2017-10-05 / Front Page

Rockfalls at El Capitan leave one dead, injuries

By GREG LITTLE Editor

Two major rockfalls shook Yosemite Valley last week.

The rockfalls were both on El Capitan, the iconic rock monolith where climbers from around the world come all year long.

One of the falls killed a man from Great Britain and injured his wife.

The second caused an injury to one person and was larger than the first.

The first major fall happened on Wednesday, Sept. 27, resulting in the fatality. It was around 1:55 p.m.

According to accounts in British media, the man who died was Andrew Foster, 32, from Cardiff. His wife, Lucy, was seriously injured.

Gillian Stephens, Andrew Foster’s aunt, told The Times of London that Lucy Foster said her husband saved her life by diving on top of her when he realized the rockfall was happening.

According to news reports, the couple was found with climbing gear and were believed to have been scouting out an ascent from a trail when the slide happened.

In total, there were seven rockfalls that day at El Capitan, with the last one being the biggest.

A preliminary estimate for the cumulative volume of all seven rockfalls is about 16,000 cubic feet (450 cubic meters), or about 1,300 tons. The irregular “sheet” of rock that fell is estimated to be 130 feet tall, 65 feet wide and 3-10 feet thick. The source point is about 650 feet above the base of El Capitan, or about 1,800 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley (which is at 4,000 feet in elevation).

Scott Gediman of the Yosemite National Park Public Information Office, said he was unsure of the condition of Lucy Foster. Because of privacy laws, that information was not available.

It was known that Andrew Foster’s parents traveled to California to claim his body and take the remains back to Great Britain. Park officials worked with the British Consulate office in making the arrangements.

As Park officials were assessing the Sept. 27 rockfall, a larger one happened the following day, on Thursday, Sept. 28. It happened at around 3:21 p.m. and was much larger than Wednesday’s fall.

That fall, which happened the following day, was 22 times larger than the rockfall the previous day, according to Gediman.

It was measured to be 10,250 cubic feet in volume. The equates to about 30,500 tons.

The dimensions for the source area of the fall, or where it broke away from the face of El Capitan, is roughly 395 feet tall, 148 meters wide and up to 26 feet thick.

One person was injured in the fall, said Gediman. The woman was struck by a piece of rock that went through the sunroof of a vehicle that was on the road near the area of the fall. The person was transported to a regional hospital. Gediman was unsure of her condition.

Gediman said though that is a large slide, there have been previous slides which were larger. The rockfall last Thursday ranks as the 29th largest rockfall recorded in Yosemite.

Other larger falls include the 1972 Liberty Cap fall, the 1981 Elephant Rock fall, the 1982 Cookie Cliff fall, the 1996 Happy Isles fall and the 2009 Ahwiyah Point fall.

Gediman said various officials responded following the rockfalls, including the Park geologist and officials from the United States Geological Survey.

“They look at the wall and study it for academic reasons,” said Gediman.

There could be many factors involved as to why the slide happened, he said.

Those include temperature fluctuations, water, plants, weather pattern and more.

This region did experience five years of drought before record rains and snow fell last winter.

Gediman said Park officials did place signs in the area stating, “Elevated rockfall activity.”

However, he said nobody can predict if an area is safe.

“We can’t guarantee nothing will fall again,” said Gediman. “The geologists can’t say.”

He said unlike some published reports, Park officials “didn’t declare it free of danger.”

Gediman did say geologists believe the large piece that broke away on Thursday “came off clean,” but that doesn’t mean more slides won’t happen.

“We can’t predict when something will happen,” said Gediman.

He did say throughout the week, Yosemite National Park remained open. A stretch of Highway on the north side was closed for a time but was reopened in a couple of days.

“We’re not doing anything different,” said Gediman. “The Park remains open.”

He also said people who do rock climbing in the Park understand the dangers associated with the activity.

And as Gediman said, for most Park visitors, it is not a factor.

“For your average visitor, it does not effect them at all,” said Gediman.

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