Park.

July 20, 1954, Walter A. Gordon, age 26, an employee at Camp Curry, was reported missing. He was supposed to have been on a hike up the Ledge Trail to Glacier Point. Rangers searched for many days and again bloodhounds and a helicopter were used but no trace of him was ever found.

And on October 9, 1954, Orvar Laass, age 30, from Berkeley, California, while visiting his family, was reported missing while on a hike in the vicinity of Sugar Pine Bridge, in the Yosemite Valley. He disappeared completely and was never found although rangers searched for days. The case of Gordon and Laass were very strange for there were no clues as to what happened to them.

The time and effort spent in searching for lost persons is not only expensive for the ranger department but it also jeopardizes the lives of all searchers. Many times on searches I have participated in we took chances where one misstep could cost a life. We often wonder why people who come to the Park do foolish things and take chances they ordinarily wouldn’t think of in their home community.

The ranger files of strange accidents through the years reads like a storybook fiction.

For example, one day a severe lightning storm came up suddenly over Glacier Point when thirty horseback riders were on their way up to the Point. Lightning struck near the party, and a bolt of fire ran down the trail killing nine saddle horses. The riders fortunately were not injured, only shocked by the charge of lightning so close to them and having their horses killed. No one in the party will ever forget that experience.

Here is another unusual happening. Jeffery Stanton of Walnut Creek, California was camping in the Wawona Camp Ground. Some time during the early morning hours a coyote bit him on the head while he was asleep. He awakened in time to see the coyote trot away into the bushes. First Aid was given and the necessary treatment at the Lewis Memorial hospital for rabies. An extensive hunt by the rangers was made for a week but the coyote was never located and fortunately Mr. Stanton suffered no ill effect from the experience.

A similar case happened a month later when Karl M. Munson of Yosemite was camping in the Wawona Camp Ground. A coyote or wild dog scratched him on the head while he was sleeping on the ground. Here again no bad reactions occurred from the experience. But again the rangers hunted for days with no results. It was assumed that the animal was hunting for its food and passed by Karl when he turned or moved in his sleeping bag. The animal may have thought it was something to pounce on as they often do when searching for small game or birds.

Common accidents such as bear bites and scratches happen when people get too friendly with the bears when trying to feed them or take their pictures. When a visitor gets too close to the cubs there is almost always trouble. This is true, too, of deer who will strike with their sharp hoofs. The bucks can cause injuries with their large antlers. All visitors are cautioned against feeding or molesting the Park wildlife. There is a park regulation posted at all Stations and in the information circulars, “Do not feed the bear and deer.” Ski accidents in winter are all too common for skiing is a hazardous sport.

These specific accidents are just a few of the many that are reported and treated by rangers as part of a full day’s work. Anything beyond First Aid cases are reported to the Lewis Memorial Hospital for help or treatment.


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