A series of rockfalls on El Capitan this week — at the height of prime Yosemite climbing season — killed one climber, left a 130-foot scar on the monolith and sent a chill through the climbing community.
On Thursday, 1,300 tons of granite tumbled from 1,800 feet above the valley floor on El Cap’s southeast face. The previous day, a smaller slide killed 32-year-old British tourist Andrew Foster. His wife was reportedly injured and airlifed to a hospital. According to Instagram posts by climbers, the British couple were celebrating their anniversary and were about to begin climbing a route.
These climbers snapped photos from above during the incident.
In all, seven separate rockfalls occured on Thursday over a period of four hours. Dust billowed high up the face of El Cap and lingered in the air long after the rocks had settled at the cliff’s base.
Dozens of climbers were on El Cap during Wednesday’s incident, including multiple teams who witnessed it from above. Witnesses describe the impact like bombs going off, echoing through the steep-walled valley.
Ryan Sheridan was on the wall for a multi-day climb when one of the rockfalls occured. In fact, the bivy ledge where they had slept the night before was obliterated. Sheridan remarked on Facebook at how he found some features on the route suspiciously loose:
Peter Zabrok’s party shot this video from immediately above the slide just moments after it took place.
“These flakes seemed so loose that I had to stop and take a photo mid pitch. I couldn’t imagine how they inexplicably clung to the wall. I later found out this was part of the recent rockfall. I free climbed past this section and was shaken by how insecure the entire pitch was. I felt as though all my gear would peel from the wall due to the expanding nature of the placements. I found out today that my intuition was correct and this section now lays on the ground”
Climbers are still taking inventory of the damage caused to the cliff, but it appears parts of the Waterfall Route between the routes Secret Prophet and Lost in Translation, routes that ascend the southeast face, are damaged or entirely lost. In the spring, water pours off this flank of the mountain.
The cracks and corners that make Yosemite granite so attractive to climbers is of course indicative of the fact that El Cap, Half Dome and the other formations are made of numerous pieces, sometimes deeply fissured. A natural part of erosion occurring over millennia, rock fall is unpredictable but often occurs during or after heavy rain or snow, like the unusally snowy 2017-18 winter.
Here are some photos I took of the Southeast Face of El Cap today (old photos are from Free Routes guidebook and last climber view is by @ryansheridan ). It was crazy the amount of rock that came down. The first rockfall on weds, unfortunately killed one climber and injured another who were on the ground about to start climbing. They were a husband and wife from England celebrating their anniversary, this news was tremendously sad. It's a risk all climbers take, rockfall is always a major concern, the odds are usually against such a horrible case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What was daunting about it all has been the sheer magnitude of the rockfall, Thursday's filled the valley with dust, that looked like fog rolling in as it darkened the sky up at mirror lake where @twig_holly and I were having lunch. @jakecarp stopped by last night and said the first rockfall was estimated at 1300 tons, 1 ton of rock is approximately the size of a washing machine. Thursday's rockfall was even larger and threw rock all the way to the road, clogging up valley traffic for hours. There is no running or ducking or escaping slides these big. Nature is powerful and we are small and there is something necessary in that I think. All the boulders in the valley came from up there at some point and will continue to fall for centuries to come with the water, ice, wind and heat of the sun slowly hammering their chisels. Needless to say Holly and I have stayed off the walls the last couple days and are grateful to be safe. Props to all the park staff, geologists and rescue crews working hard in Yosemite Valley this week. #yosemite #elcapitan #rockfall #climbing
This image from the National Park Service shows the before and after of the rock fall.
The rockfall on Thursday, September 28 was substantially larger than Wednesday's series of rockfalls that occured in the same area on El Capitan. The park geologist has measured the rockfall to have been 10,250 cubic meters in volume, or about 30,500 tons of granite. The dimensions for the source area are about 395 feet tall, 148 feet wide, and up to 26 feet thick. The September 28 rockfall ranks as the 29th largest rockfall in Yosemite Valley on record. A number of geologic processes set the stage for rockfalls including glaciation, weathering, and bedrock fractures. Triggering mechanisms like water, ice, earthquakes, fluctuation in temperature, and vegetation growth are among the final forces that cause unstable rocks to fall. Photo: Comparison of rockfall scar left by September 27 rockfall and September 28 rockfall. #Yosemite #NationalPark #YosemiteNationalPark #RockFall #ElCapitan
Another photo showing the billowing plume of dust from the valley.
Yesterday, starting at approximately 1:52 p.m. Pacific time, seven successive rockfalls occurred on the southeast face of El Capitan, dropping 1300 tons of rock. This type of rockfall is typical in volume and behavior. The area of El Capitan, near Horsetail Fall, has experienced many rockfalls since 2010, most recently in April 2014. While the rockfall may have been typical, the results were not. Two climbers were at the base of El Capitan when the rockfall occurred, resulting in one fatality and one serious injury. All other people in the area have been accounted for and search efforts have been concluded. Photos: Dust cloud of the rockfall from El Capitan, by Tom Evans; Identification of rockfall area on El Capitan, NPS photo. #Yosemite #NationalPark #YosemiteNationalPark #RockFall #ElCapitan