Longtime climbers of Yosemite National Park's iconic El Capitan said Thursday they've never seen a rock fall like the one "the size of an apartment building" that plunged down the vertical face of the stunning rock formation, killing a British climber and seriously injuring his British climbing partner.
"I've seen smaller avalanches and smaller falls before where you would just see a tiny dust cloud, this was covering a good portion of the rock in front of us," said John DeGrazio of YExplore Yosemite Adventures, who has led climbers scaling El Capitan for 12 years.
The victims were hiking at the bottom of El Capitan in preparation to scale it when the granite chunk fell Wednesday afternoon, said park ranger and spokesman Scott Gediman.
It was about 130 feet (40 meters) tall and 65 feet (19 meters) wide and appeared to fall from the popular "Waterfall Route" on the East Buttress of El Capitan, Gediman said. The victims were not identified because officials were notifying their relatives.
DeGrazio said he had just guided a group to the top of El Capitan the rock crashed to the ground, sending a large cloud of rock dust into the air. At least 30 climbers were on the wall of the 3,000-foot monolith with an elevation of 7,569 feet when the huge hunk of rock fell.
"It was more significant than anything I've seen before," DeGrazio said.
Climbers are aware of the risks of the sport and that granite erosion takes place on El Capitan and in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, he said. They posted pictures on social media showing billowing white dust moments after the crash.
Canadian climber Peter Zabrok described the rock that fell as "white granite the size of an apartment building," adding that it suddenly peeled off the wall with no warning.
Mountaineers from around the world travel to the park in the Sierra Nevada to scale El Capitan's sheer face. Fall is one of the peak seasons because the days are long and the weather is warm.
Ken Yager, president and founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association, the piece that broke off "cratered and sent stuff mushrooming out in all directions."
Zabrok said he saw a rescuer lowered by helicopter and "I believe he grabbed one survivor." He later saw rescuers moving someone on a litter.
"It was done at tremendous peril to the rescuers because there were three subsequent rock falls that were all nearly as big and would have killed anybody at the base," he said.
Gediman, the park spokesman, said the massive rock fall was among seven that happened in the same general area during a four-hour period on Wednesday. Rescuers found no other victims.
Officials had no immediate estimate for how much the big rock weighed but Gediman said all of the rock falls Wednesday weighed 1,300 tons (1,100 metric tons) combined.
The park records about 80 rock falls per year, though they are rarely fatal.
Santa Rosa climber Kevin Jorgeson said he and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell witnessed a massive rock fall in the same area while they prepared for a trek that made them the first people to free-climb the El Capitan's Dawn Wall in 2015.
First they heard a rumble. Then they saw a white cloud of dust.
"Yosemite is just a really active, wild place. It's always changing," Jorgeson said. "It doesn't make it any less tragic when someone gets in the way of that."