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Rockfall strikes Yosemite for second consecutive day

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 28, 2017

In this Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, photo provided by Dakota Snider, photographer and Yosemite resident, a woman is carried into a helicopter after being rescued off El Capitan following a major rock fall in Yosemite National Park, Calif. (Dakota Snider / Associated Press)
In this Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, photo provided by Dakota Snider, photographer and Yosemite resident, a woman is carried into a helicopter after being rescued off El Capitan following a major rock fall in Yosemite National Park, Calif. (Dakota Snider / Associated Press)
By Scott Smith Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO – A massive new rockfall hit Yosemite National Park on Thursday, cracking with a thundering roar off the iconic El Capitan rock formation and sending huge plumes of white dust surging through the valley floor below. It was not immediately clear if there were new casualties, a day after another slab dropped from El Capitan, killing a British climber and injuring a second.

Ken Yager, president and founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association, said he witnessed the most recent rockfall that appeared to be “substantially bigger” than the earlier one.

Driving past the base of El Capitan, Yager said he saw the dust cloud and emergency workers rushing to the scene. Images posted on social media showed a massive cloud of thick dust spreading across Yosemite Valley.

Climber Ryan Sheridan had just reached the top of El Capitan, a 7,569-foot formation, when the rock slide let loose below him Thursday.

“There was so much smoke and debris,” he said by cellphone from the top of El Capitan. “It filled the entire valley with smoke.”

Sheridan had also climbed up El Capitan a day earlier, when the first rock slide occurred, and said this one was huge in comparison.

“It was in the same location of the previous rockfall. A larger rockfall let loose, easily three times the size,” Sheridan said.

Yosemite said on its Twitter page that the park was closing a road on the north side of the park because of the rockfall. Officials advised visitors to use the southern access road.

The massive granite slab that fell Wednesday was seen as a rare event – but only because the rockfall turned deadly, longtime climbers said Thursday.

Rocks at the world-renowned park’s climbing routes break loose and crash down about 80 times a year. The elite climbers who flock to the park using ropes and their fingertips to defy death as they scale sheer cliff faces know the risk but also know it’s rare to get hit and killed by the rocks.

“It’s a lot like a lightning strike,” said Alex Honnold, who made history June 3 for being the first to climb El Capitan alone and without ropes. “Sometimes geology just happens.”

The last time a climber was killed by a rockfalling at Yosemite was in 2013, when a Montana climber fell after a rock dislodged and sliced his climbing rope. It was preceded by a 1999 rockfall that crushed a climber from Colorado. Park officials say rockfalls overall have killed 16 people since 1857 and injured more than 100.

The British man and his female companion were hiking at the bottom of El Capitan far from trails used by most Yosemite visitors in preparation for an ascent when the chunk of granite about 12 stories tall broke free and plunged, said park ranger and spokesman Scott Gediman. He died, she was seriously injured and authorities did not identify them Thursday, pending notification of their relatives.

The slab that fell Wednesday was about 130 feet tall and 65 feet wide and fell from the popular “Waterfall Route” on the East Buttress of El Capitan, Gediman said. There were at least 30 climbers on the wall of the formation when the rock fell.

Yager, the president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, said the rock that broke away “cratered and sent stuff mushrooming out in all directions.”

Canadian climber Peter Zabrok described the falling rock as “white granite the size of an apartment building.” Images posted on social media immediately after it fell showed billowing white rock dust soaring high into the air.

Yosemite geologist Greg Stock said the rockfall was not caused by climbers, who wedge climbing gear into rock cracks so they can loop ropes to support their weight and the cliff-side tents they use for El Capitan climbs that generally take several days.

While the cause of the rockfall will never be known, Stock said the break was probably caused by the expansion and contraction of the monolith’s granite as it heats up during the summer and gets cold and more brittle in the winter.

“The rockfall itself is nothing unusual,” he said. “We have had larger rockfalls occur in the Valley this year.”

The deadly rockfall happened during the peak fall season for climbing El Capitan, when climbers from around the world converge at Yosemite because of warm weather and long climbing days.

Zabrok said he saw a rescuer lowered by helicopter and thinks he saved a survivor. He later saw rescuers moving someone on a litter.

The effort to save the two “was done at tremendous peril to the rescuers because there were three subsequent rockfalls that were all nearly as big and would have killed anybody at the base,” he said.

Gediman, the park spokesman, said the rockfall was among seven that happened in the same general area during a four-hour period. Rescuers found no other victims.

Officials had no immediate estimate for how much the big rock weighed. But Gediman said all of the rockfalls combined on Wednesday weighed 1,300 tons.

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