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How Do We Deal With Climbing Deaths?

When a climber dies, friends, family and editors reconstruct a life now gone.

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You could easily have pegged Kevin Bein as unbreakable. As a young climber in the Gunks he hit the ground two different times, incurring head injuries. Another time, out roller skiing on a hilly, twisty road, he was hit by a car and knocked 20 feet into the trees, then got up and skied home. Earlier, when he was 16 and Rich Goldstone in his early 20s, the two were dueling over front levers in a door frame when Kevin exploded the jamb, scattering plaster and splinters.

“Kevin landed on his back on the floor. … lying still,” Goldstone would later post in an appreciation thread.“I leaned close. Spitting out debris, he managed to croak, ‘I think I’m entitled to a do-over.’”You never dreamed that force would be extinguished early. Kevin climbed hard for 25 years, bringing 5.11 to the Needles of South Dakota with the FA of Vertigo, in 1979, and, when 5.12 came to the Shawangunks of New York, he kicked in, joining Felix Modugno to establish Dark Side of the Moon (trad 5.12a/b) in 1984. An early proponent of training, bouldering and toproping, Kevin was a mass of muscle. He was fluent in beta—the particulars of climbing movement—before it had a name.

But what people noticed most, from the time he was a teenage prodigy and mentee, was Kevin’s friendliness. He was so vital, so central to the Gunks’ climbing community, they called him “The Mayor of the Gunks.” He was incredibly kind and welcoming to me and other newcomers, asking us about our climbs rather than talking about his.

Kevin was expansive otherwise as well. His wife, Barbara Devine, an early top female climber, said, “He was always up for serious discussions on literature, geology, politics and life in general”—and keen on a prank or two. He attended Harvard on scholarship.

One evening a friend said to me on the phone, “So I guess you’ve heard…”

I hadn’t. When she took a breath and said that Kevin, 39, had died in an accident on the Hörnli Ridge, the Matterhorn, I said I had to hang up, and did. To breathe. Kevin and Barbara, after witnessing an accident, had started to descend, and when a rappel came short of the station below, he slung a block, and it pulled.

I was subsequently one of hundreds of shaken friends at a memorial on July 26, 1988, at the Bacchus restaurant, New Paltz, where Kevin had been manager and such a fast, efficient server that our friend Mike Freeman dubbed him Robowaiter.

Friends spoke, and finally so did Barbara, her voice so very soft that the packed room went stone silent.

Later I asked around a bit in hopes that someone was writing an obituary. I did not, at first, venture to offer. Surely someone who knew him better, had known him longer, would want to and deserved to. But people don’t always step forward. They may not think they are able. They may want someone else to do the job.

It’s a tricky conundrum: Years earlier, at another memorial, across the country, I had offered to write an obituary for the climbing press for a friend lost to an avalanche. Yet a former longtime partner of his had halted me.

“I think a lot of people would be upset by that,” she said. “It should be one of his close friends.”

Hastily, I backed off—but then the obit was never written.

Also Read: Climbers We Lost in 2021

In the end I wrote about Kevin, bringing in others by gathering quotes, anecdotes and images: Kevin in the local climbing shop doing The New York Times crossword puzzle, in pen, while carrying on an animated conversation. Kevin as such a zealous athlete that one rainy day he ran seven miles around his apartment, carrying a stack of books. Kevin exhorting: As Steve Wunsch, whom Kevin belayed and encouraged on the historic first ascent of Supercrack (5.12+), said at the service, “Kevin probably helped more people up more climbs than anyone alive.”

I also added some personal memories. It was the first real obituary I ever wrote, and I found the process comforting, a way to try to do something for him.

A Last Chance

In journalism school, I had learned two important things about obituaries. One had rather shocked me—obits are often drafted while the subject is still alive. If you are famous, your obituary has probably already been written.

That explained how long, detailed accounts would appear so soon after a prominent person’s death. The working versions are updated periodically.

Our teacher asked us students to compose a faux obit on someone of our choice, and I experienced how much time the endeavor takes—compiling information, contacting people and gathering quotes—and that’s before even sitting down to write. I chose Paul Newman, pretty much for the blue eyes, but as an actor and humanitarian; and much later when he did pass, I used parts of the text in a newspaper column.

The other enduring lesson was from another grad-school teacher, who said that obituaries, often passed off to a new employee, are “one of the most underappreciated forms of journalism.” An obituary is a profile, he said. It requires summing up a life, without leaving out anything important. It is a chance to credit the person, for the record. A last chance.

Kevin Bein (middle) with Bob D’Antonio (left) and Elliot Williams in 1982. Bein, a leading Gunks climber and pillar of that community, died on the Matterhorn in 1988 when a rappel anchor failed. He was 39. Photo: Laura Smith.

“I Did It. You can.”

