Modesto — Investigators and family continue to piece together what happened to Jessica Rose Garcia after the 23-year-old from Ceres disappeared on a hike at Yosemite National Park on Saturday afternoon.
Garcia apparently fell about 35 feet in steep terrain about two miles from the Wawona base where she last was seen, said her aunt, Darlene Cunningham. Search and rescue teams looked for Garcia for 2½ days after she failed to show up for her first day of work at the Wawona Hotel on Sunday morning.
"We know some things, but we're still kind of in the dark on exactly what happened," Cunningham said Wednesday.
Garcia remains in a hospital -- the city and facility have not been disclosed -- where she's undergoing tests for possible fractured vertebrae, Cunningham said. She is scheduled to undergo eight hours of spinal surgery today. She also suffered a broken pelvis and leg, as well as potential dehydration from spending three days without food or water.
Found peace in park
Garcia, a graduate of Johansen High School in Modesto, spent the summer working in Yosemite Valley. She planned to return to studying filmmaking at the Art Institute of San Francisco, but then got an opportunity to work at the Wawona Hotel through November.
"She wanted to stay as long as she could," Cunningham said. "She found her peace, her happiness in Yosemite."
Cunningham said Garcia long has been an avid walker and fell in love with the park environment. Her family was happy to see the quiet, shy young woman shine in jobs that required her to work with the public.
"She was at the stage where she was finding out what she wanted to do in life," Cunningham said. "She found her niche."
Park rangers called Garcia's family late Sunday morning after she did not show up for work. She had not been seen since leaving an orientation session Saturday. Family members kept in touch with rangers by phone Sunday, then headed to the park before dawn Monday.
"It was the worst thing any family could go through," Cunningham said. "We couldn't eat knowing she wasn't eating. We couldn't sleep knowing she wasn't sleeping."
She said park officials did everything they could to keep the family informed, and she expressed gratitude at the dozens of searchers, some with dogs or on horseback, who looked for her niece. Teams came from within the park itself, as well as Madera, Mariposa and Marin counties.
"They took very good care of us while we were there," Cunningham said. "They kept us informed of all the different areas that were being searched and what they were doing."
Searchers found Garcia about 1 p.m. Tuesday. Family members don't know exactly how long she had been there, nor the circumstances of her fall. They did learn that she had changed from the work outfit she'd last been seen in and was wearing a jacket and a vest.
Now the family has turned its attention toward recovery. Cunningham said it's not clear if Garcia has any long-term injuries.
"We're all happy she's alive," she said. "We always had hope, but as each day passed, we were definitely more stressed and more nervous about her survival.
"We knew she was young and strong and had that in her to make it through."
Modesto Bee breaking news editor Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter at @pattyguerra.
BASIC SAFETY TIPS
Hike with a buddy or a group when you can.
Make people aware of your planned route and time of return. This is especially important for people who enjoy nature in solitude, but it's a good idea for anyone. A father and daughter who got stranded in July were lucky enough to get cell phone service -- very unusual at Yosemite and many wilderness areas -- but they also had provided that information to people at home, making it easier for searchers to narrow their focus.
In the case of Jessica Garcia, a Yosemite National Park employee who was stranded for three days before searchers found her Tuesday afternoon, nobody knew where she was. She had just last weekend moved to the Wawona area for a new job and hadn't even met her roommate yet, said Garcia's aunt, Darlene Cunningham. An avid hiker, Garcia had told relatives she planned to look around to get the lay of the land.
Know the limits of your abilities. A team had to rescue rappellers on El Capitan in August. Though they were experienced climbers, they lacked the skills necessary to tackle El Cap.
Carry basic first-aid supplies. Blisters and broken bones are common, but so are burns. Rangers also caution campers to keep an eye on children, who might be enticed to play in what look like cold ashes from last night's campfire, only to burn themselves on smoldering embers.
Bring the correct equipment -- proper shoes (which you've worn before to break them in), long-sleeved shirts and pants to guard against injury, and walking sticks if necessary.
Food, water and sunscreen also are important, said Yosemite spokeswoman Kari Cobb. Just as important is a light. Even on a bright, sunny day, thick vegetation can make for dark conditions in some areas of the park.