American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Falling Rock — California, Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Apron

  • Accident Reports
  • Accident Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

FALLING ROCK

California, Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Apron

After climbing in the Valley for a couple of weeks, Peter Terbush (22), Joseph Kewin (21), and Kerry Pyle (20) were nearing the end of their vacation. On June 13, in late afternoon, they decided to climb Apron Jam, a one pitch, 5.9 crack near the west end of Glacier Point Apron. Pyle led the pitch while Terbush belayed at the base and Kewin lounged beside him.

Just after 7:30 p.m., as Pyle was finishing the pitch, he heard a loud rumble above, and, within a second or two, boulders the size of Volkswagens were flying by to his right. He scrambled the last few feet to the belay (a pair of bolts), clipped in two quickdraws, and began forming a clove hitch in his rope, as a tie in. Before he could finish, rock fragments slammed into his head. He dropped the rope and simply grabbed the quickdraws and pressed himself against the wall. He grew faint and nauseous from the blows but hung on and survived. Without a helmet, he received severe scalp lacerations, but no other major injuries. As the rockfall ceased, he noticed that his lead rope was still snug, and called down to his friends. Kewin responded that he was OK but that Terbush might be dead.

When the rockfall began, Kewin scrambled several feet east to get out of the way, and, like Pyle, hugged the wall. After the noise stopped, he went back to Terbush and found him unresponsive and pulseless. Terbush had not moved from his original position; in fact, he was still holding Pyle’s rope as if on belay. Kewin removed the rope from Terbush’s hands so that Pyle could use it to rappel, then he ran down to the parking lot for help. One ranger arrived a few minutes later and confirmed that Terbush had received fatal head injuries.

The NPS delayed bringing Terbush out until it could assess the risk of more rockfall. On the 14th, NPS and USGS specialists examined the release point by helicopter and telescope; despite a couple of very small rockfalls that day, they permitted a ground team to make the recovery on the 15th.

Analysis

The rockfall that killed Terbush—estimated at 525 tons—originated 1200 feet up the Apron, just above the Oasis, and fell directly down the Harding route. Terbush, Kewin, and Pyle were 300–500 feet left of the main fall, yet unfortunately within range of the shrapnel. The same release point has been active since at least November 1998, when an even bigger fall occurred that sent small rocks as far as the tents at Camp Curry. (For a detailed geological report on this series of rockfalls, go to http://landslides.usgs.gov/html_files/landslides/ newsinfo.shtml)

Large rockfalls occur in the valley almost every year. However, with granite walls so steep and fractured, it’s surprising that there aren’t more. In fact, almost all rockfall related climbing injuries and deaths are from single rocks pulled off by the victims or other climbers nearby, rather than from spontaneous releases.

Peter Terbush was not anchored, so he may have had a brief opportunity to unclip the ATC from his harness and run for cover. We’ll never know his thoughts or intentions, but he did know that his partner was still on belay. Whether deliberate or instinctive, he stayed put, maintaining that belay at the expense of his own safety. It’s fitting that his friends have nominated him for the Carnegie Medal for Heroism. (Source: John Dill, NPS Ranger, Yosemite National Park)

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