Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

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Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby Sally » Thu Apr 09, 2020 2:01 pm

I am about to tell the story of an experience I had in the summer of 1971 when I was 16 years old. There has been an amazing response to the mysteries of missing persons in Joshua Tree NP. If anyone feels compelled to help me out here, please do.

Although I had been quite the little hiker from the time I was 7 years old, I had my first multi-day backpack trip at the age of 16 in the summer of 1971. I set out with a Girl Scout group from the San Diego Council at the end of June to backpack a loop starting and ending in Yosemite Valley. The first few days were hard but glorious, camping at spots like Sunrise High Sierra camp, Cathedral lake, Tuolomne Meadows, and Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. At Glen Aulin we were given the option to hike to Waterwheel Falls, one of the great spectacles in the NP. Only three girls, including myself, were interested in the side trip. The leaders decided we could go as long as we left very early the next morning so the rest of the group could get going for that days leg of the journey.

So the next morning, in the dark, we three girls and one counselor (leader) set out for Waterwheel Falls, just a few miles away. As we approached there were a few tents pitched nearby but no one was stirring yet as it was still very early. We got to the falls and oddly there was a plate with some food at the top. Then, one of the girls accidentally dropped her Sierra cup over the edge of the waterfall. It came to rest in a spot below and I scrambled down a ways to retrieve it. When I got down to where the cup was I came right upon a human body that was definitely not alive. Totally freaked out I rushed back to the top and told the leader what I had seen. She went down and checked it out for herself. We hustled back towards Glen Aulin High Sierra camp. Along the way a group of Boy Scouts were headed towards the falls and we agreed to not tell them about the body. Several minutes later the Boy Scouts came back and berated us for not telling them about the body. They passed us on their way back to the Camp and told the people in the dining hall/office. Then we arrived and repeated the message that there was a body at the falls.

My group of Girl Scouts broke camp and headed to our next destination. The body kept flashing in my eyes. Had he fallen accidentally, had he jumped intentionally, or had he been pushed over the edge? As I was only 16, and there was no social media back then, I pretty much made up my mind to just not think about it.

Now, leap forward to fall of 2009. I have now got a computer, and I am learning to use the internet. I thought I would try searching for deaths at Waterwheel Falls. I came up empty handed, but I did find that there was a book called “Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite.” This book supposedly chronicled every death recorded in the Park. So I purchased it and lo and behold, on page 41 there is an entry about Steven Hurston Brown, 9: “July 1, 1971 Waterwheel Falls (340+feet) Brown of Hillsborough, California had hiked 10 miles with 4 family members from Toulumne Meadows to Waterwheel Falls at 6,500 feet. He solo hiked off trail on the sloping granite for a better look. He slipped into the river. A massive search failed to find his body.”

Well, that didn’t sound right, because I saw the body, our leader saw the body, and the Boy Scouts saw the body. I contacted one of the authors of the book, Butch Farabee, Jr. and told him about my experience and how it did not match up with the account in the book. Mr Farabee was kind enough to send me a copy of the official “Search and Rescue report” written on July 1, 1971, which was 6 pages long. The account does not jive at all with what we experienced.

According to the report, witnesses saw Steven loose his footing on the slippery granite at the falls and slid into the cascade and watched him as he disappeared in white water. A family member went back to Glen Aulin to notify rangers while the rest of the family searched for the boy. Searchers showed up at 1600 with helicopter and necessary equipment. The search was halted at nightfall and resumed the next day. The area was searched “slowly and methodically” for 5 hours, and at 1430 the search was called off. The body was never found.

So, to this day I am still haunted. We SAW the body early in the morning, and it wasn’t hard to find, and they are saying the body was never found. Also, the search mission was less than 24 hours long?! Maybe that was how it was done in 1971, but RMRU would still be looking!

I have wasted a lot of emotional energy over this through the years, and out of respect for the family have tried to let it rest. But if anyone feels compelled to solve this mystery, I still have the copy of the Incident Report as well as a copy of a news clipping which was sent to me by Butch Farabee.
Last edited by Sally on Fri Apr 10, 2020 4:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby Ed » Thu Apr 09, 2020 4:42 pm

What an intriguing and haunting story, Sally!

I saw the book you mentioned once, and riffled through it in a bookstore, looking for the case of a man I had climbed with. He fell out of a rappel from a dome in Tuolomne Meadows. Chilled by a cold wind, he made a classic error setting up the rappel anchor. The carabiner gate opened, and the rope came out. I had climbed Ski Tracks with him at Tahquitz. He was a better rock climber than I was, but I did not like a decision he made, and he went on my list of people of I was not going to climb with again. I don't think I found his case in the book.

