Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Charles R. “Butch” Farabee, Jr.
I’ve just finished a week-long family vacation spent about 10 minutes south of Yosemite National Park. The first day we went into the valley, my husband and I hiked about 7 miles, and stopped into a few of the little stores. Everywhere we went, this book was on the shelves. If you’re familiar with any of my favorite books, it shouldn’t surprise you that this book caught my eye.
Off the Wall is a well-written, fascinating, long (nearly 600 pages) book that covers all of the unnatural deaths that have taken place within the park since the white men dropped down into the Yosemite Valley. It’s a delicate balance of sharing stories and tryng not to make every person (other than those who died by suicide and homicide) sound, well, stupid. But it’s hard, because man, people do some really dumb things in national parks.
Fewer than 800 people have died traumatically within the whole of Yosemite since the 1850s. Many did things like stepped over the railing onto slippery rocks at the waterfall to get a better picture, or went hiking without good clothing, map, and compass, or overestimated their rock climbing ability. Some were victims of freak accidents, like the constuction truck with failed breaks that crashed into a car and buried the occupants with hot asphault. And others chose to make Yosemite their final resting place after they decided they didn’t want to be in the world anymore.
I started reading this on Tuesday evening, and just finished it on Saturday morning. So much of it is just intriguing, and it was difficult to put it down. I appreciate that the authors have real experience in this area and weren’t just doing a retrospective study – one of them served in Search and Rescue within the park and was involved in many of the attempted rescues outlined in the book. But they also did some fantastic research, getting details from local papers from the 1800s. I also appreciated that they treated the killing of the original inhabitants (the Native Americans) by white men as murder.
A couple of times the book felt a little condescending, and some language they chose to use (like referring to undocumented immigrants as ‘illegals’, or how they described suicidal people) is so outdated and insensitive that it took me out of the book on occasion. But overall, if you want to be both educated on the ways your fellow man and woman can screw up, as well as inspired by the ways park employees try to save these folks, this is a good book to check out.