Rescues happen on or near Half Dome every year. Some are quite dramatic, like when fellow climbers rescued Harding and Rowell from the South Face. National Park Service rangers regularly rescue climbers from Yosemite’s walls, often using a helicopter. However, these high-adrenaline rescues are not the norm. Most rescues simply involve Search & Rescue personnel hiking to the patient (who is more often a hiker than a climber) and helping the injured party back to medical care in the Valley.
Deaths are rare on Half Dome considering the volume of people who hike and climb their way up the monolith. That said, there would be far fewer deaths if people heeded nature’s signs, practiced situational awareness, and listened to their bodies. From 1930 to 2018, here are the fatalities:
Rock Climbing: 8
Fall from the Cables Route: 7
Fall not on the Cables Route: 3
Lightning Strike: 3
Other or Unknown: 3
B.A.S.E. Jumping: 2
The deaths cataloged here occurred on or near Half Dome. Excluded are deaths that happened on the Mist Trail. Of the thirty-two deaths listed, twenty-eight were males and only four were females. Two of the deceased were in their teens, sixteen were in their twenties, six were in their thirties, five were in their forties, one was in his fifties, and one was in his eighties. The average age is thirty-three, though excluding the eighty-six year-old outlier brings the average age down to thirty-one.
The most likely demographic to die on Half Dome are people in their twenties. Males are far more likely to die than females. Males rock climbing, especially unroped, have the highest odds of dying.
Concerning the danger of the Cables Route, which is by far the most popular way up the Dome, only two deaths have occurred since the Half Dome Permit System went live in 2010. Of the deaths that were a result of a fall from the cables, five occurred during bad weather or when the rock was wet, one was during high crowding before the permit system was implemented, and one was likely health-related. They are not listed here, but several people have survived falling from the cables. They owe their survival to luck, like pants catching on a rock protrusion.
What conclusions can we draw from these fatal numbers? Don’t go up the mountain during or immediately after a storm. Don’t go up the mountain if you are in poor health. Good preparation is essential for success in the mountains. Preparation includes checking the weather, being physically fit, and having the appropriate gear.
Concerning suicide, and regardless of what one believes about suicide, committing this act in a remote and dangerous location like Half Dome puts the lives of rescuers at unnecessary risk. Rescuers must rappel into hazardous situations. Helicopters, which are prone to crashing, must place rescuers in these dangerous areas. Additionally, bystanders, including rock climbers who are on nearly every Yosemite wall every day of the climbing season, must bear witness to the act and live with the memory for the rest of their lives.
Here are the reports of the thirty-two known fatalities to have occurred on or near Half Dome.
May 2018 | Asish Penugonda, 29
Penugonda and a friend were on the Cables Route during a thunderstorm. Penugonda slipped on the wet granite and fell to his death.
November 2015 | Angela Uys, 26
Uys and two partners set out to climb a popular route on the Southwest Shoulder of Half Dome called Snake Dike, near Salathé and Nelson’s 1946 route. They had a late start and were moving slowly because of a party above them. The team decided to retreat by rappelling the route. In the process of preparing to descend, Uys became untethered from both the rope and the anchor. She fell to her death. All deaths in the mountains are sad, but this one is especially so because better knowledge of the equipment could have prevented her death.
September 2011 | Markus Praxmarer, 48
Praxmarer and his partner, Thomas Wanner, were climbing the Northwest Face. They were experienced climbers who had done El Capitan, and they worked as mountain guides in Europe. It was a busy day on the route. There was one party ahead of them and two parties below them. At pitch 7, Praxmarer led the way. The route he chose went through a series of large, loose flakes, a common sight on this exfoliating side of Half Dome. Praxmarer pulled himself onto one of these rock flakes, and it then came loose. The climber fell with the rock. When his rope stretched tight, the rock completely severed the rope. Praxmarer fell 700 feet to the ground. It was a tragic accident, but this is a reminder to climbers that loose rock can never be trusted.
July 2011 | Hayley LaFlamme, 26
The granite of the Cables Route was still wet from a thunderstorm that had rolled through the area earlier in the day. A ranger was stationed at the base of the cables and warned all of the hikers of the dangerous conditions above. Some heeded the warnings, and others continued. LaFlamme and three others in her party reached the summit and then started their descent down the still wet cables. She was about halfway down the route when she lost her footing and fell 600 feet to her death.
August 2011 | Ryan Leeder, 23
Leeder reached the summit via the cables late in the afternoon. Two thousand feet below the Visor that hangs over the Northwest Face and at the base of the wall, a group of climbers were slowly moving up the face. At about 6:30 PM, they heard Leeder fall and hit the ground. The cause of his fall is unknown.
