Rock fall at Yosemite National Park is biggest in memory: Climbers

Though rock falls are common in Yosemite National Park but its seldom fatal. At least 30 climbers were on the monolith when the huge hunk of rock fell on Thursday. 

By: AP | Yosemite National Park | Published: September 29, 2017 12:48 am
yosemite national park, El Capitan, rock fell El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California. (AP photo/File)

Longtime climbers of Yosemite National Park’s iconic El Capitan said on Thursday they’ve never seen a rock slide like the one “the size of an apartment building” that plunged down the vertical face of the stunning rock formation, killing one person and injuring another at the height of the annual climbing season.

“I’ve seen smaller avalanches and smaller falls before where you would just see a tiny dust cloud, this was covering a good portion of the rock in front of us,” said John DeGrazio of YExplore Yosemite Adventures, who has led climbers scaling El Capitan for 12 years.

DeGrazio had just reached the top with a group of climbers on Wednesday when the massive chunk of granite peeled off El Capitan and crashed to the ground, sending a large cloud of rock dust into the air. At least 30 climbers were on the monolith when the huge hunk of rock fell. “It was more significant than anything I’ve seen before,” he said.

Climbers are aware of the risks of the sport and that granite erosion takes place on El Capitan and in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, he said.

At least 30 climbers were on the vertical wall of the 7,569-foot (2,307 meter) the rock fell Wednesday afternoon. It was not clear Thursday if the victims were climbers or tourists.

The rock appeared to fall from the popular ‘Waterfall Route’ on the East Buttress of El Capitan, said Yosemite National Park ranger and spokesman Scott Gediman.

He said Wednesday he did not know who was killed and injured and did not immediately respond Thursday to phone and email messages seeking updated information.

The injured person was taken to a hospital near the park. No names were immediately released. Images showed a woman being carried into a helicopter by two rescue workers.

Officials did not provide details on the size of the rock fall, but climbers posted pictures on social media from hundreds of feet up the wall showing billowing white dust moments after the crash.

“I saw a piece of rock, white granite the size of an apartment building, at least 100 feet (30 meters) by 100 feet (30 meters), suddenly just come peeling off the wall with no warning,” said Canadian climber Peter Zabrok, 57, who was scaling El Capitan and was above the rock fall.

Mountaineers from around the world travel to the park in the Sierra Nevada to scale El Capitan’s sheer face. Fall is one of the peak seasons because the days are long and the weather is warm.

Rock falls are common in Yosemite but seldom fatal.

Ken Yager, president and founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association, reviewed photos of the cliff face and debris field, estimating the relatively thin piece that broke off covered an area big enough to fit five houses.

“It cratered and sent stuff mushrooming out in all directions,” said Yager.

Zabrok said he and friends were in the middle of a six-day climb of the Waterfall route on the right side of El Capitan when they saw it. “Boy, I don’t know how anybody could have survived that,” he told KFSN-TV, the ABC affiliate in Fresno.

Peering down from his perch 2,000 feet (609 meters) up on the rock, Zabrok said he saw a rescuer lowered by helicopter and “I believe he grabbed one survivor.” He later saw rescuers moving someone on a litter.

“It was done at tremendous peril to the rescuers because there were three subsequent rock falls that were all nearly as big and would have killed anybody at the base,” he said.

Climber Kevin Jorgeson said he and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell witnessed a massive rock fall in the same area while they prepared for a trek that made them the first people to free-climb the El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in 2015.

First they heard a rumble. Then they saw a white cloud of dust.

“Yosemite is just a really active, wild place. It’s always changing,” Jorgeson said. “It doesn’t make it any less tragic when someone gets in the way of that.” In 2013, a rock dislodged and severed the rope of a Montana climber scaling El Capitan.

Mason Robison, 38, fell about 230 feet (70 meters) and died. Robison’s gear digging into the side of the mountain caused the rock to dislodge.

Yosemite remained open after Wednesday’s rock fall, and other activities throughout the park were not affected, rangers said.

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