Another Peril for Climbers

Times Staff Writer

The rumble began high on the sheer cliff wall, like faraway thunder before a storm.

A slab of granite as big as a railroad boxcar had let loose 1,300 feet up Glacier Point’s age-worn face. The million-pound rock cartwheeled and shattered, tracing a plume of dust downward toward Peter Terbush.

In his last earthbound moments, Terbush turned to a long-ago climbing lesson taught by his dad. As a little boy first astride a mountain, he learned to always protect a partner at the end of the rope. Never let go.

The broad-shouldered 21-year-old held fast to the nylon lifeline lashed to a friend 60 feet up. Another buddy on the ground scrambled for cover as the boulders hit earth, exploding like bombs.

Fate let his two friends escape with lacerations. They found Terbush’s body crumpled in a ball, his hands still gripping the rope.


Six years after the rock slide, his parents suspect that mankind’s handprint atop Glacier Point -- most notably a bathroom water system prone to overflow -- lubricated the cliff face, provoking a flurry of rock falls, including the June 1999 tragedy that claimed Terbush.

His parents have poured their grief and suspicions and search for answers into a $10-million wrongful death lawsuit against the National Park Service. “My son understood the risks of climbing,” said Jim Terbush, himself a climber. “But he didn’t know the conditions on Glacier Point had been fundamentally changed.”

The legal battle, set for a first hearing Tuesday, has sent reverberations around Yosemite and the climbing community beyond.

Park officials have a ready argument -- and an admonition: No one can know when a rock fall is going to happen. And a ruling against the park, they warn, could all but kill climbing in the Yosemite Valley.

Climbers contend their sport is the ultimate test of personal responsibility. The lawsuit goes beyond geology and public policy. To climbers, it challenges a basic tenet.

“We’re at risk every time we go up,” Sean Kovatch, 20, said recently during his first Yosemite climbing trip. “And sometimes people don’t come off the mountain.”

Skinny but Strong

Peter Terbush seemed destined to stand beside a cliff face.

Born into the third generation of a Colorado climbing family, he nearly didn’t make it into diapers. Arriving unexpectedly 14 weeks premature on a snowy night at home in Castle Rock, Terbush survived a harrowing drive to the emergency room.

He was all of 1 pound, 14 ounces, and the doctor wrapped him in tin foil to keep him warm for transport to a bigger hospital. He looked, his father recalled, like a little baked potato.

Pete grew up skinny but strong, a ball of positive energy with a floppy mop of curly auburn hair topping it all.

He took up the family avocation, learning to climb with his dad at age 9. With his owlish glasses and sideways smile, he looked like a Harry Potter of the hillside. He even launched his own climbing club in elementary school, proving precociously adventurous. One after-school climb ended with his being rescued by his dad and the Castle Rock Fire Department.

Jim Terbush was a physician for the U.S. Navy and at American embassies from London to Singapore. As the family journeyed to the corners of the world, Peter Terbush was always in the mountains. He climbed in the Himalayas, the Dolomites, the French Alps.

Back in the United States, Terbush attended Western State College in Gunnison, Colo., where he majored in geology and built an inseparable cadre of friends who thought nothing of driving 10 hours to Zion National Park for a weekend of climbing, returning exhausted just in time for Monday classes. In winter they’d go skiing, Pete dressed in old leather boots and wool knickers, using old-school poles and singing the whole time.

“He would bounce when he walked,” remembered Laura Chase, a close friend. “His hair would bounce. All this electricity would bounce through his hair.”

By 21, he had lost that little boy look. He grew a beard and developed the lean muscularity intrinsic to climbing, sometimes grabbing the narrow crest of a doorframe and practicing pull-ups, more to strengthen fingertips than to build biceps.

He taught climbing classes, earning a reputation for skill and safety. “Good skills!” he’d yell to climbers displaying a nice bit of technique. He talked endlessly of becoming a climbing guide. But he knew something was missing -- a trip to Yosemite, one of the climbing world’s crucibles.

A Late Climb

His last few days of life were spent mostly on flat terra firma.

He and a few college buddies tried scaling El Capitan, but an equipment failure prompted a retreat. Instead, Terbush and Joe Kewin hiked in the ethereal beauty of the Yosemite high country. They basked in meadows hugged by salt-and-pepper granite hills, took in the saw-tooth fusion of rock and sky.

Back in the valley, a night before they were to leave, Terbush joined Kewin and Kerry Pyle for dinner at a Curry Village pizza joint. Some daylight was left, so they decided to climb a lower section of Apron Jam, a route below Glacier Point. They played rock-paper-scissors to decide who went first. Pyle won. The rock face was still warm from the day’s sun.

Suddenly they were on the edge of nature’s artillery range, boulders cascading like howitzer shells. Pyle tried to lash himself to a couple of bolts in the rock but got hit by shattered fragments and decided to just hang on. Terbush locked in the belay rope.

In nearby Curry Village, visitors screamed and ran as a dust cloud rose over the valley’s southeast edge. Rock shrapnel punched holes through tent-cabins. Powdery residue settled like snow.

When the cliff finally stopped falling, Pyle still clung to the face. He heard Kewin shouting below.

Pete’s dead! Pete’s dead!

The rock that struck him in the head was the size of a basketball, Jim Terbush said. His son died instantly, mercifully.

Kewin, who had scampered to a safe spot hugging the cliff side, pried the rope from his friend’s rigid hands to lower the dazed Pyle to the ground.

Park officials declared Peter Terbush a hero, citing how he had hung on to his friend in a selfless act of bravery.

He was cremated with a climbing sling over his shoulder, bandoleer style, and his climbing boots. At the behest of Jim Terbush, his ashes were spread by a captain in the Argentine Army’s climbing corps at more than 22,000 feet on Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas.

