Another major rockfall from El Capitan in Yosemite National Park apparently injured a man Thursday, a day after a couple from the United Kingdom were caught beneath a massive sheet of falling granite.
The man died Wednesday and the woman was seriously injured. Park officials identified him as Andrew Foster, 32, of Wales. British media identified his wife as Lucy Foster, 28.
The man injured Thursday was being taken away in an ambulance. His condition was not immediately known.
Thursday’s rockfall appeared to be in the East Buttress area where Wednesday’s rockfall occurred. Traffic was being cleared from a nearby meadow and visitors were gathering to watch as one helicopter hovered over the debris. Later Thursday, the park announced that Northside Drive exiting the Yosemite Valley was closed due to the rockfall and advised drivers to leave via Southside Drive.
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Park spokesman Scott Gediman said Wednesday’s victims were in Yosemite to climb its rock walls, but were not climbing when a huge sheet of granite sloughed off the iconic monolith Wednesday.
The couple were at the base of El Capitan when the rockfall occurred. Rescuers reached them within an hour and pulled them from the rubble, where they were trapped under a rock, Gediman said. The woman was airlifted to a hospital.
The National Park Service is working with the British consulate to contact family members. Gediman said authorities have accounted for all others who were in the area of the fall.
A preliminary estimate showed a total of seven rockfalls from El Capitan’s southeast face occurred Wednesday, amounting to about 1,300 tons of granite. The largest was estimated to have been about 130 feet tall, 65 feet wide, and 3 to 10 feet thick. It fell from 650 feet above the base of El Capitan, or about 1,800 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley.
Gediman said it has been 18 years since the last rockfall-related death in Yosemite. In 1999, climber Peter Terbush was killed at Glacier Point. Since Yosemite recordkeeping began in 1857, there have been 16 fatalities and more than 100 injuries from rockfalls.
Peter Zabrok, who was climbing near the Waterfall Route at the time of Wednesday’s rockfall, described the experience on Facebook and on an online climbing forum, SuperTopo.
Park officials said the large sheet sloughed off El Capitan’s face near where Horsetail Fall flows.
Zabrok described the first and largest rockfall he saw: “I saw a … 100-foot by 100-foot chunk of granite the size of an apartment building peel off 2,000 feet above the deck, hit the wall 1,000 feet up and shatter into a hundred thousand pieces that completely annihilated everything.”
After that, Zabrok said, he and others in his group wrote on Facebook that they witnessed four or five additional rockfalls.
Ryan Sheridan said in the early morning hours Thursday that El Capitan remained active with rockfalls.
“The entire route we just spent a week climbing now lays on the ground. Million-pound releases of rock, and its still active,” he wrote on Facebook.
Yosemite geologist Greg Stock said there’s no way to know exactly what caused the granite to break off El Capitan, but temperature change is a possibility. Over the years, Stock and his colleagues have found through research that the granite slabs in Yosemite expand when hot and contract when cold.
Just last week, snow fell in Yosemite.
“Temperature changes may have played a role,” Stock said. “Part of why I say that is because there wasn’t another obvious trigger.”
Earthquakes and rainfall commonly cause rockfalls.
Stock said rockfalls are typical on El Capitan. For instance, a smaller fall was reported on the west side of El Capitan two weeks ago, he said.
In the Sierra Nevada where the mountains were carved from glaciers, the granite cliffs experience exfoliation, where rock falls off in large sheets, Shock said.
Although research has been done on rockfalls in the last 10 years, there’s no way to predict them, Stock said.
Each year, rockfalls in Yosemite are recorded through laser imaging of the granite cliffs. The park records about 80 rockfalls each year, or about one every three days.
This week’s event was on the larger side, but the most atypical thing about it was that someone was fatally injured, Stock said.
Ken Yager, a Yosemite climber and historian, said in his four decades of living and climbing in Yosemite, he’s never seen a rockfall-related death at a popular climbing site.
“It’s pretty rare,” he said. “As many rockfalls that go on around here, it’s kind of amazing. It’s kind of a freak accident in some ways.”
The death likely won’t deter climbers, but they’ll know to stay away from that area, Yager said.
“We’ll all be thinking about it, that it’s there, but it’s in our nature to climb,” he said. “This kind of stuff can happen anywhere.…You can’t just stop living your life for something like that.”
Yager warned people to be careful while watching climbers ascend the massive rock faces in Yosemite Valley.
“We all need to realize that stuff falls down,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it can be catastrophic. It’s a sad day. It’s horrible.”
Stock said the rockfall doesn’t pose a threat to visitors. Signs have been posted in the area warning people about the falling rock, but Yosemite remains open.