SAN FRANCISCO — Two days of cracking, thundering falling rock at Yosemite National Park have left one man dead, two people injured, and even experienced climbers stunned by the spectacle.
A massive new hunk of granite broke off Thursday at the park’s mountaineering mecca of El Capitan, injuring an elderly man and sending huge plumes of white dust.
“There was so much smoke and debris,” said climber Ryan Sheridan, who had just reached the top of El Capitan when the rock let loose below him. “It filled the entire valley with smoke.”
The slide came a day after a giant slab of granite plunged from the same formation, killing a British man on a hiking and climbing visit and injuring his wife.
“It was in the same location of the previous rock fall,” Sheridan told The Associated Press by cellphone from the mountain. “A larger rock fall let loose, easily three times the size,” Sheridan said.
One person was injured and was flown to a hospital, park ranger and spokesman Scott Gediman said. There was no immediate word on the person’s condition.
Officials did not identify the person, but an older man with cuts and scrapes on his face and head was being treated by paramedics after the slide.
Meanwhile, the man killed Wednesday was identified as Andrew Foster, 32, of Wales. The park didn’t identify his wife, but said she remained hospitalized.
The park indicated that seven rock falls actually occurred during a four-hour period Wednesday on the southeast face of El Capitan. However, it was rare for such a collapse to kill anyone, 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 rock falling 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 rock fall that crushed a climber from Colorado. Park officials say rock falls overall have killed 16 people since 1857 and injured more than 100.
The rock falls came during the peak of the climbing season for El Capitan, with climbers from around the world trying their skill against the sheer cliff faces. At least 30 climbers were on the formation when a section gave way Wednesday.
Foster and his wife were not on the cliff, however. They 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, Gediman said.
The slab was about 130 feet (40 metres) tall and 65 feet (19 metres) wide and fell from the popular “Waterfall Route” on the East Buttress of El Capitan, Gediman said.
Yosemite geologist Greg 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.
Officials had no immediate estimate for how much the big rock weighed. But Gediman said all of the rock falls combined on Wednesday weighed 1,300 tons (1,100 metric tons).