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 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, 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.


  1. i am stephanies neighbor and your article was well written as to why climbers speculate and discuss these tragedies.At first i thought it was so harsh for anyone to make comments that sounded so unfeeling but you expressed it in the right manner. All i can say is god bless her soul and keep watch over all climbers

  2. That's a tough post to write. You did it justice.

  3. Thanks both of you for your comments. My condolences to you, Anonymous neighbor, and to your community.

  4. What a terrible tragedy. You're right, in fact, experienced climbers may have a higher risk of serious injury.

  5. As a dear family friend I want to thank you.

  6. Excellent post. Condolences to the family. You are absolutely correct about climbing and other dangerous sports as well. There is always the chance of a screw-up; anyone can make a mistake. I was a climber and sky diver for years, but gave up both turkey when my first kid was born, and have not really missed it since. Just as I would never cross the street blind-folded (which I did once on a bet) I would not do these dangerous sports any more. the thought of not being present at the weddings of my kids, not holding my grandchildren, etc. are no match for the short-lived exhilaration of these sports.

  7. I have known Steph for about 11 years. Although we had lost touch in the recent years I miss her so much and I think about her everyday. I also have friends that climb on a regular basis, they never knew Steph. I can imagine them thinking the same way you are describing here. She was beautiful, and more full of life than you could ever imagine. It breaks my heart to know that she is gone, but please learn from this and be safe. Live your life and don't hold back, but be safe.

  8. Great article... I would still like to know exactly what failed. She sounds like she was a great girl and that she'll be dearly missed by all. But the lessons involved could also help prevent further disasters.

    vibes to her family and friends.

  9. Thank you for this beautiful post about my sister. This was a nice one to read. I hope her memory will continue to be honored.

  10. Jonathan, thanks so much for your comment. I am very sorry for your loss.

  11. It's been a long time, 47 weeks to be exact, since Steph's accident and as her mother I can say that time does not heal and the pain is present every moment of every day. So many lives have been altered forever with Steph's death and we are still trying to learn to carry on without her. As to what happened- Steph was a first time climber but was with two very experienced climbers. As she told me the day before when she called me, they were licensed and one did it as an instructor as well, when it came to setting up the ropes, one anchored it up top and did not tie it or anchor it correctly. The second climber did not double check his work and so when Steph was on her way down, the rope from above just came undone and she was in a free fall for 15feet. She fell in such a way on her back that it caused sever internal bleeding and there was no saving her. We never got to see her again.
    I am sharing this so you climbers can be safe when you climb. Steph lived her life with great enthusiasm but was not careless. She trusted the other climbers knew what they were doing. They clearly were so cavalier with safety that day and she paid the ultimate price as did we, her family and dear friends whose lives have changed forever

    1. Dear Elana, Jonathan, Jeff, Jacqueline -
      We just found out about this horrible tragedy during our Passover Seder. I will always remember Stephanie as such a sweet and loving girl, with wonderful eyes. We will miss her.
      Chiemi was moved to tears.
      She and your family are in our hearts, and our thoughts.
      May her memory be for blessing,

  12. Thank you for your comment, Ms. Prezant. I don't know if you are aware of this but last summer a certified climbing guide named Joe Vitti started holding safety clinics along with some other guides at the Gunks on Saturdays in your daughter's honor. It was just announced that they are going to resume these clinics this year, which is a good thing and one hopes a preventative measure that will save others from needless, senseless accidents. Of course I never knew your daughter but I'm sure I speak for many when I say her tragic accident has affected me and the way I do things. Double and triple checking everything is so important, as you point out. I am so sorry for your loss and I hope one day your family can learn to carry on, "without" her as you say but surely with her as well, in your memories and hearts.

  13. Elana -
    I am so sorry for your loss. I have known Jeff - my brother's friend - since I was 10. I understand the magnitude of this tragedy, and am heartbroken for you and your family.
    Time will not heal this loss and the pain will be with you every day. Your family and community will continue to help you survive your loss.
    Hopefully, you and your family will find love and happiness to help fill the voids in your lives.
    - Michael

  14. Your sincere words brought me to tears. I was looking this morning for information regarding Stephanie's death, and felt a little guilty at the same I read you mentioned the curiosity and speculation naturally happens when people seek for information. Stephanie and my son were class pears for eight years. I was personally and artistically involved in a project I made for her. didn't know much of her where about in recent years accept of meeting her occasionally and pass a big warm hug. As so many other people who were touched by this horrible event and wondered why why why, and as someone not sure of how to show any comfort to the Prezant family, I get much comfort in your sensitive and honesty, and more than that in you taking great responsibility calling people to take a greater safety meagerment and care for precious life in the future. That will not bring Stephanie but it gives her a great honor. Few days ago I spent a beautiful day at the Mohonk area and Stephanie was in my thoughts. That is how I was looking again this morning and found your post. Thank you! Ronit Salei