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Five Rockfalls that Changed or Destroyed Climbing Routes

These are among countless geologic events that have changed famous climbs over the past few decades

A lot of big famous rock climbs follow cracked and detached features that eventually give in to gravity and fall off the wall. The reasons for rockfall are many, and include freeze-thaw cycles, extreme heat and heavy rainfall.

In Canada this year, notable rockfalls have taken place in Squamish and the Bow Valley. The most recent Squamish rockfall occurred in the North Walls and was caught on camera, which you can watch below. Here are five famous rockfalls that changed or destroyed popular rock climbing routes.

The Chief: Squamish is arguably the capital of Canadian climbing, so it’s a big deal when there’s rockfall. In 2021, four major rockfalls have taken place on or around The Chief. In June, there was a rockfall on the Grand Wall, in early July there was one on Photophobia Buttress, and later in July there was a massive one far right of the Grand Wall. But the biggest and likely most destructive to established routes was the most recent, which took place in the North Walls. It’s resulted in the closure of many classic routes, including Angel’s Crest.

Half Dome: Less than a few months after a large rockfall in Squamish in 2015, the Northwest Face of Half Dome 5.12 or 5.9 C1, which was first climbed in 1957 by Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas, was forever changed by one. Fifty-eight years after the first ascent, in early July 2015, a sheet of rock 70 metres tall and 40 metres wide fell off the Northwest Face removing more than two pitches of the Regular Route. The missing pitches can still be climbed via a pendulum. Watch a rockfall from 2011 off Half Dome.

El Capitan: In 2017, a rock “the size of an apartment building” fell off the famous face of El Capitan in Yosemite. At least 30 climbers were on the wall at the time. Ranger Scott Gediman said after the rockfall, “It’s the heart of climbing season. It was witnessed by a lot of people.” The rock that fell is estimated to be 40 metres tall, 20 metres wide and three metres thick, and fell from 250 metres above the base of El Capitan. Two people were found, resulting in one fatality and a serious injury. The victims, a couple visiting the park from Great Britain, were in the park to rock climb but were not climbing at the time of the initial rockfall.

Sister Superior: In 2020, the first pitch of the classic JahMan in Castle Valley collapsed. The classic five-pitch 5.10c route was a favourite for visitors to Moab looking for a remote objective. Farland Fish said, “The whole first pitch and base of the route fell off last week (early Jan 2020. It left a huge debris scar down the cone and made an incredible boom that could be heard for miles. Interesting to see if an alternate first pitch is possible.” JahMan is found on Sister Superior, which is situated near other famous towers, such as Castleton Tower, the Rectory, the Nuns and the Priest. New pitches were later established.

Petit Dru: In 1955, the Italian climber Walter Bonatti made the first ascent, solo, of the southwest pillar of the Petit Dru (the Bonatti Pillar) in Chamonix. This route was destroyed by a 2005 rockfall that wiped out the entire face. Two years later, climbing guides Martial Dumas and Jean-Yves Fredericksen became the first to climb the right side of the west face of the Petit Dru after the rockfall. They named it Voie des Papas, a route repeated recently by Will Sim and Korra Pesce.

Petit Dru rockfall