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 a 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.