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Climbing Coach Dies After Rappelling Accident

Longtime climber and youth climbing coach Bryan Caldwell has passed away after a 100-foot fall at Icicle Buttress. 

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On July 4, Bryan Caldwell  and his partner were climbing R&D, a 300-foot 5.6 trad route on the Icicle Buttress, near Leavenworth, Washington. When bad weather moved in, they chose to rappel. His partner had touched ground when she heard a sound. Caldwell’s anchor had failed and he fell approximately 100 feet. 

Caldwell’s partner contacted a forest service ranger for support, but he was pronounced dead by the time crews from Chelan County Search and Rescue and Chelan County Fire District 3 arrived. According to The Wenatchee World, a cam and nut were found clipped to his rope, indicating they had pulled from the wall. Caldwell was 44 years old. 

Caldwell began climbing in 1998 when he joined the University of Kansas climbing club. “He showed up to his first climbing trip (which was with the club) with a giant external frame backpack,” wrote Ward Byrum to Climbing in an email. “[The] contents included: one cooking set, one machete, one bullwhip, and one case of Natty Light. It’s hard to recall if he brought necessities like a sleeping bag or food. From the start it was abundantly clear that Bryan was seeking adventure and friendship.”

After graduating, Caldwell moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, and continued exploring mountains and crags. In 2004, he went on a six-month climbing road trip with friends, going from Maple Canyon to the Sawtooths and the Sierras, then heading east to the Red River Gorge and New River Gorge. After that, Caldwell moved to Bermuda to work with Byrum, helping him run the island’s only climbing wall. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Bryan Caldwell collection)

“Through his time there he cultivated a climbing community, introduced climbing to countless Bermudian youth, and became an official ‘Unofficial Bermudian,’” wrote Byrum. “His joy and unabashed quest for adventure touched so many people in Bermuda and beyond.”

In addition to his work at the gym, Caldwell supported a number of charitable efforts on the island. He organized a fundraising effort for the International Anti-slavery Coalition, in which participants climbed the height of Everest by doing laps on the indoor climbing wall. He also helped to remove invasive species from Bermuda’s historic fort walls. 

When a former University club member, Michael Lary, co-founded The Source Climbing Center in Vancouver, Washington in 2011, Caldwell relocated there as one of the gym’s leadership team members. He also worked as the lead coach for the youth team. 

“As a coach, Bryan was dedicated to inclusion and the belief in everyones’ potential,” wrote Lary to Climbing. “He celebrated every small success in climbing, continually challenged people to push themselves a bit further, and always remembered that climbing was only one part of the person. He admired and celebrated the kids’ achievements outside of climbing as much, if not more, than those in climbing.” 

Caldwell remained at The Source Climbing Center until his passing. When the accident at Icicle Buttress occurred, he was with friends from the Vancouver climbing community. 

(Photo: Courtesy of Bryan Caldwell collection)

In lieu of flowers, Caldwell’s family created a fundraiser for a memorial bench in his honor, to be placed in downtown Vancouver. Leftover funds will go towards scholarships for travel and accommodations for competitive youth climbers. The family hopes to help future young climbers “like the countless that Bryan has coached and mentored for more than a decade.”

“Bryan’s spirit will live on in the lives he touched,” wrote Byrum. “Whether you swam with him in Bermuda, he taught you how to belay/climb at The Source, shared a rum at Dockies, or listened to his favorite reggae tunes….Bryan was central to so many foundational memories. Simply having known him is a challenge to love as large and unapologetically as you can.”

In remembering Caldwell’s joy for climbing, Byrum wrote: “If the quote ‘The best climber is the one having the most fun’ [is true], then Bryan was the love child of Janja Garnbret and Adam Ondra. Climbing was a tool Bryan used to connect with people, to share joy, and love.”

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