Falling from Heaven

DeadCoupleTaftPoint

If Taft Point was situated anywhere else on the planet, it would be renowned in its own right. An outcropping of granite riven with bottomless fissures 7,500 feet above Yosemite Valley, Taft Point is as much a photographer's sublime dream as it is an acrophobic's darkest nightmare.

But Taft Point (pictured above, in the header field) is just a B-list celebrity in Yosemite National Park, where it stands sentry, from across the lush Tenaya Valley, over a panorama that includes the world’s most famous climbing wall (El Capitan), California's most celebrated day-hike destination (Half Dome) and the country's most erotic display of gushing liquid (Yosemite Falls).

Taft Point is not even the most acclaimed viewpoint in its own neighborhood; Glacier Point, with the reputation of being the most all-encompassing photographic platform in Yosemite, is four miles and 300 vertical feet lower on the Pohono Trail. And Glacier Point is accessible to all, given all the buses continually circulating through its parking lot. There's even a snack bar.

Which makes Taft Point, which has been called “Glacier Point without the guard rails,” a destination of choice for those of us who abhor sharing our visual payoffs with hot dog-scarfing tourists outfitted in golf shirts and spotless sneakers. It has all the scenic advantages of Glacier Point, but with none of the artifice inherent to tourism.

That was a siren call to Meenakshi Moorthy, 30, and her 29-year-old husband, Vishnu Viswanath, a couple from India who had settled in Silicon Valley for work but spent their free time recording their international travel adventures on their website, Holidays & Happily Ever Afters.

On the site’s “About” section, pink-haired Meenakshi -- who encouraged friends to call her “Menaxi,” the name under which she wrote blogs for the site -- described herself as “an ardent adrenaline junkie.” A chilling Instagram post from the Grand Canyon in May 2018 foreshadowed the couple’s fate:

Instagram of Death

On October 25, the couple had 7.4 seconds to contemplate that question as they plunged 800 feet to their death from Taft Point. Their bodies were found the next morning through the use of high-powered binoculars after hikers found their camera tripod standing alone on the edge of Taft Point. 

The results of an autopsy released earlier this month indicated they were likely intoxicated.

They were just the latest casualties in a troubling trend: the dangerous lengths to which some of us will go to score the perfect selfie. A recently published study by medical professionals in the couple's home country of India documented 259 deaths worldwide by people taking selfies -- dubbed "selficides" by the researchers -- between October 2011 and November 2017. The vast majority of the victims were ages 10-29, and the most common causes of death were drowning, vehicle accidents and falls from high places.

In 167 years of tallying such tragedies within the borders of Yosemite, nearly 800 people have died as the result of accidents in the park. Rangers attribute a disturbingly large number of those fatalities to visitors getting too close to the edge of a precipice while trying to take a picture.

Three of those Yosemite deaths hit close to home for me -- logisitically close, in any case.

On May 12, 2009, I completed my first Half Dome ascent. The final stretch of the 8.5-mile, 4,800 vertical-foot climb is the part for which Half Dome is renowned, a 400-foot scramble up the seemingly vertical rockface using steel hand cables and to stay tethered to the rock. The poles supporting those cables are drilled about two feet into the granite, but because they must be removed at the end of the summer hiking season, they are not permanently affixed.

The day of my ascent, a crowd had congregated on the cables and progress had slowed to a crawl. I was halted on the steepest section, where the grade was so pronounced that I was staring at the calves of the hiker directly in front of me. The queue was giddy with anticipation of the summit -- Half Dome is a bucket list hike for many of us -- but  silence occasionally arose when someone's water bottle broke free from a jostled backback and went careeing down the side of the dramatically pitched granite into the abyss below.

I had been leaning hard on one of the handrail support poles when the traffic in front of me finally surged forward. As I gripped the pole in an effort to propel myself ahead from a dead stop, I dislodged it from the rockface. It was more disconcerting than cause for alarm, and my buddy, who was behind me, simply grabbed it and re-inserted it into the hole. I spent the rest of the climb, not to mention the descent, wary of disloding another pole. But they all appeared to be anchored solidly, save for the one.

Because our pass to Yosemite was good for 48 hours, we had planned to do a less ambitious hike the next day. But upon rolling into the Valley after sleeping in late the morning of June 13, we noticed a thunderhead bearing down on Half Dome, and decided we were too sore to slide around rain-muddied trails. We went whitewater rafting on the Merced River instead.

As we rode the rapids, 40-year-old Manoj Kumar of San Ramon was falling to his death from Half Dome's cables.

Faced with the choice of sheltering on the exposed top of the iconic rock or descending the cables over rain-slickened granite, Kumar chose the latter. It took a few days for the papers to assemble the facts, but it was the Los Angeles Times that most completely detailed the chaos on Half Dome that day, where rangers were called in from throughout Yosemite to calm and rescue 41 people stranded by a storm in the aftermath of Kumar's death. The last of them did not return to safety in Yosemite Valley until 1:45 a.m.

Back then, the LA Times facilitated reader comments beneath the online version of its articles. I was scanning those comments a few days after the tragedy when I came across a long post from a reader who claimed that he had befriended Kumar atop Half Dome. They had discovered that they were both ex-pats from India working in Silicon Valley, and had traded contact info and vowed to get their families together for an outing. They said their good-byes and Kumar began descending the cables. From above, the author of the post saw Kumar slip, fall down and slide outside the safety of the cables through an opening, about halfway down, where one of the support poles had been toppled in the rain. From his description, I knew beyond a doubt that it was the pole I had dislodged the day before.

That day of strife on the Dome was the last straw for park rangers, who had been complaining for years about the dangers of logjams on the cables. They used Kumar's death to push through a permit system that would rely on a lottery to limit the number of Half Dome hikers to just 300 per day. It went into effect on Memorial Day 2010, when the cables were erected for Half Dome's three-month season.

I was once again in the neighborhood when death dramatically visited Yosemite on May 16, 2015. I was leading 16 Hills & Hops hikers on a trek from the valley to Glacier Point along Four-Mile Trail, my version of the most scenic trail in America.

As we neared the peak of our hike, I had a prescient conversation with a hiker named John, who worked at the Berkeley headquarters of Clif Bar, a backpack staple for hikers. We had been discussing extreme sports, and John informed me that his company had recently dropped its sponsorship of BASE jumping legend Dean Potter (Clif Bar has its own web channel, ClifTV, dedicated to the dozens of extreme sports athletes it sponsors). Potter, John said, “was getting into some really dangerous stunts that were too far out there, even for us.”

Neither of us had any idea that at that very moment Potter was gearing up, just down the trail at Taft Point, for what would be his final jump. A few hours later, he and daredevil partner Graham Hunt would leap to their death in a wingsuit jump that went horribly awry.

Poyyer-Hunt dead

As I pedaled my bike through Yosemite Valley the next morning, a pair of helicopters went about the grim business of winching the bodies of Potter and Graham up from the valley floor in a rescue basket.

It occurred to me that death was a constant trail campanion in one of the most beautiful place on earth. Paradise, it seemed, was always on the lookout to exact its grim toll.

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