Climbing Safety on Yosemite’s Big Walls

climbing yosemiteYosemite is widely regarded as the birthplace of American climbing, especially big wall climbing, and for good reason. It’s been making headlines in the climbing world since John Muir’s 1869 ascent of Cathedral Peak, three years before Yellowstone would be designated the first U.S. National Park, and as recently as when free-soloist Alex Honnold topped El Capitan sans rope in under four hours.

Unfortunately, it’s still very dangerous.

However, not all of the headlines have been quite so celebratory. In 2015, the iconic granite giant Half Dome lost a pair of pitches, but even bewildering headlines like “2,500 Tons of Rock Fell Off Half Dome and Nobody Noticed” are still preferable to the type of headlines reporting rockfall fatalities, which we saw with a series of back-to-back rockfalls at famed Yosemite big wall El Capitan earlier this year.

Rock climbing has its share of inherent risks: overconfident self-assessment, inadequate preparation, uncooperative weather, and even gear failure regularly contribute to injury in the climbing community. Ability to mitigate those risks is key to safe climbing, but unfortunately for the outdoor climber, rockfall is one of the less predictable and therefore less manageable risks.

Yosemite park geologist Greg Stock documents a rockfall a week on average, although on the bright side, he also reports that only around fifteen people have died as a result of rockfalls in 150 years, and he and a team of scientists have been hard at work for the last decade studying Yosemite’s rockfalls in the name of harm reduction.

What safety measures can be taken?

Short of staying home, there are no tried-and-true methods that will guarantee a climber’s safety against rockfall; the dynamic nature of the big walls and exfoliating granite sheets mean that every cliff is a hazard zone, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. Still, climbers would do well to begin by familiarizing themselves with these tips from the Friends of Yosemite Search and Rescue, generated from detailed analysis of over twenty years of climbing injuries and fatalities. Weather reports might not be able to predict the kind of spontaneous thunderstorms that may put climbers at risk of hypothermia, but recent rainfall is a known trigger for rockfall, so climbers should always check conditions before roping up.

Route closures must be respected—even if it’s “just” for endangered bird species (I guarantee you don’t want to be startled by an angry peregrine falcon during an ascent). And if rockfall has been reported recently in an area, or if the ground shows signs of recent rockfall, climbers may do very well to relocate their climbing since rockfall regions may be active for weeks or months at a time.

There are plenty of options.

The good news is that while Half Dome and El Capitan get most of the headlines, Yosemite has got plenty of options when it comes to climbing, especially if you’re willing to leave the crowds of the Valley. Try the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, a 700’ classic traditional alpine climb that soars above Tuolumne Meadows, or test your mettle against The North Face of The Rostrum in the Lower Merced River Valley—a blistering eight-pitch, 5.11c climb by the Yosemite Decimal System. If you just can’t bear to leave the beauty of the Valley, though, good routes can still be found throughout: the Royal Arches, a white granite arch that towers over the former Ahwahnee Hotel, offers both traditional and sport pitches at ratings ranging from 5.7 to 5.11c; the Washington Column just to the east serves up some beginner-friendly big wall climbing on the South Face route; and the unfortunately-named Manure Pile nevertheless features both toprope and traditional climbs, including After Six and Nutcracker, that are popular with new and old blood alike.

And if you’re more into crash-mats than finger-width cams—that is, if you’re looking for some good bouldering—Yosemite’s got you covered there, too. All that rockfall means that the valley’s littered with over seven hundred identified bouldering problems ranging from the simplest at V0 up to V11 (looking at you, Yabo Boulder). There’s a little something for everyone here, so, grab your chalk bags and get ready to climb on.