Two hikers at Hetch Hetchy were swept off of the footbridge beneath Wapama Fall yesterday morning and killed in the forceful whitewater below. The anomalous weather in the Sierra continued with a strong lightning and rainstorm overnight Tuesday and into mid-day Wednesday. Wapama Fall is the big waterfall you see from O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy. The main hiking trail goes along above the reservoir level and crosses Falls Creek on a couple of footbridges. These bridges were damaged in the 1997 flood and rebuilt a bit higher up above the water. They were damaged again in a heavy storm last fall and were repaired this spring. For most of the year, it’s an easy crossing, with a bit of mist, but it’s always been wet in spring runoff.
The park’s rivers are still running about four times their average volume, and are almost twice the usual annual high water flow – over a month later than that average annual peak. On top of this, the overnight storm brought about two inches of rain to Yosemite watersheds and stream levels rose considerably. Because so much of the high country is still snowy and wet more hikers have been using the lower elevation trails including the trail along Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. These losses are a terribly sad element of the unforgiving forces of nature.
The gas station and the Wilderness Center in Tuolumne Meadows are open, but no other facilities are on line yet along the Tioga Road corridor. Much snow and snowmelt remain as obstacles to visiting above 8000 feet. The holiday weekend will be very busy; we’ve seen lots of people coming to Yosemite Valley for the above-average waterfalls they’ve been hearing about. Weekend heat is projected to raise the Merced River back up toward flood level yet again in the next few days. Be careful: visitors need to respect rushing water they way they’d stay away from the edge of a 3000-foot cliff or the side of a freeway.