2016 was a busy year for Yosemite Search and Rescue

This past year, Yosemite Search and Rescue at Yosemite National Park responded to 237 calls for help. “It seemed busy for weeks on end,” Search and Rescue (YOSAR or SAR) veteran Josh Huckaby told GrindTV. “There was a lot more water because of all the late-season snowpack in the mountains. It was full-on until mid-July.”

This meant that back-to-back rescues, which most often occur on busy weekends, happened throughout the week during peak season. One explanation is that the annual 3.9 million visitors ballooned to nearly 4.9 million. Roads were often gridlocked with visitors waiting in their cars for hours just to make it a short distance down the road.

Early morning wake up call with @alexa.flower7.

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The increased visitation is due to many reasons. For one, the park celebrated its 125th year, and it was also the centennial celebration of the National Park Service. And as Daniel Duane noted in “Men’s Journal,” there was a “nationwide Find Your Park campaign to lure tech-obsessed millennials into the great outdoors.”

“We litter people out, help out people who are dehydrated and swim in rivers looking for people who have been missing,” said Huckaby. “And we help climbers.”

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“We do whatever the park service needs,” he continued, “whether that’s carrying a senior that twisted a knee or finding the child that’s lost in Happy Isles.”

There were also eight deaths at Yosemite — four swift-water related, one heart attack and three climbing related. In one incident, a climber retreating from high on El Capitan dropped a medium-sized haul bag that struck a climber lower on the wall. His arm was crushed, but he survived and doctors saved his arm.

Huckaby spent May 1 to Oct. 31 living in a small camp with eight other rescuers on site behind the historic Camp 4. Additional rescue workers lived in the Tuolumne Meadows campground. None of the camping/housing areas have water or electricity. It’s “living on a basic level,” Huckaby said.

How it works

Park Medic and Park Service Ranger Tom Heally takes the views in as Yosemite Fire 551 short hauls him and his patient away from the Yosemite Falls trail. Photo courtesy Josh Huckaby
Park medic and ranger Tom Heally takes the views in as Yosemite Fire 551 short-hauls he and his patient away from the Yosemite Falls trail. Photo: Courtesy of Josh Huckaby
Though some rescue members also fight fires, the rule of thumb is that YOSAR workers get paid only when they’re called out for a rescue. “You can be out climbing, but you have to be ready to go on a rescue when the pager goes off,” Huckaby said.

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“We have 30 minutes to report in, and we have to have four people on call at all times.”

Swift-water rescues

Merced River running through snowy Yosemite. #winterwonderland #yosemite #mercedriver #californialove

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YOSAR members began the season by taking an intensive swift-water course led by Don Lester from Sierra Rescue. “He’s been running this school for years, if not decades,” said Huckaby.

“He jumps right in the water and he gets you swimming across the Merced River.”

Yosemite’s busiest trail

Yosemite Valley’s busiest trail corridor is the slippery Mist Trail, leading to Vernal and Nevada falls, with an average of 1,500 daily visitors. “This year there were over 50 rescues on that trail,” Jamie Richards, park ranger and spokesperson for Yosemite National Park, told GrindTV.

“It’s our bread and butter,” Huckaby said. YOSAR generally performs a rescue on the Mist Trail at least once a week.


Nicky Bunn calls the heli in with a sling load of supplies. Photo courtesy Josh Huckaby
Nicky Bunn calls the heli in with a sling-load of supplies. Photo: Courtesy of Josh Huckaby
When people get lost in the park, helicopters are sent out and additional people are recruited from cooperating agencies like Marin County Rescue. Upwards of 50 people can be on the ground and involved in the rescue.

“It goes from nothing to a full-blown search in a few hours,” Huckaby explained.

How to get involved

Though YOSAR receives many applications yearly, only a handful of people are accepted on the team. This coming year, eight out of nine YOSAR workers are expected to return.

To qualify, applicants must take the Wilderness First Responder first-aid class and join a local search-and-rescue mountain unit. Rescuers also have to be intimately familiar with Yosemite and a strong climber with experience on big walls like El Capitan.

Tax-deductible donations to YOSAR can be sent through Friends of YOSAR.

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