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Yosemite Rangers Fear Hikers Swept Over Vernal Falls

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Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

The top of Vernal Fall in Yosemite National Park as seen from the Mist Trail. (NPS)

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YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK (CBS/AP) — A search and rescue operation at Yosemite National Park is set to resume at first light Wednesday in an area below a popular waterfall after witnesses reported seeing at least one hiker swept over the falls.

Darkness forced park officials to call off the search that began Tuesday afternoon following multiple emergency calls from witnesses who said one or more hikers went into the water and over 317-foot Vernal Falls.

By Tuesday night, investigators were still trying to clear up conflicting accounts of the incident from witnesses at the top of the falls while rangers combed the Merced River corridor in search of possible victims, park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said.

She said investigators were also interviewing visitors along the trails below.
Rangers immediately closed the Mist Trail, a popular hike with tourists that leads to the waterfall, following the incident.

Park officials often close areas when they feel a body might be recovered. Visitors were traumatized in May when a hiker slipped and fell into the Merced River. His body snagged on a rock and rescuers were not able to reach it for hours.

Record snowfall has created spectacular waterfalls in the park, but it’s a treacherous beauty. Visitors often underestimate the force of water, and the mist from waterfalls creates slippery conditions on trails.

At least eight people have died in the park this year, Cobb said. Two men died after being swept off a bridge near the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in June. One man who disappeared while hiking near Yosemite Falls with his church group is still missing.

The Mist Trail will be closed until at least noon on Wednesday, possibly longer.

The path to the top of Vernal Falls, a three-mile trek with a 1,000-foot rise in elevation, is one of the most popular hikes in the park. At the top a guardrail separates visitors from the treacherous water, and signs in multiple languages warn visitors of the danger created by slippery boulders. Published accounts say that 13 people have died by falling over since records began being kept in the 1920s.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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