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Progressive failure of sheeted rock slopes: the 2009–2010 Rhombus Wall rock falls in Yosemite Valley, California, USA


G. M. Stock, National Park Service, Yosemite National Park, Resources Management and Science, 5083 Foresta Road, PO Box 700, El Portal, California 95318, USA. E-mail:


Progressive rock-fall failures in natural rock slopes are common in many environments, but often elude detailed quantitative documentation and analysis. Here we present high-resolution photography, video, and laser scanning data that document spatial and temporal patterns of a 15-month-long sequence of at least 14 rock falls from the Rhombus Wall, a sheeted granitic cliff in Yosemite Valley, California. The rock-fall sequence began on 26 August 2009 with a small failure at the tip of an overhanging rock slab. Several hours later, a series of five rock falls totaling 736 m3 progressed upward along a sheeting joint behind the overhanging slab. Over the next 3 weeks, audible cracking occurred on the Rhombus Wall, suggesting crack propagation, while visual monitoring revealed opening of a sheeting joint adjacent to the previous failure surface. On 14 September 2009 a 110 m3 slab detached along this sheeting joint. Additional rock falls between 30 August and 20 November 2010, totaling 187 m3, radiated outward from the initial failure area along cliff (sub)parallel sheeting joints. We suggest that these progressive failures might have been related to stress redistributions accompanying propagation of sheeting joints behind the cliff face. Mechanical analyses indicate that tensile stresses should occur perpendicular to the cliff face and open sheeting joints, and that sheeting joints should propagate parallel to a cliff face from areas of stress concentrations. The analyses also account for how sheeting joints can propagate to lengths many times greater than their depths behind cliff faces. We posit that as a region of failure spreads across a cliff face, stress concentrations along its margin will spread with it, promoting further crack propagation and rock falls. Published in 2012. This article is a US Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.