Mark Hesse Died From Gym Fall

The late Mark Hesse.

The late Mark Hesse. Photo courtesy of the Access Fund.

3/12/14 - The Boulder County Coroner has ruled that longtime climbing activist and wilderness advocate Mark Hesse died from blunt trauma. Hesse, 63, was discovered unconscious in the back room of the Boulder Rock Club on a slow Monday in late January. No one witnessed his fall, but after hearing a loud noise from the other room, staff ran to Hesse's aid, but were unable to revive him. Until now, it was not certain if he had died from an internal medical condition, such as a heart attack, or from a fall. The coroner's office said today he died from blunt trauma to the chest and ruled the incident an accident.

Hesse was found in a location of the gym where he might have fallen either from a bouldering wall or a nearby top-roping and lead wall. The latter is served by an auto-belay device, but although Hesse was wearing a harness, he was not clipped into the auto-belay system, which was anchored at the bottom as usual. If he was climbing on the main wall, he must have been either free-soloing or inadvertently failed to clip into the auto-belay before climbing.

John Bicknell, one of the gym's owners, told the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper that although it's unlikely anyone will ever know exactly what happened to Hesse, the gym has installed a new safety device designed to prevent "inadvertent soloing." A large triangle of heavy fabric covers the foot of the wall below the auto-belay system and must be removed before climbing with the auto-belay.

"It's much more in their face, and it makes unclipping and reclipping a bigger part of the mental process," Bicknell told the Daily Camera. "Again, we don't know if Mark's death was caused by that, but it never hurts to go to a new system to improve safety."

Hesse made first ascents throughout the world in the 1970s and 1980s, from the South Platte and Rocky Mountain National Park to the Utah desert, and from the Canadian Rockies to Nepal. In 1982 he soloed the south face of Denali via the Scott-Haston Route. In 1986, he and Craig Reason, Jay Smith, and Paul Teare did the alpine-style first ascent of the very steep northeast buttress of Kangtega (22,241 feet) in Nepal. As recently as 2006, Hesse was still doing major routes in the mountains: That summer, he and Chris Alstrin and Andrew Frost completed a very hard new route on a 20,000-foot peak in Peru.

Hesse was a leader in the Outward Bound system for many years, culminating in his work as program director of the Southwest Outward Bound School in the early 1980s. He created the American Mountain Foundation, whose original mission was helping U.S. climbers doing overseas expeditions, and ran it for over a deacade. That organization morphed into the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, which he ran for another decade, before stepping down as executive director about five years ago. These non-profits were leaders in the stewardship of climbing areas, building extensive trail networks in Indian Creek and Castle Valley, Utah; Shelf Road, Colorado; and on the Colorado 14ers and other high peaks. Hesse received the American Alpine Club's David Brower Conservation Award in 1995.

A longtime resident of Colorado Springs, Hesse had moved to Boulder and was working on a stewardship manual for the Access Fund. He also was working on trail and stewardship projects with the Boulder Climbing Community.

Source: Boulder Daily Camera


Previous Comments

@dave y: If you know anything about the comment below yours and by whom it was made, you would think twice before making such a comment. A climber who, along with Tommy Caldwell, put up the hardest free route on The Diamond needs no supervision when it comes to the "dangers" of this sport. The facts of this tragedy are still unclear but what is clear, from my experience in gyms (not just the BRC) is that complacency does have it's place in this dangerous activity. This complacency is a result of the lack of redundancy when it come to operating an auto-belay. I, like others, have fallen complacent and have unintentionally neglected to check if I was clipped into the auto-belay. This, in my opinion, is not a matter of judgement but simply a climber becoming complacent in the surroundings- and it happens elsewhere too, not just in auto-belay accidents but in rappelling, belaying and simply descending climbers' trails. My condolences to the family and thanks to Mark for being a leader in this sport and for paving the way for us to enjoy his magnificent climbs.

Andy - 03/15/2014 1:50:47

I have a very rich imagination. But I am unable to imagine how a sober person could start up a route in a climbing gym, thinking they were clipped into the auto belay, without clipping in to the auto belay. If your judgment is so bad that you have done this, then I agree, you ought to be supervised before and while you are doing anything dangerous. Other adults don't need that though. I'm responding to the two comments here, not to the Mark Hesse tragedy/mystery.

dave y - 03/15/2014 12:56:25

I have also forgotten to clip into the auto belay at the BRC. Not the gym's fault but I know a number of people who have done the same. Although there is no way to know for certain, it seems like a spaced auto-belay clip-in is a likely scenario. As much as I used to love using them for running laps, I have come to believe they don't have much of a place in dedicated climbing gyms, especially unsupervised.

Joe Mills - 03/13/2014 1:56:26

I forgot to clip into the auto belay at BRC once... was half way up the wall moving into a crux when i looked down and realize I had spaced clipping in. No ones fault but my own, but it does happen. I made my way back down praying no one noticed, my ego was bruised but had I pushed off from the top, like one does on auto belay ... it very well could of been the end. Sad to hear of this :(

djsulli - 03/13/2014 12:42:57