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Geologist: Yosemite rock falls don’t mean more danger

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Emergency personnel prepare to care for an elderly man, center background, who was injured after a new rock fall on El Capitan occurred Thursday afternoon, Sept. 28, 2017, in Yosemite National Park, Calif. The fall came a day after tons of rock crashed down from El Capitan, killing a tourist who had been on a hiking and climbing trip and injuring a British woman with him.

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. >> Rock falls that killed a British tourist and injured two other people in Yosemite National Park aren’t stopping climbers intent on scaling the sheer walls of El Capitan and a park geologist says there’s no more danger than usual.

“If we felt any area was unsafe we wouldn’t be allowing people in there,” Greg Stock said Friday. He and a U.S. Geological Service geologist were studying El Capitan after immense slabs of granite — one about the size of a 36-story building — successively broke loose from the formation and plunged down in huge, flinty clouds that swept through the valley floor.

The park typically sees about 80 rock falls each year.

Stock said it’s impossible to predict when and where a rock fall will strike and detecting shifts in rocks could be a sign that one will break loose days or maybe years later.

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.”

Hayden Jamieson, 24, of Mammoth Lakes, California, prepared Friday to head up El Capitan early Saturday.

“It’s kind of an inherently dangerous sport” but Jamieson said he felt more at risk of being struck by a car on the street than from a falling slab of granite in the wilderness.

The slide of a building-sized slab of granite on Wednesday killed Andrew Foster, 32, of Wales, who was hiking with his wife, Lucy, at the bottom of El Capitan. She was seriously injured and remained hospitalized.

A British newspaper is reporting that Foster died while trying to shield his wife. The Times says Lucy Foster told her husband’s aunt that he jumped to cover her as tons of rock came cascading down.

Gillian Stephens, in an interview with the Times published Saturday, says Lucy Foster told her: “Andrew saved my life. He dived on top of me as soon as he could see what was going to happen. He saved my life.”

The massive slab of granite that fell Thursday was larger than Wednesday’s. It weighed 30,500 tons (27,669 metric tonnes), geologists estimate.

That fall injured Jim Evans, who was driving out of the national park when rubble broke through the sunroof of his SUV, hitting the resident of Naples, Florida, in the head, said his wife.

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