June 2009 | Manoj Kumar, 40
A “perfect storm” of conditions moved over Half Dome the day that Kumar made his ascent. It was a Saturday, the busiest day to go up the route, and people crowded onto the Dome. A storm moved in, bringing hail, rain, and disorienting fog. On the cables, people panicked. Many stopped in their tracks, clinging to the steel and refusing to move. Others, trying to get off the lightning rod, ventured outside the cables to bypass the gridlock of fear. Kumar had reached the summit and now had to descend through this mayhem. Somewhere on the route, he slipped on the wet granite and fell 200 feet to his death. A helicopter brought two Park Rangers to assess the scene. They found Kumar, deceased from severe trauma, and they found 41 other people who needed help descending the cables. Many of the hikers were poorly dressed for the mountains, wearing cotton t-shirts. The extreme cold of the storm remained. It drained them of their strength as they clutched to metal stanchions on the exposed rock. The helicopter returned with five more Park Rangers to assist in the massive rescue effort. By 8:15 PM, they had brought the last hiker safely to the base of the route.
September 2009 | Stephen Anderson, 32
He committed suicide on the summit via a self-inflicted gunshot.
July 2008 | Levi Chitwood, 27
He committed suicide by jumping from the summit.
June 2007 | Hirofumi Nohara, 37
Nohara was climbing up the cables with friends. The cables had turned into a bottleneck of people, but Nohara was laughing and carrying on a conversation with friends, enjoying the day. They were about three-quarters of the way up the route when he slipped. His foot caught on one of the metal stanchions that hold up the cables, which spun him around and sent him sliding out of control beyond the cables. He fell 300 feet to his death.
April 2007 | Jennifer Bettles, 43
Bettles fell from the cables while descending during a storm. The cables were still in their winter position, flat against the rock. Without the stanchions in place, ascents become exponentially more difficult. The Park discourages hikers from ascending the route when the cables are down, but people do it anyway.
November 2006 | Emily Sandall, 25
Sandall was also on the cables while they were down. She slipped on wet granite and slid to her death.
September 2005 | Bela Fehrer, 35
Fehrer was an experienced Yosemite climber. He had climbed hard routes on El Capitan as well as other Valley walls. While ascending the steep Death Slabs that stretch from Mirror Lake to the bottom of the Northwest Face of Half Dome, Fehrer took a fatal fall likely due to incorrect use of his climbing equipment.
June 2004 | Donald Cochrane, 48
Cochrane was descending the steps on Sub Dome (“The Devil’s Staircase”) when he complained of chest pain. He fell and tumbled down 300 feet of granite slabs.
August 2001 | Vladimir Boutkovski, 24
Rock climbers camping at the base of the Northwest Face saw Boutkovski fall through the air and hit the ground. This was likely a suicide.
July 1997 | Joachim Tolksdorff, 29
Climbers found Tolksdorff’s body at the base of Half Dome’s Northwest Face. Tolksdorff was in poor health and left a suicide note.
August 1995 | Michael Gerde, 57
Gerde was near the top of the cables when he collapsed onto the stone. Other hikers immediately performed CPR and continued until a helicopter brought Park Rangers to the scene. He was deceased when they arrived. His death may have been the result of a heart attack.
April 1989 | John Lanham, 21
Lanham fell while climbing unroped on the cliffs below Half Dome.
November 1988 | Donald Buchanan, 86
Buchanan had worked in the park for over 50 years and had a recent diagnosis of terminal cancer. He went on a solo hike near Half Dome and never returned. Searchers found his campsite, but they were never able to locate his body.
October 1988 | Mitchell Reno, 35
B.A.S.E. jumping is the sport of jumping from buildings, antennas, bridges (spans), and cliffs (earth) with a parachute. It is very dangerous because of the low heights involved, no backup parachute, and the narrow margin of error with extreme consequences if something does go wrong. Reno B.A.S.E. jumped from the summit of Half Dome. He waited too long to deploy his canopy and hit the ground.
August 1987 | Young Soon Lee, 35
Young Soo Lee, from South Korea, was climbing on the Northwest Face of Half Dome with his partner Choong Hyun Ji. Young was attached to an anchor while Choong traversed above him. Choong dislodged a rock, and it then struck Young in the head. Young later died from the brain injury.
July 1987 | Bones of Unknown Male
Rock climbers found a set of bones below the Northwest Face. The likely cause of death was a fall.
July 1985 | Brian Jordan, 16 and Robert Frith, 25
This incident is possibly the most famous accident to happen on Half Dome’s summit. Its fame is due in part to the fact that in the aftermath two people were dead and three injured. The day owes the rest of its fame to the book Shattered Air, which is a detailed account of the fateful day.
What made this incident so unique that someone wrote an entire book about the ordeal? Their story is a classic case of poor decision-making leading to disastrous consequences; in this case, a powerful lightning storm delivered the hand of fate.
Jordan and Frith reached the summit of Half Dome in the afternoon of July 27, 1985, after making the 8-mile and almost 5,000-foot hike from Yosemite Valley. They celebrated their success with beer and food, lingering on the exposed summit for too long. They were not alone in this error; several other hikers also succumbed to the Siren’s song of the summit.
