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These Climbers Watched The Rocks Fall Twice In Yosemite

Sep 29, 2017

Thursday’s massive rockfall in Yosemite National Park has rock climbers on alert. It’s the second major fall within 48 hours on El Capitan – one of the world’s largest granite monoliths, standing over 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley. 

The formation is popular among climbers, like Alec Wright from Eugene, Oregon. He was one of the first people on the scene after the rocks fell.

"It was like an inch of dust on everything. I've never seen . . . the park like that before. It was eerie." - Beau Skalley

“I ran into the dust cloud itself and just heard some people crying for help,” says Alec Wright, a climber who has been staying in the park since the summer. “I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. There was dust everywhere. The whole road was covered and the first thing I see is a man covered in blood from about head to his waist, clutching the side of his head with his wife crying out for help.”

Wright says he sat the man down to make sure he was alright, and escorted him to paramedics. He then continued to help eight other people out of the billowing cloud of dust that settled on everything, including the slow-moving Merced River. Rescue crews helicoptered one injured person to an area hospital.

"Some of them were just walking through not knowing what was going on. Some were going in to try and take pictures and some were trying to get out of the cloud, but didn’t know where to go,” Wright says. “I heard there were potentially a couple people on the trail near the rockfall. I did the best I could, ran up the trail into the danger zone, and couldn’t find them unfortunately.”

Alec Wright, a climber spending the summer in Yosemite Valley, helped rescue eight people wandering in the dust cloud after Thursday's rockfall.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

"I did the best I could, ran up the trail into the danger zone, and couldn't find them unfortunately." - Alec Wright

Another set of climbers watched both rockfalls go down on the “Waterfall Route," located on what is known as the East Buttress of El Capitan. They said it was like watching a six-story building slide right off the mountain. Park geologists are still assessing the size and weight of the rockfall.

“It was quiet and dusty,” says Beau Skalley, a climber from San Diego spending time in the park. “It was like an inch of dust on everything and you couldn’t really breathe. I’ve never seen . . . the park like that before. It was eerie.”

Park officials say rockfalls are normal, but Skalley says he thinks rain and snow this month played a role in the fall.

“It got really cold and it rained [last] weekend,” Skalley says. “Through the process of it warming up this week – it’s an exfoliation rock – and anytime that happens that process of cool to warm, it makes the rock really brittle. That part of [El Capitan] is pretty unconsolidated, but the west part of El Cap is so solid that nothing is likely to come off.”

Connor Britts and Josh Edwards are climbers spending a few weeks in the park. The night before, say their friends “slept in that same spot” that fell.

On Thursday afternoon the group pointed to another group of climbers still on the wall, about “500 feet above” where the rockfall occurred. “Right now you can see them up there. They’re probably shitting their pants right now,” says Edwards.

The giant white dent in El Capitan is the area that fell Thursday afternoon.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

The climbers made it to the top after a couple of hours.  There are about 80 rockfalls a year in the park, although many go unreported. Park spokesman Scott Gediman says the size of this rockfall is not unusual, in fact, its size compares with other rockfalls in the area.

“The fact that these rockfalls did occur is not unusual in and of itself,” Gediman says. “The fact that yesterday’s fall resulted in a fatality and an injury and then today with an injury that’s unique.”

Wednesday’s rockfall killed one and injured another.  The victim has been identified as 32-year-old Andrew Foster from Wales. His wife is being treated at an area hospital. The name of the person injured in Thursday's rockfall is not yet know. This week was the first time since 1999 that a rockfall in the park resulted in a death. A total of 16 people have died in the park due to rockfalls since recordkeeping began in 1857.

Even with the rockfalls on Wednesday and Thursday, climbers are already harnessing-up to get back on the granite in the park. Alec Wright says the rockfalls are not going to deter him from finishing strong, during his last few weeks in the park. 

“Yeah, I’m going to keep climbing, just not on the East Buttress anymore,” Wright says. “The East Buttress is certainly closed for the season.”