Two fatal accidents involving climber-triggered rockfall occurred this spring on El Capitan, Yosemite. The first incident took place on the Muir Wall (A2 5.9, 33 pitches). On May 19, Mason Robison, an experienced climber from Montana, was leading just above the bivy ledge at the start of the final 700-foot dihedral.
According to his partner, Marc Venery, Robison placed a cam behind a big flake about 20 feet above the belay. When he weighted the cam, the flake ripped off the wall. Robison pitched outward and the flake severed his lead line. He fell 230 feet until his static haul line arrested his fall. He was killed by the force generated in the static impact.
The second accident happened just two weeks later on the East Buttress (5.10b, 11 pitches). At about 2 p.m., approximately 600 feet up the route, Felix Joseph Kiernan, a popular and accomplished climber from London, England, was belaying his partner of many years, Luke Jones. Jones was roughly 90 feet above the belay when he stepped on a one-foot-wide block. The block dislodged and struck Kiernan on the head, killing him instantly. Of note: Kiernan was wearing a helmet.
Even though both of these routes have seen hundreds of ascents, they are still serious undertakings situated on a huge and ever-evolving wall. El Capitan is often lauded for its “perfect” granite, but in truth this wall is littered with loose rock ranging from the one-foot block that hit Kiernan, to massive features like the apparently detached “Boot Flake” on the super-popular Nose route. Massive rockslides spontaneously occur on El Cap and climber-triggered rockfall is relatively common. Crowding on popular routes such as the Muir and East Buttress compound the problem because climbers are forced to leave any loose rocks they encounter in place rather than trundling them. The result is a virtual minefield.
Just because the route you are on is well-traveled doesn’t mean that it’s clean and safe. In fact, many popular trad climbing areas in the U.S. and abroad are loaded with choss. Eldorado Canyon, the Diamond and Yosemite are prime examples. Trad climbing takes place in areas with cracks. These cracks are formed by weaknesses in the rock. Pulling on blocks, wedging hands and feet in cracks and the protection you place act to pry on the features.
The first step in preventing climber-triggered rockfall is simply cultivating the awareness that the rock you are climbing might be loose. The next step is to learn and practice safe climbing techniques.
Here are five ways you can mitigate the danger of loose rock.
1) Situate your belay out of the fall line.
2) Analyze and avoid using suspect holds. Sometimes it makes sense to choose a smaller but more solid hold.
3) Inspect your holds. Check out the lines of fracture before pulling on blocks and flakes. Sometimes a block will be solid as a sidepull or hold a straight downward pull, but not an outward pull.
4) Avoid placing gear in potentially loose rock since it will inevitably pry on the rock if weighted and might trigger rockfall.
5) Communicate. Tell your partner before you pull or step on a potentially loose hold. If you knock something off, yell, “Rock!” If you’re belaying, watch the climber. It takes a couple of seconds for a rock to fall 100 feet. If you are alert, you might be able to dodge.