An afternoon thunderstorm moved over the mountains in the distance and approached Half Dome. Despite this ominous presence looming overhead, the hikers made no haste in their descent. Perhaps they were seduced by the dopamine that flooded into their brains while approaching and then attaining the summit. Summit fever overtakes many hikers and climbers; it is a common illness. Every year people die throughout the world because they fail to heed nature’s warning signs in the mountains—either continuing to the summit when they should not or staying on the summit too long.
The storm rolled overhead. The two young companions, Jordan and Frith, found shelter under a rock overhang. Some of the other hikers also hunkered under the rock. This was the same overhang where lightning struck Edward Willems in 1972.
In wilderness medicine and survival, we are taught to never take shelter in a shallow cave, overhang, or doorway during a lightning storm. The human body is an excellent conductor. Lightning seeks the path of least resistance to the ground. A person who stands or squats underneath an overhang creates a bridge for the electricity to reach its destination, the earth.
Lightning struck the rock above the hikers. The electricity traveled through Jordan, Frith, and two others. Then another strike hit one of the other hikers.
The average lightning bolt carries over 1 billion joules of energy. That is roughly the energy a 60-watt light bulb would use running continuously for six months. Lightning can also heat the surrounding air to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit (over 27,000 degrees Celsius); that is five times hotter than the surface of the sun!
Jordan died instantly. The electrical discharge sent Frith into severe convulsions. He started to roll towards the edge of the cliff. The other hikers tried to save him, but lightning continued to strike the mountain and impeded their efforts. Frith rolled off the summit and fell nearly 2,000 feet to his death.
Before the accident, other hikers had seen the thunderheads and decided to wait out the storm far below the summit. As this story demonstrates, others pushed forward despite the signs and then dawdled when haste was due. Sadly, this was not the first instance, nor last, of hikers venturing onto the summit when the weather was dangerous. These ill-fated hikers walked right past a sign warning of the risk of lightning on the mountain.
The lesson cannot be stressed enough: the mountains do not care. The summit of Half Dome is incredibly exposed to the weather and has no safe shelters. The steel cables are a giant lightning rod. The granite under the cables is slippery when dry and deadly when wet.
The best mountain climber is the one who returns home alive, not the one who dies reaching the summit.
August 1982 | James Tyler, 35
Tyler was an experienced parachuter who had taken up the hazardous activity of B.A.S.E. jumping. After leaping from the summit, he deployed his parachute. His parachute opened in the wrong direction and sent him into the wall. The canopy collapsed upon his impact with the wall. Without the loft of the open canopy, he fell to the rocks below.
January 1978 | Kendall West, 20
West and friends were climbing a mixed rock and snow route on the West Shoulder of Half Dome. They succeeded in reaching the top of the route, but getting down proved more difficult. They chose an unfamiliar and challenging descent. After a series of rappels, their rope became stuck. West decided to climb unroped to a nearby ledge to find a better way down. While doing this, he took a 1,000-foot fatal fall. His 13-year-old partner spent the night on a small ledge, and a helicopter rescued him in the morning.
August 1972 | Edward Willems, 19
As is often the case, a storm moved over Half Dome and brought lightning with it. Willems attempted to hide from the lightning under an overhanging rock, but he was struck and killed.
March 1968 | Larry Greene, 29 and Edwin Hermans, Jr., 24
Greene and Hermans were climbing on Half Dome when the avalanche danger was high. They either fell on the snow or got caught in an avalanche. Rescuers found the men’s bodies near the bottom of an avalanche gully.
August 1956 | James Stergar, 30
Stergar left a suicide note in his car, hiked to the summit, and leaped to his death.
September 1948 | Paul Garinger, 41
Garinger was descending the cables when he stopped. Witnesses said he looked sick. Moments later he fell to his death, possibly after fainting. Garinger was the first person to die on the Cables Route. Even though the exact circumstances leading to his death are unknown, it is vital to remember that hydration and avoiding overexertion are incredibly important when at high altitudes.
June 1948 | Chalmers Groff, 19
Groff and a friend were on their weekend break from working for the National Park Service. They were climbing down the Death Slabs below Half Dome when Groff slipped on a mossy rock. He fell 70 feet, almost taking his friend with him. He died instantly.
April 1933 | Godfrey Wondrosek, 26
Wondrosek set off to climb to the summit of Half Dome. He never returned and was never found.
September 1930 | Vincent Herkomer, 23
Herkomer was a chemistry student at Berkeley. He hiked to the base of the dome and swallowed poison. Park scientists found his bones were found four years later.
The Challenge of the Mountain
For every accident that occurs on Half Dome, there are tens of thousands of successful and happy endings. Most hikers and climbers complete their ascents and leave Yosemite with fond memories of the challenges they faced and overcame in the mountains. The story of Half Dome is far richer than any book can tell, for Half Dome’s story is in the hearts and minds of those who have found inspiration in this icon of nature. With the history behind us, all that remains is the status of Half Dome today.