Tragic caving death of two Gainesville climbers offers a solemn lesson for all explorers

In the aftermath of a climbing accident, the entire climbing community becomes affected by the tragedy, whether personally acquainted with those involved or not.

This past weekend, a group of ten climbers set out in the Rocktown area of La Fayette, GA for a weekend of adventure. The group was spelunking in Ellison Cave, which is one of the deepest cave systems in the entire nation. Ill-prepared, the group entered the cave wearing only t-shirts and shorts.

As Grant Lockenbach, 22, and Michael Pirie, 18, rappelled down a ~120 foot drop, Lockenbach dropped a bag and attempted to retrieve it. He became tangled in his rope, trapped beneath a frigid waterfall. Pirie immediately sought to aid his friend, but ultimately wound up in the same position as his comrade.

Their bodies were recovered from the site, and it is believed that they perished from hypothermia.

I have been reading heaps of articles about the incident, and every piece makes remarks about the excellent character of these two victims. They were great members of their community, and had the best of intentions.

Their accident serves as a stark reminder to all climbers and explorers: as thrilling an adventure is, you must be prepared. It is all too easy to get in over your head while climbing, but you must be comfortable with your limits.

The incident reminded me of the time the boys attempted to summit the Grand Teton over summer. As they stood before me, ‘ready’ to traverse snow fields in their duct-taped shoes and flimsy sweaters, I was overcome with anxiety over their lack of preparation. Thankfully, the boys were all fine – but their lack of preparation prevented any of the crew from completing the summit.

Please, please exercise caution when engaging in high-risk activities. Yes, you are an adventurer, and yes, adventures are most often spontaneous and lack planning, but you’ve got to use your noggin sometimes, folks. I can’t bear to imagine losing a member of our closely-knit climbing family.

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Categories: Current Events, Rock Climbing, Travel & Adventure

Author:Katie Boué

Katie Boué is the voice of TheMorningFresh.com - a travel lifestyle blog focusing on climbing, Airbnb life, and the outdoors.

3 Comments on “Tragic caving death of two Gainesville climbers offers a solemn lesson for all explorers”

  1. Daniel Cardenas
    February 15, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    Woah! Im extremely sad to hear such a tragedy struck so close to home! But you have to keep in mind that being prepared isn’t always about having the right gear, as in the case of the Tetons if often comes down to being mentally prepared for what lies ahead and being able to overcome. The attempt at the Grand was well within every members physical capabilities and gear was more then sufficient but, when it came time climb many were overwhelmed by the mere thought of doing something that only looked intimidating, different, and new. Once you let fear take hold its over! Just think about the guys who were climbing in the 50’s and 60’s with homemade gear and determination up the wazoo. In the case of these two fine lads I believe it was a lack of mental preperation that led to their tragic accident. Had they taken the time to assess the situation rather then jumping right in to retreive the bag and their teammate the situation might have turned out differently. People seem to forget that adventure is such a huge mental game.

    • February 15, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

      Absolutely! I think that being prepared needs both mental and physical preparation. If you don’t have one, having the other is often times not enough. I think you’re a prime example of having the right mentality to survive anything that the outdoors sends your way – you feel prepared, you act prepared, therefore you are prepared. However, 99% of climber kids lack your experience, your fearlessness and your overall savvy regarding everything outdoorsy. You are like the ultimate explorer, and I’d venture to state that no one down here is on that level yet.

      Fear is completely crippling for any intense activity – and the reason I bailed out on attempting the Grand from the get-go, haha. I definitely believe that if McGoo, Jeff and Niko had spent a few weeks really preparing themselves, mentally, for the Grand, they would have been able to do it. Jeff at least tried his best to stave off the encroaching fear, but I’m not sure if it was because he was truly mentally prepared, or because he’s just insane. I’m eager for them to make a second attempt, and compare it to their first experience.

      These guys were also simply not prepared for what they were getting into. They had little to no experience with caving, and were wearing ill-suited clothing for the frigid conditions they were in. If you were down there, you’d handle this entirely differently, because you are experienced and have really strong natural intuitions. More so than speaking to the climbing community you remember down here, I’m addressing the new kids that are super eager, but super inexperienced.

  2. February 18, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Terrific advice! I have already been looking for something like this for quite a while now. Many thanks!

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