This Iconic Yosemite National Park Climb Is One Of The Most Dangerous In America

"I remember hearing a yell or a scream of some sort, and then I heard something start to fall and my first thought was that it was a haul bag," one climber recalled in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2018. It wasn't. It was two experienced climbers, whose attempt to reach the summit of the iconic El Capitan in Yosemite National Park ended in a horrific tragedy.


When you think of Yosemite National Park, one of the first images that springs to mind is probably the towering granite cliff: El Capitan. This rock formation rises up into the sky in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. Many would love to see it for themselves, but few would attempt to scale up its vertical side — a daring proposition that takes most trained professionals between four and six days to accomplish. In 2024, El Capitan became even more famous after climber Alex Honnold was documented climbing the cliff without the assistance of safety ropes. Almost nobody climbs this way, but even with safety equipment, this is a risky endeavor. 

There are many ways up, including The Nose, Zodiac, and The Free Dawn Wall, but none of them are easy. This is very much a U.S. National Park trail that should only be attempted by people with a lot of experience and training. El Capitan is a true challenge for even the most adept climbers.


The dangers at El Capitan

Like the iconic Mount Rainier, this national park hike is extremely dangerous. While many do reach the top of El Capitan, people have been injured and killed attempting it. Climbing El Capitan is brutal and a single mistake could end your life — but many who have been killed there were prepared and experienced climbers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's been estimated that rock falls happen on Yosemite's famous El Capitan around 80 times per year. Usually, these enormous boulders hurtle to the earth without harming anyone, but not always. Occasionally, climbers trying their luck on the iconic El Capitan Loop are in the path of these falling rocks, causing terrible injuries and even death, leaving survivors and witnesses with lifelong trauma.


Some routes, like the El Capitan Loop, are more dangerous than they used to be. In recent years, climbers and hikers have reported on sites like AllTrails that the route is essentially unmaintained and that rock slides have obliterated large sections making parts that used to be a trek into a dangerous scramble.

The safest way to climb El Capitan

Just because this iconic national park hike is one of the most dangerous doesn't mean that you can't mitigate some of that risk. If you're determined to try to climb El Capitan for yourself, your safest option is probably to climb up the East Buttress. While it might not have the same terrifying reputation as climbing some of the more sheer angles of El Capitan, you'll get a lot of the same views with less risks, though it's still not a route to underestimate.


Just because it's not quite as dangerous doesn't mean that you won't need climbing gear and extensive training to be ready for it. The Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau recommends a lot of training before even considering scaling this sheer rock wall, and hiring a guide from Yosemite Mountaineering School if you're going to try to ascend the very imposing El Capitan.