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Yosemite deaths highest in recent memory

August 2, 2011 | 11:34 am

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0154331452bb970c-800wi

2011 is shaping up to be the deadliest year in Yosemite in recent memory. A San Ramon woman who fell to her death Sunday from Half Dome was the 14th person to die in the national park this year.

Haley LaFlamme, 26, was descending the dome's rain-soaked granite face using mounted cables around noon Sunday when she slipped and fell 600 feet.

Yosemite typically sees five or six deaths by the end of July and 12 to 15 by the year’s end, said Kari Cobb, a spokeswoman for the park.

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An influx of visitors could be contributing to the surge in fatalities. Last year, the park had more than 4 million visitors for the first time since 1996. This year could bring nearly as many.

“We've had more visitors, and a lot of people who come to Yosemite are coming from city situations,” Cobb said. “A lot of people who are coming to the park aren't familiar with nature and don't understand the implications of their actions.”

The park’s swollen rivers and streams may also be a factor.

Six of this year’s deaths have involved water, a greater hazard than in years past because the winter’s especially heavy snow pack has been melting, creating treacherous conditions in fast-moving waters.

Three hikers from a Modesto-area church group died last month after they climbed over a metal guardrail at the top of Vernal Fall and were swept over the edge of the 317-foot drop-off. Two hikers drowned in the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on June 29, and a hiker slipped and fell into the Merced River on the Mist Trail on May 13.

Before Sunday, the last time someone died on Half Dome was in June 2009. Majoj Kumar, a software engineer also from San Ramon, fell to his death from while hiking along the cables in crowded conditions during rain and hail.

This Yosemite death count includes non-hiking fatalities from incidents like heart attacks, natural causes and motor vehicle accidents. Park officials do not have figures for before 2008, when nine deaths were recorded.

On Sunday, LaFlamme and three friends and family members were among about 400 hikers who had secured a permit to access the 400-foot-long cables that help visitors climb to the top during the busy summer season.

The park started requiring permits last summer because of concerns about overcrowding and a series of deaths near the top of the park’s iconic peak. Rain and lightning strikes can send crowds of people rushing down from the summit.

Park officials said LaFlamme was descending the dome during a severe thunderstorm that had dropped rain on the peak for several hours and left the granite surface wet and slick

Signs warn hikers not to climb the cables near the peak during rain and lightning. Although some hikers turned around there because of the weather, LaFlamme was one of about 20 people who remained, park officials said.

Four other people have perished since 2006 on the Half Dome hike, which is 8-1/2 miles one way and can take as long as 12 hours round-trip.

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--Tony Barboza

Photo: Yosemite's treacherous Half Dome. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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