Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Death of Climber Dennis Murphy

In my last post, I wrote about the risks and rewards of solo climbing. I didn’t expect to write about rock climbing again this week, but I can’t help it.

The death of Dennis Murphy at Upper Washbowl Cliff in Keene Valley deeply affected his friends and colleagues and gives pause to all climbers to reflect on the nature of their chosen sport.

I didn’t know Dennis well, but I often chatted with him at Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid, where he had worked for the past four years. Last Friday, we talked at length about climbing gear and about soloing Chapel Pond Slab, something we both loved doing.

As always, I came away from the conversation thinking this guy is passionate—and knowledgeable—about climbing.

The details of Monday’s accident remain a bit fuzzy as I write this. State Police say Dennis and a friend had climbed Hesitation, a classic 5.8 route on Upper Washbowl, and were preparing to rappel when Dennis slipped. When descending, climbers rappel to a ledge halfway down the cliff and then rappel again to the base. What’s not clear is whether Dennis fell from the top of the cliff (more than two hundred feet) or from the ledge (more than one hundred feet).

Perhaps we’ll learn more today. In any case, the fall was great enough that Dennis probably died instantly. He was thirty-five years old.

Whenever a rock climber dies, questions arise about the safety of the sport. Some people even wonder if climbers have a death wish. It does seem like a dangerous pastime, but most climbers are cautious, and they spend a small fortune on gear meant to protect them in case of a fall.

Before this week, the most recent climbing death in the Adirondacks had occurred in 2007, when Dennis Luther fell on Poke-O-Moonshine in a rappelling accident. At the time, Don Mellor, the veteran climber from Lake Placid, pointed out that Luther’s was only the fifth rock-climbing fatality in the region. And technical climbing in the Adirondacks began way back in 1916, when John Case ascended the cliffs on Indian Head overlooking Lower Ausable Lake.

So now we have six climbing fatalities. That’s too many, but six deaths over the span of nearly a century does not suggest that rock climbing is a reckless sport. Far more people are killed in hunting accidents, snowmobile accidents, and ATV accidents.

Did Dennis Murphy make a mistake on Upper Washbowl? Or was he just unlucky?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. His friends will miss him just the same.

Photo by Phil Brown: Upper Washbowl Cliff.

Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine.

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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




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