A federal judge threw out a $10-million wrongful-death lawsuit brought by the family of a young rock climber killed in a 1999 slide in Yosemite Valley, short-circuiting a legal battle that some climbers feared could threaten a mecca of the sport.
In a largely technical decision, the U.S. District Court judge in Fresno ruled last week that Yosemite National Park officials were acting within their discretionary duties when they didn't post warnings at the base of Glacier Point, site of the rockfall that killed 21-year-old Peter Terbush.
Terbush, a college student from Colorado on his first trip to Yosemite Valley, was on the ground anchoring a climbing partner's belay rope when a huge granite slab broke loose 1,300 feet up and cartwheeled to earth.
As boulders exploded around him, Terbush held tight to the rope, helping save the life of his friend dangling 60 feet up the cliff face. But a fragment struck Terbush in the head, killing him instantly.
Park officials declared Terbush a hero after the tragedy, citing his refusal to flee in the face of danger. His family launched a legal fight after learning of a geologist's theory that a leaking bathroom water system atop Glacier Point artificially lubricated the cliff face, unleashing a flurry of rock slides in the months before the tragedy.
They argued that the park negligently created the rockfall danger, then failed to warn visitors like Terbush.
Park officials argued that rockfalls are an unpredictable part of the natural environment in Yosemite Valley, which was created over eons by glaciers and frequent rockfalls. Litigating the tragedy, they said, was like suing Mother Nature.
"We are to this day saddened by this young man's death," said Kristi Kapetan, the assistant U.S. attorney who defended the park. "We just don't feel it's our fault."
Dugan Barr, attorney for the Terbush family, said he was disappointed but expected to appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"The thing that's galling about this is it's really clear the park knew about the danger," Barr said, noting that park officials briefly closed off the same area after a slide just weeks before Terbush was killed.
In her 55-page opinion dismissing the case, Magistrate Judge Sandra M. Snyder said Barr failed to provide convincing evidence that park managers sidestepped their discretionary decision-making duties by not posting warnings that might have prevented Terbush's death.
Snyder noted that decisions by park managers involve balancing the safety of visitors with access to scenic wonders that can pose an inherent danger.
In court documents, friends of Terbush said they never would have ventured to Glacier Point had they known of its reputation for rock slides. Since 1860, 44% of the rockfall injuries in Yosemite Valley have occurred at the scenic cliff looming above Curry Village.
Soon after Terbush's death, his parents learned of a geologist's controversial theory about the rockfall danger at Glacier Point.
Skip Watts, a Radford University professor, went to Yosemite in 1997 to investigate the aftermath of a huge rock slide a year earlier that had killed a man on the ground and injured 14 other people.
Preparing to rappel off the cliff face, Watts was surprised by the smell of sewage wafting from leaking pipes at the old bathrooms atop Glacier Point. He theorized that the effluent helped trigger the 1996 rockfall.
His curiosity grew as rockfalls occurred in November 1998 and May 1999. Then, on June 13, 1999, the slide that killed Terbush occurred in the same area.
Watts believed the culprit was water overflowing from a 300,000-gallon storage tank atop Glacier Point. That water, he concluded, pooled in fractures and put pressure on the rock, acting like a lever that could trigger a slide.
The geologist obtained Park Service records that he contends correlate water overflows in 1998, 1999 and 2000 with subsequent rockfalls. When the tank wasn't overflowing, Watts said, the slopes were relatively quiet.
Federal officials say they fixed the problem. They have attacked Watts' credentials and findings, saying the science simply doesn't exist to prove or disprove his theory, let alone accurately predict rockfalls.