I'm not sure what Yosemite PS SAR was like in 1971. I know that rock climbers for many years had to rely on themselves for rescue, because the PS had no rangers with the skill, training and equipment required. But surely there is a much longer history of body recovery, from falls on the waterfall trails, for example.
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby Wildhorse » Thu Apr 09, 2020 9:40 pm

This discrepancy cries for explanation.

It is like the discrepancies in gothic stories, haunting in that way. Now I too will wonder.
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby RichardK » Fri Apr 10, 2020 6:25 am

Is it possible that the body was wedged under rocks so SAR could not find it? Later, it emerged to the location where you saw it.
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby Sally » Fri Apr 10, 2020 7:48 am

Haunting it is!

RichardK, the only explanation I have come up with was that on the first day when the search began in the afternoon, the searchers were concentrating the search at the bottom of the falls. The location where the others and I saw him was ABOVE the base of the falls. He was kind of draped over a log. Perhaps, between the time we saw him and the search resumed in the morning he had been washed downstream and disappeared under debris. Your theory that he was wedged under rocks in the first afternoon is also possible. Then overnight the body could have been temporarily deposited where we saw it, and later swept out of sight again.

Why the report does not mention that a handful of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts reported seeing a body is weird. I kept a journal during the trip, and I made a very short, not very detailed mention of my find. I was pretty numb and didn’t have much to say. Unfortunately I lost the journal years ago. I thought for sure I would come across it when we were going through my mom’s stuff after she died, but no such luck. For some reason I do not recall the reaction of the staff at Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp, but they had to have already known about it as it was reported to them the afternoon before.

Another thing that drives me nuts is why did we not come across the searchers? I know we got a really early alpine start but I would have thought the search party would have gotten an early start as well.

Since this event took place nearly 50 years ago, it is likely that the mystery will never be solved unless I were to contact the surviving members of the search party (their names are in the report) or contact Steven Brown’s family (which I feel is inappropriate, and with a name like Brown would be finding a needle in a haystack.)
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby Ellen » Fri Apr 10, 2020 3:17 pm

Howdy Sally :)

Fantastic write up and a great read, thanks 8)

Miles of smiles,
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby panchocolorado » Wed Apr 15, 2020 8:08 am

I don't think this adds much to what you already know, but Stephen Brown is listed in this NPS document on unsolved missing persons in the park: https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/foia/upload ... h-2017.pdf
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby Ed » Wed Apr 15, 2020 9:57 am

Sally,

Here is the Mugelnoos report on the death of the climber I mentioned, Ray Beal, on September 1, 1979:

http://skimountaineerssectionlachaptersc.org/pdf/Mugelnoos561.pdf

The Mugelnoos was the newsletter of the Sierra Club Rock Climbing and Ski Mountaineering Sections, a legacy of the old days when members skied during the winter and rock climbed during the summer.

I was not able to find this incident recorded in the book you mentioned, but I was browsing through it in a bookstore, did not remember Ray's name or the date, and the book did not seem designed for that kind of search. Could you let me know if you find it? Might be some evidence bearing on the completeness of YNP records.
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby Sally » Fri Apr 17, 2020 7:51 pm

Hi panchocolorado, yes, the mystery will probably never be solved.

Hey Ed, I found your person you had climbed with in the book "Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite, as Louis Raymond Beal. Your account of what happened to Beal matches the description in the book very well. The book's account made the climber sound as though he did not take all of the precautions thoroughly. I think your decision to not climb with Ray anymore was a good one!
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Re: Mystery of Death at Waterfall in Yosemite NP

Postby Ed » Sat Apr 18, 2020 11:33 am

Thanks, Sally. I should have bought the book, so I could search it more thoroughly.

Ray made the classic mistake of connecting the rappel rope to the anchor with one non-locking carabiner. It was drilled into us that you should use a locking carabiner or, better yet, two non-locking carabiners with the gates opposed and reversed. Because there is a small chance of the gate opening and the rope slipping out. A very, very small chance, but the consequences are fatal. He was badly chilled. My own experiences with that state, even in my younger and better days. was that I could lose about half my IQ points, and find that even operating a zipper could be a challenge. So you might argue that the bigger mistake was not taking some warm clothing with him. I heard the weather was fine at the start, but evidently the other people had taken that precaution.

The decision he made at Tahquitz that I did not like was not so black and white. He was leading on the upper part of the Left Ski Track. My recollection is that we were following a crack/seam to make a long steep traverse to the right. The climbing was not as difficult as at the beginning, in fact not difficult at all, but very exposed. He placed no protection, when it would have been very easy to place a chock about halfway up the pitch. My overall impression was that he was a person who tended to act quickly and decisively, without thinking through what he was doing or discussing it with others. This seems consistent with the detailed report in the Mugelnoos. No doubt good qualities for some activities, but not ones I liked to see in climbing partners.

I wish someone could shed some light on the case you experienced. I know it would bother me.
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