Climbers: Fatal rock fall at famed Yosemite site was rare

Porterville Recorder - - FRONT PAGE - By SCOTT SMITH

The mas­sive gran­ite slab that fell from the iconic El Cap­i­tan rock for­ma­tion in Yosemite Na­tional Park and killed a Bri­tish climber was a rare event — but only be­cause the rock fall turned deadly, long­time climbers said Thurs­day.

SAN FRAN­CISCO — The mas­sive gran­ite slab that fell from the iconic El Cap­i­tan rock for­ma­tion in Yosemite Na­tional Park and killed a Bri­tish climber was a rare event — but only be­cause the rock fall turned deadly, long­time climbers said Thurs­day.

Rocks at the worl­drenowned park’s climb­ing routes break loose and crash down about 80 times a year. The elite climbers who flock to the park us­ing ropes and their fin­ger­tips to defy death as they scale sheer cliff faces know the risk but also know it’s rare to get hit and killed by the rocks.

“It’s a lot like a light­ning strike,” said Alex Hon­nold, who made his­tory June 3 for be­ing the first to climb El Cap­i­tan alone and with­out ropes. “Some­times ge­ol­ogy just hap­pens.”

The last time a climber was killed by a rock fall­ing at Yosemite was in 2013, when a Mon­tana climber fell af­ter a rock dis­lodged and sliced his climb­ing rope. It was pre­ceded by a 1999 rock fall that crushed a climber from Colorado. Park of­fi­cials say rock falls over­all have killed 16 peo­ple since 1857 and in­jured more than 100.

The Bri­tish man and his fe­male com­pan­ion were hik­ing at the bot­tom of El Cap­i­tan far from trails used by most Yosemite visi­tors in prepa­ra­tion for an as­cent when the chunk of gran­ite about 12 sto­ries tall broke free and plunged, said park ranger and spokesman Scott Ged­i­man. He died, she was se­ri­ously in­jured and au­thor­i­ties did not iden­tify them Thurs­day pend­ing no­ti­fi­ca­tion of their rel­a­tives.

The slab it­self was about 130 feet tall and 65 feet wide and fell from the pop­u­lar “Wa­ter­fall Route” on the East But­tress of El Cap­i­tan, Ged­i­man said.

Cana­dian climber Peter Zabrok de­scribed the fall­ing rock as “white gran­ite the size of an apart­ment build­ing.” Im­ages posted on so­cial me­dia im­me­di­ately af­ter it fell showed bil­low­ing white rock dust soar­ing high into the air.

Yosemite ge­ol­o­gist Greg Stock said the rock fall was not caused by climbers, who wedge climb­ing gear into rock cracks so they can loop ropes to support their weight and the cliff-side tents they use for El Cap­i­tan climbs that gen­er­ally take sev­eral days.

While the cause of the rock fall will never be known, Stock said the break was prob­a­bly caused by the ex­pan­sion and con­trac­tion of the mono­lith’s gran­ite as it heats up dur­ing the sum­mer and gets cold and more brit­tle in the win­ter.

“The rock fall its self is noth­ing un­usual,” he said. “We have had larger rock falls oc­cur in the Val­ley this year.”

The deadly rock fall hap­pened dur­ing the peak fall sea­son for climb­ing El Cap­i­tal, when climbers from around the world con­verge at Yosemite be­cause of warm weather and long climb­ing days.

Climber John Degrazio had just guided a group to the top of the Half Dome rock for­ma­tion a few miles away when he saw large clouds of dust ris­ing into the air near El Cap­i­tan. At least 30 climbers were on the wall of the 7,569foot for­ma­tion when the rock fell.

“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 Degrazio, of Yex­plore Yosemite Ad­ven­tures, who has led climbers in Yosemite Park for 12 years.

Ken Yager, pres­i­dent and founder of the Yosemite Climb­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, the rock that broke away “cratered and sent stuff mush­room­ing out in all di­rec­tions.”

Zabrok said he saw a res­cuer low­ered by he­li­copter and thinks he saved a sur­vivor. He later saw res­cuers mov­ing some­one on a lit­ter.

The ef­fort to save the two “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.

AP PHOTO VIA JOHN P. DEGRAZIO

A cloud of dust is seen in the dis­tance on El Cap­i­tan Wed­nes­day af­ter a ma­jor rock fall in Yosemite Na­tional Park. All areas in Cal­i­for­nia’s Yosemite Val­ley are open Thurs­day, a day af­ter the fatal rock fall.

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