Yosemite Falls

Last week’s death of a solo hiker who plunged down the face of Yosemite National Park’s iconic Half Dome granite formation marks the 17th death in the California park this year – the highest rate in more than 25 years, USA Today reported.

Rock climbers watched in horror early Monday evening as 23-year-old Ryan Leeder, of Los Gatos, Calif., fell 2,500 feet off the Half Dome summit. Conditions were warm and dry that day, and “at this point, everything is pointing toward an accident,” says Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman.

Leeder’s death is the second within a month on Half Dome. On July 31, a 26-year-old San Francisco Bay Area woman plummeted 600 feet while climbing Half Dome after a bout of wet weather.

Many of this year’s accidents stem from the record Sierra Nevada snowpack, which combined with a rainy spring has made the park’s rivers and signature waterfalls unusually turbulent. There were 15 deaths in Yosemite during 2010, and the park averages 10 to 15 deaths per year.

In July, three members of a church group from California’s Central Valley ignored warning signs to scale a safety railing above Vernal Fall, and were swept over the edge to their deaths. In May, a Texas man slipped on the granite steps of the Mist Trail below Vernal Fall and drowned in the swollen Merced River. And in June, two Southern California men were swept from a bridge near Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

The steep, 1.5-mile-long Mist Trail, which attracts upward of 1,500 visitors a day, “is one of the more popular hikes up out of the Yosemite Valley due to its close proximity to the Merced River, and there are a number of spots where it’s very tempting to go close to pools in the river and its cataracts,” says Kurt Repanshek, editor of National Parks Traveler.

“While there are railings and signs in some of the more dangerous spots,” he adds, ” those often are ignored by more than a few visitors, to their detriment.”

Warm summer temperatures coupled with snow-fed rivers and streams “are not a good combination, but I wouldn’t say we’re doing anything differently this year,” Gediman says. “We do our best to educate our visitors, but Yosemite Valley is basically framed by 3,000-foot cliffs, and it’s impossible to put up barricades everywhere.”

Last month was the busiest July for the park since 1985, with 730,487 visitors. Last year, the park recorded just over 4 million visitors.