On September 27, a series of seven rockfalls resulted in the death of one person and the severe injury of another. Yesterday afternoon, even more massive rockfall rained down from Yosemite’s El Capitan, injuring another person.
The first seven rockfalls that happened over a period of four hours September 27 had an estimated “cumulative volume of about 16,000 cubic feet (450 cubic meters), or about 1,300 tons,” according to one of the national park’s press releases, which described the piece of rock that fell as approximately “130 feet tall, 65 feet wide, and 3-10 feet thick,” with the “source point being about 650 feet above the base of El Capitan, or about 1,800 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley.”
The Park Service reported that the second event happened at 3:21 p.m. September 28 and “is significantly larger.”
“Geologists are assessing the size and weight of the rockfall and these estimates are forthcoming,” the Park Service reported in its second press release that day. “There was an injury associated with [yesterday’s] rockfall event. The injured person was flown out of the park via air ambulance to receive medical care at an area hospital…. Roads within Yosemite Valley have been rerouted and the changes will be in effect at least through tomorrow. All roads remain open in Yosemite National Park. Yosemite National Park remains open and visitor services are not affected by the rockfalls over the past couple of days.”
A Fresno television station reported that the latest injury happened when a rock fell through the roof of a Florida couple’s SUV and hit the male driver in the head. An interview with his wife can be seen here.
The rockfalls originated on and around the Waterfall Route, which is between the popular routes Zodiac and the East Buttress. Three climbers–Peter “Pass the Pitons Pete” Zabrok, Patrick Mcredmond and Ryan Sheridan–had been climbing the Waterfall Route and were just above the first rockfall when it happened.
“I saw a 100-foot by 100-foot by-100 foot chunk of granite the size of an apartment building peel off two thousand feet above the deck, hit the wall a thousand feet up, and shatter into a hundred thousand pieces that completely annihilated everything be nice,” Zabrok posted on the climbing forum SupterTopo.com that night. Later, in a video posted to Facebook that Zabrok recorded from the side of El Cap, he said: “I just turned 58 years old. I’m climbing Waterfall Route, and it’s my 58th El Cap route. I just spent my 723rd night on El Cap. The five nights before, I was directly underneath that. If I’d been one day later, I’d be dead….”
Zabrok and his partners had completed their climb to the top of El Cap by the time the second event unleashed a wave of debris that tumbled all the way to the Merced River in the valley below.
“I was standing on the summit of El Cap, and we all felt the ground–which is solid granite–shaking beneath our feet,” he wrote in an email. “Imagine being a climber/caver/outdoor adventurer for all of your life, up to [my] age, 58, and [then] witnessing the greatest natural catastrophe you’ve ever seen in your life. Now imagine this afternoon, seeing a natural catastrophe perhaps 100 to 1,000 times bigger….”
Mcredmond was impressed by Sheridan’s “calm and collected” reaction.
“He called [Yosemite Search and Rescue] straight away, and was precise and exact in how he described the details of the fall,” Mcredmond said. “…The search and rescue teams were amazingly fast. It felt like minutes before we could see the chopper in the air.”
Tom Evans, a photographer who documents climbing activity on El Cap for his blog ElCapReport.com, witnessed the rockfalls of September 27 from the meadow below. He described it for Alpinist in an email:
…A party of three spent the last several days climbing right through the area that fell. They were a few pitches above it today and watched [it happen]…. There was a big one…and then five more over the next three hours. All were big. I heard the booms first then saw the smoke and thunder-like noises from the impact. Everyone was frozen in place watching in awe…. I quickly swung my big lens over to the East Butt but saw no one at its base or low on the route. That is when the impact of what might have happened sunk in. I noticed a woman being helped out of the west end of the rockfall. She could move but was leaning heavily on a man. The two other people were not visible. Turns out that only one of those people was involved in the fall and was killed outright. There was a strong west wind that blew the dust off to the east quickly so we could immediately see the results of the fall on the cliff. Pete, Ryan, and Patrick [the climbers on Waterfall Route] were a few pitches above the affected area. They had spent three days climbing and bivying in the area of the fall and were so lucky to have gotten a few hundred feet higher the last two days. YOSAR was on the spot and mounted a quick rescue and recovery.
The Park Service reported:
After the initial rockfall, Yosemite National Park Rangers and the Search and Rescue team entered the area looking for people at the base of the rockfall. Two people were found, resulting in one fatality and a serious injury. The victims, a couple visiting the park from Great Britain, were in the park to rock climb but were not climbing at the time of the initial rockfall. The male was found deceased and the female was flown out of the park with serious injuries…. All other people in the area have been accounted for and search efforts have been concluded.
The man who died in the September 27 rockfall was identified as Andrew Foster of Wales, 32, and he was the husband of the woman who was injured that same day and who has yet to be identified.
A different and much smaller rockfall reportedly happened on or near El Capitan’s West Face route around mid-September. No one witnessed it and apparently no one was in the area when it happened. In a September 17 SuperTopo post, climbers reported seeing rock scars caused by falling blocks of granite that are believed to have originated from Thanksgiving Ledge. The route was not damaged but downed trees were reported at the base.