Three employees of Yosemite National Park were recognized last week for being helicoptered in to a fresh rockfall zone below the vertical cliffs of El Capitan in September to rescue an injured woman and to retrieve the body of a man who was killed.

Park Rangers Jesse McGahey and Philip N. Johnson, and Firefighter/Paramedic Nick Bliss received the Valor Award of the Department of the Interior on July 4 in Washington, D.C. The award is to acknowledge heroic actions, courage, and professionalism they showed in the line of duty.

Staff with Yosemite National Park public affairs said McGahey, Johnson and Bliss were among the responders to a catastrophic rockfall originating from the southeast face of El Capitan on Sept. 27, 2017.

Park geologists said the rockfall happened at 1:52 p.m. when 860 tons of rock came off the cliff near Horsetail Fall. Two rock climbers were walking along the base of the cliff directly below. One was seriously injured and the other was killed.

McGahey was flown by helicopter short-haul into the rockfall zone, and he was the first ranger and park medic on scene. The Department of Interior Helicopter Short-Haul Handbook defines short-hauling as transporting “one or more persons suspended beneath a helicopter” as “human external cargo.”

The injured climber had life-threatening injuries and McGahey worked to stabilize and prepare her for transport, Yosemite National Park public affairs staff said.

At the same time, Johnson and Bliss were helicopter short-hauled in to assess and treat the other climber. They were able to extract and remove his body before more rockfall came down. An additional 440 tons of rock came off El Capitan and pummeled the base of the cliff over the next few hours.

The climbers were later identified as Lucy Foster and Andrew Foster of Cheltenham, England.

An even bigger rockfall came off El Capitan in the same area the next day. At 3:21 p.m. Sept. 28, an estimated 27,875 tons of rock fell, buried trees at the base of the cliff, and created a huge dust cloud that fanned out across Yosemite Valley.

A small rock fragment hit a vehicle in motion on Northside Drive, puncturing the sunroof and injuring the driver. Northside Drive was closed for 24 hours as geologists assessed potential for more rockfall. Several smaller rockfalls occurred in the same area in October and November.

Rockfalls from El Capitan’s 3,000-foot tall cliffs and from other formations including Half Dome are common and routine in geologic time. The bases of all the cliffs in Yosemite Valley are littered with sloping piles of broken rock called scree, which fell from the rock formations towering above.

“Park rangers and firefighters perform courageous acts that often save the lives of park visitors,” Yosemite’s Chief Ranger Kevin Killian said in a statement. “The critical actions, performed professionally under unpredictable and dangerous conditions by Jesse, Philip, and Nick on Sept. 27 were instrumental in saving a life. We are extremely proud to have these three distinguished individuals as part of the Yosemite National Park staff.”

McGahey, Johnson and Bliss received their awards last week from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at the 73rd Honor Award Convocation Ceremony in D.C.

Contact Guy McCarthy at or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.