One dead, one hurt in rockfall from Yosemite’s El Capitan

Ryan Sheridan posted this photo on his Facebook page of billowing dust from Wednesday's rockslide on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
Ryan Sheridan posted this photo on his Facebook page of billowing dust from Wednesday's rockslide on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Ryan Sheridan

One person died and another was injured when a sheet of granite sloughed off the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, the Park Service said Wednesday.

The rock appeared to fall from the “Waterfall Route,” a popular climbing route on the East Buttress of El Capitan, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said. This is the area where Horsetail Fall flows in winter and spring, he added.

Park rangers were working to transport the injured person to medical care outside the park, Gediman said.

Multiple 911 calls reporting the rockfall were made just before 2 p.m., a Park Service spokeswoman said. Climbers on the face of the granite monolith and across the Valley quickly posted photos of the dusty aftermath as they realized what had happened.

Gediman said this time of year is the peak of the climbing season, although it wasn’t immediately clear whether the dead and injured were climbing El Capitan. One climber called it a “freak accident.”

The rockfall was quickly noted by a climber, Ryan Sheridan, on Facebook and later posted to the climbing website SuperTopo.

Sheridan posted a photo from the Waterfall Route that showed dust billowing below him with the caption “We are alright, hoping for a good outcome for the people approaching east buttress.” Sheridan said he watched someone walk out of the debris, and search-and-rescue crews, including a helicopter, were on scene.

The photo was reposted to SuperTopo, where someone communicating with Sheridan’s climbing group described the rockfall as a sheet of rock about 100 square feet in size.

Peter Zabrok, one of the three people climbing with Sheridan, made this posting to SuperTopo around 1 a.m. Thursday:

“I fear two more were completely buried under the rockfall. I observed two or three people walking at the base, and I saw the block falling because I happened to be tagging up some gear at the time.

“I saw a 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 ... It is inconceivable the people I saw survived. If there was one survivor apparently? I am also pretty sure I observed a body recovery.

“If there are two people missing, it will be extremely difficult to recover them from beneath so much rockfall.”

He ended his post with this: “Thanking God big time tonight. Still shaking.”

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.”

Instagram user John P. DeGrazio posted a pair of photos of the rockfall from the summit of Half Dome to the YExplore Yosemite Adventures account. He described the scene as a “huge plume of smoke” and later learned of the fatality.

DeGrazio, who gives guided tours through Yosemite, was leading a group of seven to the summit of Half Dome when the group saw the rockfall.

“I’ve seen small little snow avalanches here and there and heard tiny rockfalls, but nothing like this,” he said.

At first the group thought the plume was from a fire, but then when the dust settled the members of his group realized it was a rockfall.

“It definitely is a very sad day to hear of the fatality,” he said. “We definitely send our thoughts to families for sure.”

DeGrazio said he’s climbed the Nutcracker route near where the rockfall occurred. Though he doesn’t consider himself a skilled climber, he said when one is climbing, one cannot think about the risk.

“It’s something you can’t think about,” he said. “You just have to understand that our time on this Earth is short. If you think about that it will take away from experience.”