By Erik Eisele
CONWAY — The climbing community sat in mourning Sunday after an accident at Cathedral Ledge Saturday afternoon claimed the life of a well-known and respected Maine climber.
Brian Delaney, of Scarborough, Maine, was a longtime rock climber whose legacy included early ascents and first ascents of some of Cathedral Ledge's classic hard routes. He died after falling roughly 50 feet from the top of a climb on the upper left wall of the cliff.
"It was a rough day," said Brad White, president of International Mountain Climbing School and one of three Mountain Rescue Service members who responded to the accident. "I've known Brian since 1976. He was one of the first guides I went out with."
The call came in around 12:30 p.m., White said. The report was there was a serious injury at the Barber Wall, the traditional name for upper left-hand section of Cathedral Ledge, which can be accessed by walking down and around from the summit. White and another MRS volunteer grabbed a litter and ropes and raced to the cliff.
Delaney had been climbing by himself, using a fixed line for a belay, according to White, climbing near a route called Double Vee, a classic route rated 5.9 on the Yosemite Decimal Scale. He was near the top of the wall he fell, White said, and something in his belay system failed.
"He obviously just leaned back and went the whole way," White said, but no one is sure exactly what in his belay system failed. Another group was nearby, but they didn't see anything until they heard Delaney's body hit the rocks at the base of the climb.
Delaney, who was in his mid-50s, had decades of climbing experience, both on Cathedral and elsewhere, including ascents of the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite, Calif. In addition to being one of the first people to take White out climbing almost 40 years ago, he was well known for his considered approach to climbing.
The practice of climbing alone with a fixed line and a self-belay system is a common one, White said, not something particularly dangerous. "Lot's of people do it," he said, and it's generally safe. "I do it a lot."
But on Saturday something went wrong, and Delaney fell. When rescuers got to him, White said, "he was at that point talking, but he wasn't making any sense."
The rescue team included firefighters and emergency medical providers from North Conway, as well as New Hampshire Fish and Game officers, in addition to White and two other Mountain Rescue Service volunteers. The rescuers sprung into action, packing Delaney into a litter. It was clear the situation was serious — Delaney had a broken femur and two broken arms, plus unknown internal injuries.
"We started moving him immediately," White said, but it was difficult to move quickly due to the terrain. White belayed the litter while firefighters and others carried it along the exposed trail that led to the trees. They were moving fast, White said, but halfway across an exposed slab the litter came to a halt. White was some distance away manning the ropes so he didn't know why progress had slowed. But soon he found out: They were performing CPR on his friend. Delaney was dead, and the rescue transformed into a recovery.
"Brian didn't make it," White said quietly on Sunday.
And White was not the only one stunned by Delaney's accident. Delaney was well-known within the climbing community, from North Conway to the coast of Maine, where he lived with his wife and teenage daughter. He was easily recognizable by his red hair and his bright smile, as well as by his delicate climbing technique, his passion for rock climbing, and his quiet, humble demeanor.
"He was a pioneer, a pillar of our climbing community, and very talented, yet he never held himself above anyone," said Michael Lambert, of Portland, a frequent climbing partner. "Most of all, he was a kind soul."
"He was the kindest, calmest, most gentle man I've ever met," said Dominic Tracey, another of his climbing partners. "When you climbed with Brian, there was always this sense of calm that emanated from him and infused you, regardless of the circumstances."
"The thing about watching Brian climb that was different than the other people I've climbed with was the simple joyful curiosity that never left him," Tracey said. "Whether he was looking for new lines or enjoying the scenery, one always got the sense that he was experiencing the mountains in a deeper, more holistic way that the rest of us could barely comprehend."
"I've met few people as good-hearted, kind and genuinely humble as Brian," said Travis Herbert, another climbing partner. "He approached life with zest and vibrance. More than the climbing, I remember Brian glowingly talking about his daughter, Hana, sharing stories of her exploits on the swim team, theater and beyond. He loved his family dearly and traveled the world with them."
Brian's wife told friends his body is to be cremated, as according to his wishes, after his organs are donated, and the ashes are to be spread in two places: the cliffs of Acadia National Park, and at Cathedral Ledge.