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Remembering Two Veteran Climbers Who Died After an FA in Glacier National Park

Brian Kennedy and Jack Beard died in a fall, following a likely first ascent of a remote spire.

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A pair of 67-year-old climbers, Brian Kennedy and Jack Beard, died in a climbing accident on July 22 in Glacier National Park. The pair fell somewhere between 600 and 1,000 feet while descending from Dusty Star (8,573 feet), shortly after making what is likely the first ascent of the formation’s named prominence, Point 8084. 

Both Kennedy and Beard were extremely experienced, and longtime members of the Glacier Mountaineering Society (GMS). Kennedy, known in the community as a goal-oriented peakbagger, had summited 230 of the 234 named peaks in Glacier at the time of his death. Both he and Beard, a longtime friend and frequent partner, were local legends, known for their leading presence in the GMS.

The pair packed in to attempt this new route on Dusty Star on July 21, bivvying near the base of the route and then making their attempt on July 22. When they failed to return on schedule, search and rescue teams from the National Park Service, Two Bear Air, and Minuteman Aviation were sent out. The two men’s bodies were located July 25 at approximately 7,100 feet on the ramparts of Dusty Star. Both men were heavily tangled in rope from a long, tumbling fall, so much so that the recovery team had to cut the bodies free in several places to extract them by helicopter. Given the remote, rugged nature of the accident site, no further investigation was done by the recovery team, and it was initially unclear if the pair had summited their planned objective or perished en route. All of Beard and Kennedy’s climbing gear and other equipment was left on-site.

In the days and weeks following the accident, several local climbers and friends ventured to the remote walls of Dusty Star to try to uncover what happened. Two of these, Adam Clark and Ted Steiner, managed to reach the spot on the wall where the bodies were recovered. They continued up the route, finding more gear strewn out approximately 400 to 500 feet higher on the wall. The items they found included Kennedy’s pack and camera, which was miraculously still in working condition. The camera showed photos of the pair on the summit, proving that they did indeed reach the top of Point 8084. 

Brian Kennedy, Al Hofmeister and Jack Beard on The Great Gendarme, in Montana, in August 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Brian Kennedy)

At the accident site, Clark found miscellaneous bits and pieces of an anchor, including blue webbing slung through a piton and a bit of green cordelette attached to a cam. Both Kennedy and Beard were found wearing intact harnesses with their belay devices clipped to their belay loops, and Beard was properly clipped into the rope. While he noted that it’s impossible to know for certain exactly what happened, based on the evidence, Clark and other climbers determined that the pair’s anchor blew while they were on rappel, with Beard actively rappelling and Kennedy waiting at the anchor above.

The rock on Dusty Star, like many peaks in Glacier, is sedimentary and often rotten, “so it’s pretty tough to tell whether rock blew out or the anchor itself pulled,” Clark told Climbing. From the highest point where he found bits and pieces of Beard and Kennedy’s gear, it was around 500 feet further to Point 8084. “So it’s unclear how far they fell, but it could have been anywhere from 600 to 1,000 feet down this ledgy, alpine face.”

The accident was particularly tragic, said Clark, because the two were eminently respected and loved in the Glacier mountaineering community, and had been for decades, and both were known for their safety-conscious, careful approach to the rugged, technical peaks of Glacier. “That’s what made this accident so different in my mind,” he said. “These weren’t visiting climbers who weren’t used to the nuances of technical climbing in Glacier. They knew how you trench in to find anchors, how to slow down, what to look for.”

Clark, who had once tried to reach Point 8084 via a different route but turned back after encountering rotten rock, said that both men also inspired him, in a broader sense. “These were guys who just loved [climbing]. They loved getting out, getting after it, and did for their entire lives.”

Clark recalled meeting Kennedy in high school, being mentored by the older climber while on his first Glacier Mountaineering Society trip. “I remember him as this extremely nice guy, just really psyched on climbing mountains,” said Clark. “He had a wealth of knowledge. We got back from the trip past 2:00 am, and I’m this 15-year-old kid…my parents sent me out with this group of older climbers they didn’t know,” Clark said, laughing. “My mom was calling Brian’s house, all worried, you know. But the first thing the next morning he called my folks, apologizing for bringing me home late. It was just this really nice gesture of his that I appreciated, and so did my folks.”

Lucy Beard, one of Beard’s two daughters, told Climbing that “both men were humble, quiet pillars of their community,” and that “my dad was the goofiest, kindest, most generous person I know. He had a special affinity for helping young people find their way in life … He brought numerous kids (and kids at heart) out for their first rock climb, their first peak in Glacier, or their first ski route. He loved watching people discover a passion for the outdoors, and was always proud if they went on to bigger adventures.”

“Jack was one of the first people I met when I moved to Montana,” Sara Boilen, another GMS member, told the Flathead Beacon. “We’d go climbing out at Kila, and here was this really quirky, funny dude who had incredible style. He was so humble and yet it was so obvious he had so much to teach. I don’t know how you balance that. After I got involved with GMS, I went on this amazing trip to climb Mount Cleveland with Brian and Jack and some other legends. It was unreal. It was Jack’s birthday and he and all his climbing buddies just let me come along … There was no preaching, and not even an overt effort to educate me, like, ‘Hey, Sara, let me show you how to hold your ice ax.’ But you just knew to watch them.”

Kennedy’s partner of 13 years, Denise Davies, painted a picture of a soft-spoken, resilient, and reliable man, both on and off the wall. She and Kennedy met through the GMS in the early 1990s, and had climbed over 100 peaks together, 42 of them in Glacier. 

On one of the couple’s first dates, climbing B-7 Pillar (8,712 feet) Davies recalled how “We were roped up on this ledge, and my fingers were turning white from lack of circulation. Brian just reached over and started warming my hands, I thought, ‘Wow… Uh what is going on?’ and well that was 13 years ago, and then we were together.” The couple were also avid skiers, and traveled extensively, from Peru to Cuba to Iceland. They were planning a trip to the Dolomites, in Italy, when he passed.

Kennedy, a journalist and photographer for most of his life, edited the annual GMS Journal on the side for 14 years, in addition to owning, editing, and publishing the Hungry Horse News for over 20 years. Despite his extensive climbing resumé, experience, and ambitious goals,  throughout his life Kennedy was always humble about his climbing, Davies said, both with others and with her. “He was pretty intolerant of know-it-alls,” she said, laughing. “One of his pet peeves was people that just moved here from somewhere, and next thing you know they were an expert on Glacier or northwest Montana.” She remarked that one of Kennedy’s favorite quotes was from Mark Twain: ‘Never miss an opportunity to shut up.’  

Kennedy had several regular climbing partners over the years, Davies said, but perhaps none as close as Beard, who was a close friend of Davies as well. “There are so many people that refer to Jack as a goofball,” she said, “But he was just very lighthearted and gentle-spirited, with this beautifully subtle, witty sense of humor.” While Kennedy was more driven towards mountaineering objectives and Beard more sport and ice climbing, the pair was seamless on the wall, no matter the mission, and had been for decades.

“In Brian’s eyes, Jack was one of the few people that could really do no wrong,” Davies said. “There was complete respect and trust there, on a level that you only find in the very best climbing partnerships.”

Karen Sahn (1969-2022), longtime climber and guide, remembered in Aspen