A young man from the Santa Cruz area who plummeted from Yosemite's iconic Half Dome this week -- startling rock climbers as he fell from the summit and down the sheer granite face -- became the latest victim in a string of high-profile tragedies at the national park.
It was the 17th death in the park so far this year, including three people who were swept over Vernal Falls and another who fell from Half Dome earlier this summer.
Monday's tragedy, on a dry and sunny day, took the life of Ryan Leeder, 23, who grew up in Bonny Doon near Santa Cruz and most recently was living in downtown San Jose. He had taken a bus to Yosemite last weekend to meet a girl, according to his stepbrother, Zack Belanger.
But he was hiking alone Monday evening when he reached the summit, then plunged 2,500 feet to his death into the rocks below around 6:30 p.m. By the time rescue crews and helicopters gathered, it was dark, so they postponed the recovery of his body until Tuesday morning, Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb said Wednesday.
Park officials are investigating the fall as an accident and Leeder's relatives are trying to piece together what may have happened. His father, Larry Leeder, who was heading to Yosemite on Wednesday, didn't return a phone call. But Belanger said that the younger Leeder had been battling mental illness since he was a teenager.
"Time and time again, that was his Achilles' heel. That was something he really struggled with," Belanger, 28, of San Jose, said. "I think, just like a lot of times he had gotten himself into trouble, it usually had something to do with that."
But Belanger says the family still has many unanswered questions, including why Leeder's backpack was found a mile down the trail on the back side of the dome. Leeder's father, a retired piano tuner who lives with his wife in Los Gatos, speculated to Belanger that his son might have been exhausted after spending most of the previous night awake texting someone.
The Mariposa County coroner is conducting an autopsy, which includes toxicology tests.
Whatever the reason, park officials emphasized that Yosemite is still a wild place, and visitors need to determine their own abilities and assess the risks.
"We are surrounded by rushing water and 3,000-foot cliffs, and the power of nature is very intense," Cobb said. "Yosemite is one of the most beautiful parks. It isn't something to be afraid of. But it is something to be respected."
Besides, she said, "there's no way we can put a sign or a railing or a ranger at every dangerous location."
Leeder had once been featured in the Mercury News when he was 9 years old, in 1997, back when he was an amateur fossil hunter and dreaming of becoming a paleontologist. He used to spend hours in the sandstone cliffs in an area of Scotts Valley known as the Old Graham Pit, digging around for old shark teeth and whale bones.
"He was a very quiet kid," said Cyndy Cote, assistant to the superintendent at Bonny Doon Elementary School, where Leeder attended. "He was a great student and he had a lot of friends."
Cote said she knew the Leeder family back when Ryan attended Bonny Doon.
"His father always tuned our piano for us," said Cote. "They were just a very nice family."
Leeder's stepmother, reached Wednesday, said she and her husband were heading to Yosemite. "We can't talk," she said, declining to give her full name. "We're just really sad."
Leeder had been recently released from Santa Cruz County jail and was trying to get his life back together, his stepbrother said. He had been arrested in May, accused of brandishing a knife at a man playing basketball at a local middle school, according to news reports. Sheriff's deputies at the time said Leeder was acting strangely as he walked up to the group, accused them of stealing his wallet, then pointed a knife toward them in a threatening way.
While incarcerated, Belanger said, "I think he had gotten a higher power, he had gotten Jesus. It was cool; at the end of his life, he found that."
A group of rock climbers preparing to ascend the face of the dome Monday watched Leeder fall 2,500 feet from the summit, Cobb said. From the valley floor, the dome rises 4,500 feet.
A normal year at Yosemite might see 12 to 15 fatalities, she said, including natural deaths, so this year's numbers are high.
"We've seen falls, drownings and car accidents," Cobb said. "There's no way to speculate or come up with a reason for it."
This year, five of the 17 deaths have been of natural causes, including heart attacks.
Ascending Half Dome is the aspiration of hikers across the globe. In the 1870s, it was declared "perfectly inaccessible," until iron eyebolts were drilled into the granite to assist. Since then, it's been beautiful but treacherous territory.
On July 31, 26-year-old Hayley LaFlamme, of San Ramon, was hiking with a group of family members and friends when she slipped in the rain while descending the enormous granite dome. Cobb said the young woman fell to the shoulder of the dome where the cables that help hikers make their final ascent come to an end.
Earlier in July, three people from the Central Valley were swept to their deaths when they entered the Merced River above the 317-foot Vernal Falls.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Staff writer Mark Gomez and Jessica Pasko contributed to this report.