Thursday, May 3, 2012
Tragedy in the Gunks: Stephanie Prezant, Age 22
(Photo: Stephanie Prezant, age 22.)
On Sunday something unthinkable happened.
A young woman full of life, just a few months away from college graduation, went outside climbing for the first time. She had no reason to think she was doing anything risky. She climbed an easy route, and believed the rope to which she was tied was secured to a massive tree on the ledge above her.
But when she weighted that rope the system that was supposed to protect her collapsed. Climbers who were nearby reported that the rope didn't catch her. Instead it (and the slings to which it was attached) came tumbling down. With nothing holding her weight, the woman fell about twenty feet to the ground.
Eyewitnesses said that rescue personnel came immediately, tending to her injuries and quickly getting her to an ambulance. Despite these efforts, they could not save her.
Young Stephanie Prezant died.
I never knew her, but as a member of the community of Gunks climbers, and as an ordinary human being, I feel such pain at this tragic loss. I can only guess at the anguish her family must be feeling. Being a parent myself, I have the barest inkling of the grief they must be dealing with. And as for the people who were with Stephanie when it happened, for them too this must be such a terrible time. I am so sorry.
I wish I'd been there. I wish I could have done something to prevent this horrible event before it all unfolded.
Whenever an accident like this happens, we climbers tend to come together and speculate about it on the internet. It may appear insensitive, but it is inevitable and probably cannot be prevented.
Part of this phenomenon, I think, is just the morbid curiosity we all share. But there is a more positive side to the internet postings. There is genuine concern in the community for the well-being of others. Another part of it is the worry we all feel as climbers. We trust our gear with our lives and when we hear of an accident we fear that our trust is misplaced and that we could be the next casualty. We want to know the details both so that we may avoid whatever mistakes might have been made and also so that we can distance ourselves from the accident. If we can establish that this accident was caused by one mistake or another, we can feel assured of our own safety because we would never make THAT mistake, whatever THAT mistake may be.
I am as guilty as anyone of participating in this orgy of curiosity and speculation. When I heard there had been an accident I started a thread on Gunks.com seeking more information. Mostly I just wanted to hear that the young woman would be okay. But like everyone else I also wanted to analyze the event, to learn from whatever went wrong.
I guess I should have restrained myself. My own post on the accident was an example of how these internet feeding frenzies produce misinformation. I provided the few details I'd heard and one of them-- the name of the climb from which Stephanie fell-- turned out to be incorrect. And then after some useful information surfaced, the thread devolved into the usual speculations and know-it-all prescriptive arguments, none of which were at all helpful to anyone. Another thread, on rockclimbing.com, followed a similarly depressing trajectory.
I hope the Mohonk Preserve rangers who responded to the scene will eventually be able to make some determination of what really caused Stephanie's anchor to fail.
Here, on my blog, I do not wish to presume I know exactly what went wrong. Nor do I want to make her climbing partners or family feel any worse.
Of course without knowing what caused the accident one can offer no formula for avoiding this kind of disaster.
But the temptation to preach is irresistible.
I want to say:
Please, all you climbers out there, do not assume this accident was solely the result of inexperience. We don't know what level of experience these climbers had. Even if in this case it turns out they were all first-timers, we all know that experienced climbers too have been injured and killed when they trusted faulty anchors. Whatever went wrong here, do not delude yourself: it could happen to you or me.
Be careful out there.
The systems we employ as climbers are very simple. But in a brief moment of complacency, or exhaustion, or distraction, it is all too easy to set up these systems incorrectly. Here I am speaking not just of top rope anchors, but of all the systems we climbers use. And I speak from experience. We are all capable of failure. Even the best of us under some circumstances will fail to double back a harness, finish a knot, lock a carabiner, or attach ourselves properly to an anchor. Anyone can fail to ensure the ends of the rope are even or that both strands are through the rappel device. Anyone can load a GriGri backwards.
It can happen at any time.
Please remain vigilant. Double-check everything. And employ a partner check whenever you can. A fresh set of eyes is so often helpful. I have no idea whether it would have made any difference in this case. But it never hurts.
I have been fortunate. The times when I have screwed up, partners have been there watching for me. There have been no consequences. Others, obviously, have not always been so lucky.
I like to think I have come through to the other side. That I have graduated from the screw-up years. But I know it only takes one lapse. When you trust your weight to your gear, it has to be right every time.
I want to do right by Stephanie. I want to honor her memory. I intend to do so by watching out, for myself and my partners. And for others. In the future I may be less prone to walk away from situations that seem unsafe, and more prone to offer some friendly advice to strangers. It is all I can think to do.
I hope you will do the same.