Not long after his son’s death, Jim Terbush heard about geologist Skip Watts and his provocative theory about Glacier Point.

Watts, a Radford University professor, had come to Yosemite in 1997 to help a graduate student investigate the aftermath of a huge rock slide a year earlier that had killed one man on the ground and injured 14 others. That slide occurred at Happy Isles, around a bend from the rock fall that killed Terbush.

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 errant effluent helped trigger the 1996 rock fall.

His curiosity grew as rock falls occurred in November 1998 and May 1999. Then on June 13, 1999, the slide that killed Terbush let loose in the same area.

Studying a photograph, Watts traced the fractures on Glacier Point’s rock face. Arching upward, the cracks continued to the bluff top, where Watts discovered what he considers the culprit: Water overflowing from a 300,000-gallon storage tank.

That leaking water, he concluded, pooled in fractures and put pressure on the rock, acting like a lever to start a slide.

The geologist eventually obtained Park Service records he contends correlate water overflows in 1998, 1999 and 2000 with subsequent rock falls. When the tank wasn’t overflowing, Watts said, the slopes were relatively quiet.

“The situation at Glacier Point is very unnatural,” said Watts, who believes the Park Service should reconsider the danger to crowded Curry Village, in the shadow of Glacier Point. By the time Terbush was killed, “it would have been reasonable to have warning signs.”

Jim Terbush, already pursuing an exhaustive records request of any Parks Service information dealing with Glacier Point, embraced the theory.

He moved toward a lawsuit, the father said, after the agency redacted a dozen key documents he hoped would answer questions about what happened. Lawyers told him the only way to see the contents was to file a claim. The legal battle began in June 2001.

“My No. 1 reason is to find the truth,” Jim Terbush said. “What caused the death of my son?”

‘Out in Left Field’

Yosemite Valley exists because of glaciers and geology and the endless process of rock sloughing off the sides of vertical granite walls. Park administrators consistently wrangle over posting warning placards, which can do more to mar the scenery than prevent casualties.

It is not a simple debate.

So when Watts laid out his theory about the Glacier Point slides, Yosemite officials took swift offense. A park spokesman said in November 1999 that other geologists believed Watts was “out in left field on this.”

Federal officials have attacked Watts’ credentials, contending that the Virginia-based geologist simply doesn’t understand fluid dynamics and the vagaries of Western granite.

Gerry Wieczorek of the U.S. Geological Survey, a onetime collaborator of Watts now on the opposite side of the Terbush case, is more polite.

He simply doesn’t believe Watts’ theory can be proved or disproved without far more sophisticated experimentation (a fact Watts finds ironic, given that he’s failed to receive permission for further tests).

Wieczorek has documented more than 500 slides in the park since 1850, and the common demonstrable factors are the effect of the freeze-thaw cycle, heavy rainfall and earthquakes. Although water can trigger slides, he said, natural drainage into the soil from abundant snowfall dwarfs any overflowing bathroom water.

In its first century as a national park, Yosemite has seen 15 people killed by rock falls. Given the more than 3 million visitors each year to the valley, the park has a good safety record, said Kristi Kapetan, the assistant U.S. attorney defending the park in the Terbush suit.

If the Terbush family prevails, it could prompt park officials to prohibit rock climbing and other dangerous sports, she said.

“I feel bad for the parents,” Kapetan said. “But this would be like blaming Mother Nature. Like suing for an earthquake. We didn’t do anything to cause a spontaneous rock fall.”

‘Inherently Dangerous’

Many of Yosemite’s climbing regulars, often at odds with rangers, find common ground with park officials this time.

Injury and death in climbing rarely prompt lawsuits. What happens on the big wall stays on the big wall. Terbush assumed the risk, they say, simply by strapping on his belay harness and grabbing that rope.

Over at Camp 4, the simple collection of fire rings and picnic tables that serves as the crossroads of the valley’s climbing community, a few climbers recently shared such sentiments.

Like Terbush, they are young and exude endless energy. Lean as greyhounds, they look as if they could conquer anything.

“Everyone knows the sport is just inherently dangerous,” said Miles Stewart, 25, of Reno as he prepared a string of nuts and cams for an afternoon climb.

“Americans are sue-happy,” added his buddy, Laine Christmen, 24. “If it’s equipment failure, manufacturing negligence, then fine. But not a rock fall. It’s part of the sport. Wind and water take their toll.”

Diego Avelar, visiting Yosemite from Jalisco, Mexico, said climbers rejoice in the sense of freedom on the rock, the power to make what they want of life.

“If they decide to take that risk, it should be without looking back,” said Avelar, 21. “A climber’s father should know that.”

“It’s a shame for the kid who died, " added his friend, 22-year-old Roberto Larios. “But it’s wrong to find someone to blame. Otherwise you’re suing nature.”

Jim Terbush has heard such comments, has seen them on climber’s websites. He winces a bit but offers a counterpoint.

He considers Yosemite a temple. He’s not out to kill climbing in the valley. He doesn’t want money. He simply wants to make climbing safer.

The family has tried to do that in many ways, including sponsoring a climbing seminar in Gunnison for prospective mountain guides that teaches the principles of leadership and service in a dangerous sport.

Given previous rock slides below Glacier Point, Jim Terbush questions, why not post a flier on Camp 4 so newcomers knew? Geologists can rate the stability of cliffs above roads. Why not climbing routes in Yosemite?

He and his wife may not win in court, Jim Terbush realizes. In fact, the legal odds seem stacked against them. But it will close a chapter in their lives.

“There was still this outstanding question,” Jim Terbush said. “I felt if I didn’t chase it to the ground, for the rest of my life I’d be wondering.”

Because their son will forever be up there on the mountain. And they’ll never let go.


Times staff writer Scott Doggett contributed to this report.