FALLING ROCK - PULLED FLAKE OFF, FALL ON ROCK, OFF-ROUTE, HASTE
California, Yosemite Valley, Half Dome
Early in the morning of September 19, Markus Praxmarer (48) and Thomas Wanner (30) began a one-day ascent of the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome (23 pitches, VI 5.9 C1). A New Zealand party preceded them and two other groups, Canadian and Swiss, followed. Praxmarer led the first block of pitches with Wanner planning to take over the lead at pitch 10.
As he started leading pitch 7, Praxmarer traversed right and began climbing through an area of large flakes. He was 30 feet up and right from the belay, with the rope clipped through three pieces of protection, when Wanner saw a “body-sized” flake come loose as Praxmarer was climbing over it and pulling on it. Wanner felt a quick tug on the rope but nothing more, and he was surprised when Praxmarer continued to fall past him, 700 feet to ground.
The parties below saw Praxmarer and several rocks fall past them. One of the Swiss called the NPS while a physician in their group rappelled and confirmed that Praxmarer had died instantly of massive trauma. The New Zealand party also witnessed the fall from their position just above Praxmarer on the same pitch. They descended to Wanner and rappelled with him to the ground.
Apparently Praxmarer and the flake fell together and when the lead rope came tight, the flake was right above it. The flake’s momentum severed the rope just in front of Praxmarer’s harness. When Wanner looked at the topo after the accident, he saw that the usual pitch went up and left, so he realized that Praxmarer was probably off-route. They were close behind the New Zealanders, and when they went to the right the Austrians assumed they were on route and followed without checking the topo. The New Zealanders reported the climbing in that area to be harder than they had expected from the topo, and based on one of Wanner’s photographs, Praxmarer may have been aiding, perhaps putting more force on the flake than he intended. It’s also likely that more loose rock exists off the normal route than on it. Praxmarer and Wanner had climbed other Yosemite routes, including The Nose on El Capitan, and they guided professionally in Europe, so there’s little doubt that Praxmarer understood the danger and unpredictability of loose rock. (Source: Ed Visnovske and John Dill, NPS Rangers)