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Stewart Green

Yosemite Rockfall Near Half Dome

By March 30, 2009

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Early last Saturday morning, March 28, a huge rockfall broke lose near the summit of Ahwiyah Point near Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The rockfall, occurring at 5:26AM, dropped 1,800 feet to the floor of Tenaya Canyon in seconds, knocked down hundreds of trees, and buried the south part of the popular Mirror Lake trail. The impact of this major geologic event registered on seismometers around California as a magnitude 2.5 earthquake.

Park geologist Greg Stock reported on Supertopo: ďThe volume of the Ahwiyah Point rock fall is still being determined, but it was clearly one of the largest rock falls in the past decade; for perspective, this rock fall was many times the size of the recent October 2008 rock falls behind Curry Village.Ē

Yosemite Valley is a major area of active rockfall, and, because of its accessibility, is one of the most studied rockfall areas in the world. Yosemite rockfalls are caused by a wide variety of factors and natural processes, including earthquakes, precipitation like heavy downpours, freeze and thaw cycles, thermal stresses, and gravity. In the last few years, Half Dome and the immediate surrounding area has been particularly active, with at least eight rockfalls between June 2006 and June 2007.

One of the largest rockfalls in the past couple decades occurred on July 10, 1996 when over 75,000 tons of granite fell 2,000 feet at 250 miles per hour from Glacier Point high above the southern edge of Yosemite Valley. This massive rockfall killed a hiker, injured six others, damaged the Happy Isles Nature Center, destroyed a snack bar, and filled the air with thick dust and grit, some of which settled in inch-deep layers on nearby picnic tables. Geologists later wrote in a report, "Dust from the cloud rose rapidly into the air and plunged the area near Happy Isles into darkness for some minutes." The air blast from the rockfall, equal to that of a tornado, toppled over a thousand trees, some a half-mile away from the impact zone.

Itís a fact of climbing and geology that rockfall happens. Rock, which we think of as a solid enduring medium, has a shelf life. When we climb, we always have to be aware of the potential for rockfall. To learn more about rockfall and loose rock for climbers, check out this section on Avoiding Loose Rock.

How to Avoid Loose Rock When Youíre Climbing:
15 Tips Avoid Loose Rock
Always Wear a Helmet
Avoid Climbing on Loose Cliffs
Donít Climb Below Other Parties
Always Test Suspect Holds

Photograph above: A massive rockfall from Glacier Point in June 1998. Photograph courtesy Marshall Minobe/SuperTopo.com


March 31, 2009 at 1:08 am
(1) David Andrews says:

You know this was in the Yosemite daily report, but not in the Associated Press Feed.
We Paiutes appeciate this information since the Park Service would never tell the general public! Thanks for the news!

March 31, 2009 at 12:25 pm
(2) Adam says:

The story does have some inaccuracies to the historical data contained within. The 1996 Happpy Isles rockfall did not kill a climber on Glacier Point Apron. It was the June 13th, 1999 rockfall on the right side of the apron near Curry Village that killed a climber who was belaying his partner up the Apron Jam Route. That said one person was killed and many were injured by the 1996 rockfall. In addition the Happy Isles rockfall did not fall onto the Happy Isles Campground because there was not a campground at Happy Isles. There was a nature center at Happy Isles which was destroyed, but no campground. In Addition no rocks landed on the trailhead for the John Muir Trail as that trailhead is on the opposite side of the Merced River from Happy Isles. The John Muir Trail was closed due to potential danger as a precaution but did not sustain serious damage.

March 31, 2009 at 7:38 pm
(3) Stewart says:

Thanks Adam, for the clarification and correction. I appreciate it. You’re right, a climber wasn’t killed in the 1996 rockfall.

April 1, 2009 at 12:30 am
(4) Tom says:

To further corrrect the 1996 story the Nature Center at Happy
Isles was damaged, not destroyed, and was repaired and is open again. What was destroyed was a snack shack near the Nature center and that was not rebuilt. They did build a snack shack at the Happy Isles Shuttle bus stop to replace the one that was destroyed.

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