I was deeply saddened to read that the recent rockfalls on Yosemite’s El Capitan killed climber Andrew Foster and injured his wife. There is a kindred spirit that runs through all who love Yosemite, and the loss of anyone there, even someone I didn’t know, is a loss to the greater Yosemite community.
Rockfalls like this are spectacular events, that are hard to understand unless you’ve studied or experienced one. A 65x131x4 foot section of rock falling 1800 feet and hitting the ground has an immense force that literally disintegrates much of the rock into small granules and grit only a bit larger than sand.
I was witness to the 1996 Happy Isles rockfall that had some similar effects. About twelve hours after the rockfall, I went photographing in the area impacted and then led my Ansel Adams Gallery camera walk there. The scene was literally a moonscape. Everything was covered in a fine dust of fresh granite to the point that no color was visible. It was like the change in the Wizard of Oz from color to black and white, only backwards. Rock dust was worked into every nook of bark on the trees, on every leaf, everything. I was so focused on black and white photography at that time that I didn’t even think to take a color photograph, which would have shown it in terms that are easier to understand, but I do have some of the black and white photographs I made that morning.
It’s hard to describe the texture and coarseness of the granite dust. It is like nothing anywhere else and it got into everything. Fine particles were still floating around and I remember feeling them on my teeth. They even got into the works of my lenses, and for years after I could feel them as I changed aperture on those lenses. After reading accounts of the Apollo astronauts, it’s probably the closest I’ll come to walking on the moon.
I thought black and white film would be perfect for capturing the truly monochromatic landscape, but the problem was everything was the same shade of gray, just a little lighter than a 18% gray card. Sunlit areas were brighter, but there was little shadow to create contrast. Truly a challenge situation to photograph.
While Yosemite is very safe compared to a lot of places in the world, it is still wild. We are not in control there. I’ve missed injury or death from rockfalls in Yosemite on several occasions, from having rockfalls on roads that I just passed minutes before, to “finding” a major rockfall in the Merced canyon late one night while returning home, that required screeching to a halt to avoid car sized boulders. During the Flood of 1997 I literally had to run from a rockfall on the backside of Yosemite falls. I’ll never forget the look on my friend Glenn’s face as he shouted “Run!” to me and my wife. We literally ran for our lives, and then later found the spot we were standing in covered in about a foot of small fist sized rocks. But my brush with the 1996 Happy Isles rockfall was most similar to the El Capitan event. My wife and I were planing to go to Happy Isles that evening, and would have been there at the time of the rockfall, but we were tired after a long drive that day and decided to skip it. Had we went, we would have experienced blinding dust, winds exceeding 100 miles per hour that snapped the top halves of 150 foot trees off, and knocked down others. At the time I was disappointed I didn’t get the ultimate front row seat for such an event. In hindsight, I’m glad I missed my front row ticket that night.
Don’t let events like these scare you from Yosemite and other wild places. Your drive to work is probably more dangerous. We go to Yosemite because it is wild, not because we can tame it.
Rich Seiling is a pioneer in Fine Art Printmaking, having worked on thousands of prints for leading photographers.