As part of the outdoor press, I have since written dozens of obituaries. Accidents and loss are, sadly, prevalent in this community.

Five years ago, at Rock and Ice, I started an annual online tribute to Climbers We Lost. The project is always tough on everyone, and 2017 was, if possible, particularly brutal—among two dozen people, only nine died of natural causes—but I believe it is meaningful to those left behind and the community. The causes are often educational, whether about climbing accidents (last year six died in rappelling accidents—please tie knots in your rope ends!) or the need to talk about suicide. One of the letters we received in January was from the father of a long-ago suicide victim. The father thanked us for writing with care about the three suicides in the lineup.

On the other hand, people can recoil when we contact them, sometimes not understanding how involved the whole process is.

In midwinter three years ago, a local climber failed to come home from a day of solo ice climbing. Everyone I knew was concerned, and many, including my husband and son, geared up and set out on the search (I stayed home, having just had foot surgery). The person was, sadly, soon found, having been killed in a fall. I knew and had very much liked the climber, and drove to the office that night in the snow, staying late to try to write a solid, thorough piece beforehand, rather than a hasty one after the sheriff’s report came out the next day. The next afternoon, someone I’d contacted about a detail replied asking me not to release the piece. Her concern was sincere, for the family. The email arrived after we’d posted it, however, and the account credited him as an accomplished person, and also corrected the many rumors as to what had happened and who had even died.

Many people find it hard, when I ask them, to write obituaries; and some of those have been professional writers or communicators. One person (not a writer) whom I’d asked to write about her deceased friend told me yes; then no; then yes. She ultimately came through with a graceful remembrance of the young woman. A writer who penned two last year later posted that she’d found the process grueling.

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“I cried a lot,” Stephanie Forte wrote, “looked through endless files of old pictures, and learned so much about both of them while interviewing friends and family. … [It] has helped me to cope with losing two men who had a very special place in my life and heart.”

One night in a brewpub, I saw someone I’d asked to write our Climbers We Lost tribute for a beloved mutual friend, Hayden Kennedy, only 27.

Chris Kalous had, weeks or months before, handed in one version, and it was good: thoughtful, with an apt summary of climbs and passages from Hayden’s writings; but I’d asked for more—for Chris’s own memories. A few days later he sent an addendum recalling jokes and conversations and the way the leading young climber began every conversation asking about Chris and his partner, Steph’s, baby boy.“That was really hard for me to write,” Chris told me at the pub, his eyes brimming. He also said that another friend, having been asked to write about Hayden for the American Alpine Journal, had called asking Chris to take over, saying, “I can’t.”

Chris had soundly directed him to push through. “I did it. You can!”

Yet this loss had shaken my notions, too, of what I could do. Hayden’s death was layer upon layer of tragedy: one of two deaths, the other being of his beloved and equally accomplished partner, Inge Perkins, in and following an avalanche in Montana. I was sitting in the Seattle airport upon receiving the news, and was, for at least 10 seconds, speechless. I’d known Hayden since he was a day old. He had babysat my sons, who revered him. Sometimes at a ski area he would invite them on a run, and they’d try with all their might to keep up. I knew Hayden as honest, idealistic, thoughtful—and his parents’ cherished only child. They’d given him life, love, an education, and the gift of time, with long camping, climbing and bike trips.

Stock still at an airport cafe, having cold dropped the conversation I’d just started with the guy next to me, I thought, I cannot do this one. We’d need to post something. Someone else has to.

Then, like a little miracle in the sky, elements converged into a form. I had a window seat. The day was lucid, crystalline. We flew low above the mountains, and as I stared out at the ridges, the rocks sharp and black against snow, and at the ribbons of rivers and the lakes on which sunlight flashed bright as we flew by, I thought of memories from his lifetime, and then: I should at least write them down. For who knew what purpose, but to remember them. I scrawled thoughts and images on a lined yellow pad, in an outpouring. At home I typed it up, looked at it a few times and filled in, then posted it. It was not an obit per se, but a remembrance. I have not been able to look at it since.

His mother, my friend Julie, later called with thanks, saying, “It gave me something to hold onto.”

Five years ago, a close friend since ninth grade reached the end in her struggle with cancer. Hurrying back to my hometown of Annapolis, I arrived at her house in time for what turned out to be Leslie’s last afternoon.

The next day her mother, Alice, asked me to write the obituary. I wrote of Leslie’s warmth and vast capabilities, but could also share a tale from Alice of her daughter’s mysterious, powerful final moments. In the dead of night, Alice—lone sentry—had begun to sing “Amazing Grace.” She didn’t even know all the words, but simply filled in as best she could. Leslie, unresponsive for many hours, began humming.

“She hummed it beautifully,” her mother told me. “She kept the tune. I sang it to her until I had nothing more in me.” Leslie hummed by herself for an hour, and finally stopped breathing.

Obituaries are about humanity.