What You Can Learn from a Rock Climber's Death

Brad Gobright was a world-class free solo rock climber who fell to his death.

Posted Oct 21, 2020

Brad Gobright was a remarkable rock climber who fell 1,000 feet to his death in northern Mexico as he and fellow climber Aidan Jacobson had spent two days climbing the face of Sendero Luminoso. He fell to his death as he descended the mountain’s face.

Gobright, well-known in the rock climbing world, held the speed record for climbing El Capitan, the looming granite wall in Yosemite National Park. Perhaps his greatest claim to rock-climbing fame came from his free-soloing.

Free solo climbing is done without ropes, harness, or safety equipment and is reserved for the elite of elite rock climbers. A climber is alone, unaided, and unprotected, reliant upon physical strength and skill alone. Until recently, such climbing was thought near impossible. Who could mountain climb without gear? It wasn’t until September 2019 that ‘free solo’ was added to the American dictionary. Gobright possessed amazing skill and nerve widely admired in the climbing community, a group widely noted for its physical courage.

Gobright’s fall, however, didn’t occur when he was free soloing. While rock climbing is inherently dangerous, Gobright and Jacobson were engaged in what serious rock climbers would consider nearly routine. When Gobright fell, he and his partner were coming down from having completed a climb, repelling using opposite strands of an anchored rope, not free soloing.

What can non-climbers learn from Gobright’s death? Mainly, I think, it is that accidents can happen to even the best of us. The fact is a quarter of climbing accidents happen not during the most dangerous part of the climb but during the descent. As one enthusiast wrote on the Reddit climbing forum, climbers sometimes “let their guard down” in the rush to get down before dark. In a blunt reminder, he writes, “It’s not over until you’re on the ground.”

That Gobright’s tragic fall came near the end of his climb shouldn’t come as a surprise. Accidents are most likely to occur when we assume the end is near, that the hard part is over, and there is no longer a reason to pay close attention. However, data from the insurance industry supports the fact that we are most at risk with familiar things and those that are nearby. Most car accidents, for example, take place less than 25 miles from home, even after factoring for the fact that much of our driving takes place near home. “Driving in familiar places can cause us to rely more on muscle memory than on our active driving skills (making us less likely to be hyper-vigilant on the road).”

Familiarity provides a sense of security but that to which we are accustomed is often not the safest. The second-most-common location for fatalities is the home, and most of the accidents take place in our kitchens, where cuts (more often with dull knives, not sharp) occur, or in bathrooms, where we scald ourselves with hot water.

Complacency is the enemy; it is that which often kills us. Novel situations and unique circumstances demand that we pay attention. We think that the ordinary and commonplace do not, and that error can be fatal. Learning requires concentration, a focusing on what’s in front of us. But when something becomes routine, our minds tend to wander. Autopilot takes over, allowing us to relax from the previous taxing task. We take matters for granted and can find ourselves in trouble.

There is a Zen Buddhist story that captures the lesson well: A person wanted to learn how to be a tree cutter and sought out the master tree-cutter to be his mentor. The teacher pointed out a tall tree to the student and said, “Climb.”

The student examined the tree, thought about what to do, and began to climb slowly but surely. The teacher watched, not saying a word. When the student reached the top, the teacher again stood silently. Then the student began to descend, one limb after another and the teacher said nothing. Finally, when the student reached the final, bottom limb, the teacher shouted, “Be careful!”

Nothing more was ever said by the teacher, only “Be careful!” When the student reached the last limb. That was the only thing the teacher ever said and when the student understood his meaning, he graduated from the master cutter’s class.