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One killed and one injured after a series of rockfalls on El Capitan's Waterfall Route

Posted on: September 28, 2017


A huge plume of granite dust billows at the base of Yosemite's El Capitan where a massive series of rockfalls occurred the afternoon of September 27. A fresh, white rock scar where the event originated can be seen to the right of the black streaks. One person was killed and another injured. [Photo] Tom EvansA huge plume of granite dust billows at the base of Yosemite's El Capitan where a massive series of rockfalls occurred the afternoon of September 27. A fresh, white rock scar where the event originated can be seen to the right of the black streaks. One person was killed and another injured. [Photo] Tom Evans

[This report is pending a second update after another, much bigger rockfall happened on El Capitan the afternoon of September 28.—Ed.]

One person was killed and one injured after a massive rockfall occurred on the eastern flank of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park yesterday afternoon.

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The event happened on the Waterfall Route, which is between the popular routes Zodiac and the East Buttress. Three climbers, including Peter "Pass the Pitons Pete" Zabrok, had been climbing the Waterfall Route and were just above the 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...," Zabrok posted on the climbing forum SupterTopo.com just after 1 a.m. this morning.

Six more rockfalls occurred after the initial one, for a total of seven events over a four-hour period.

Tom Evans, a photographer who documents climbing activity on El Cap for his blog ElCapReport.com, witnessed the event 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. [Yosemite Search and Rescue] was on the spot and mounted a quick rescue and recovery.

This close-up shows the rock scar where a series of seven rockfalls originated on El Capitan's Waterfall Route. Three climbers were on the route at the time, and were a few hundred feet above the fall zone when it happened. [Photo] Tom EvansThis close-up shows the rock scar where a series of seven rockfalls originated on El Capitan's Waterfall Route. Three climbers were on the route at the time, and were a few hundred feet above the fall zone when it happened. [Photo] Tom Evans

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...."

An updated press release from the Park Service on September 28 reported:

A preliminary estimate for the cumulative volume of all seven rockfalls is about 16,000 cubic feet (450 cubic meters), or about 1,300 tons. The irregular "sheet" of rock that fell is estimated to be 130 feet tall, 65 feet wide, and 3-10 feet thick. The source point is about 650 feet above the base of El Capitan, or about 1,800 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley....

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. The National Park Service is working with the Consulate to notify family members. Until family notifications are completed, the names of the victims are not being released. All other people in the area have been accounted for and search efforts have been concluded.... Yosemite National Park remains open and visitor services are not affected.

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.

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