Falling Rock, Haul Bags, and Climbers, California, Yosemite Valley

Publication Year: 1989.


California, Yosemite Valley

On June 16, 1988, a climber, Craig Herzog, called dispatch from Curry Security Office and reported that two haul bags followed by an object that “looked kind of like a body” came down off El Capitan. He and his friends were climbing Moby Dick when the accident occurred around 1215. Ranger Bryant drove over to the security office and brought Herzog to the rescue cache where he was debriefed.

Herzog drove to El Capitan with Rangers Howard and Jackson with size up gear. Climbers on the Nose were hailed and all parties were OK. At 1315 I drove Rangers Dalton, Gabler, Korthius and Savage to El Capitan. They searched for and found the haul bags at the base. Photographs were taken of the scene by Dalton. It appeared that there was a hauling accident because the ropes were damaged and there was valuable equipment inside the bags which a prudent person would not jettison from the top. No bodies were found, however.

Meanwhile Howard, Jackson and I scanned the southwest face for climbers high on the mountain but couldn’t locate anyone. Jackson discovered a purple pile jacket stuck on a rock below The Heart. This was most likely the item that followed the haul bags in the initial report. It was described as an object which looked like a person “kind of floating down” after the haul bags. The search was called off after this item was found at 1430.

I interviewed Tori Wiley who was at the base of El Capitan below The Heart while two of her friends climbed Moby Dick. She described the haul bags coming down “like the sound of a jet plane getting louder and louder.” She saw two black haul bags attached to each other with turquoise rope or handles. They were about 30 meters from the face as they came down. She was struck by a very small rock on the left center of her back. A small abrasion was visible.

Around 1600 the haul bags and ropes recovered by the foot search team were inspected at the SAR Cache. It looked like a hauling accident. It appeared that the climbers made it off the face and should be down in the valley later that day. That evening the climbers checked in with dispatch and a meeting was set up for the following day at the SAR Cache. (Source: David Panebaker, Ranger, Yosemite National Park)


For a month, Paul Piana (33), Todd Skinner (29), Bill Hatcher and John Christie had been working on the first free ascent of the Salathe Wall of El Cap. Some sections are rated 5.12 to 5.13a. After three weeks, Hatcher and Christie discontinued the attempt. On the evening of June 15, Piana and Skinner completed the route, topping out at dusk. Because of the late hour and limited light, they rappelled to their last bivouac to spend the night.

The following morning, Piana returned to the summit and tied into a large block (one meter square at the top, about two meters at the bottom, and about two meters high). For his anchor, Piana tied an 11 mm Stratos climbing rope in a bowline around the block about waist high. Higher up the block he placed a sling and a pulley to be used for hauling of their two haul bags. A 9 mm rope ran from the two haul bags up through the pulley. The haul rope then went to Piana, who was using a set of jumars and etriers to grip the rope.

As Piana hauled the two haul bags up the final pitch, Skinner was jummaring up the route on an 11 mm fixed line, cleaning the route and hauling up other ropes. Skinner’s rope ran across the ledge in front of the block and was anchored to two pins to the west of the block.

When the haul bags were about ten meters below the lip, Piana decided to clip himself into some pins, located to the west of the block. Skinner had reached the ledge by this time and was still clipped to the jumar lines. He started hauling up the remaining ropes that were over the edge, flaking them in a pile in front of the anchor block. Piana continued to haul up the bags. When they reached the lip of the ledge, they became stuck. Skinner reached down and began to pull the bags up over the 90 degree ledge while Piana hauled on the line. They then heard a grinding noise coming from the block. Piana turned to see the block sliding toward the edge. He and Skinner were directly in its path, and before they could move, “the block ran him over” and knocked them both off the ledge. The block went over them as they fell a little over one meter down the face.

Piana’s main anchor, the 11 mm stratos tied around the block, was severed and ground up under the block as the block slid along the ledge. The backup line, clipped into the pins, caught his fall. The block also slid across Skinner’s jumar line. Skinner’s jumar may have protected the rope from being cut. The ascender was “ground up pretty bad” by the rock; however, the rope was not damaged.

Piana’s right leg and foot had been crushed by the block. This resulted in several fractures of the right ankle and soft tissue damage to his right leg and foot. Skinner received several broken ribs when he was struck by the block. After hanging there about 30 minutes, Piana and Skinner climbed back up on the ledge using the lines that had caught their fall.

All the other ropes that were hanging over the ledge besides the section they were on had been cut in several places. Of the two 11 mm ropes that they were using prior to the accident, one was cut in about five places, the other in ten places. They sat a while before descending the East Ledges descent route to the Valley floor. (Source: Peter Dalton and John Dill, Rangers, Yosemite National Park)

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