Obituary: Derek Hersey

Alison Osius
Friday 25 June 1993 23:02 BST

Derek Hersey, climber and climbing instructor: born Stretford, Manchester 26 October 1956; died Yosemite, California 20 May 1993.

THE CLIMBING WORLD lost a mascot when Derek Hersey fell to his death while soloing a route in Yosemite Valley, California. He was one of the top three solo rock-climbers in the United States along with John Bachar and Peter Croft (the latter a Canadian by birth). Hersey was alsotreasured for his exceedingly gregarious nature, his cheer, for his wildness and long hair, and amusingly ragamuffin ways. Though primarily a solo (ropeless) climber, he would happily put on a rope to climb anything with anyone, of any ability, and treated all kinds of people equally.

As a soloist, Hersey was known for covering tremendous amounts of terrain, and also for having the willingness and mind control to do routes whose difficulty was not far below what he could do roped, first try - most people who do any soloing select routes a few grades easier than what they can expect to do roped.

Hersey was born in Stretford, Manchester, but had made his home in Boulder, Colorado, for the last 10 years. In one day he soloed three routes on the steep 1,000ft Diamond Face of Longs Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park. He had done three routes - some 35 ropelengths (or 'pitches', roughly 150ft each) in a day in the forbidding 1,500ft Black Canyon of the Gunnison. At home, he went out nearly daily, even in winter, to his 'office' in Eldorado Canyon, and soloed up to 20 different pitches. He had made the second-ever solo of the world-renowned climb the Naked Edge, a 5.11 (on a scale reaching from 5.0 to 5.14, with routes from 5.11 up considered extreme), a jutting prow whose top pitches look down some 500ft to the deck. Hundreds of his solos were 5.10s and 5.11s.

The Steck-Salathe route on Sentinel Rock in Yosemite National Park, from which he fell probably several hundred feet to a mercifully instant death, was a 5.9, well within his abilities. No one will ever know exactly why Hersey fell, but it may well have been related to a sudden rainstorm that reportedly passed through the area. Energetic as usual, Hersey was doing the route the day after climbing the 3,000ft Nose Route on El Capitan in a single day (roped), a fine and exhausting achievement. In some ways it was fitting that the route was a 5.9 rather than, say, a 5.12, as there was no doubt that it was within his ability. Nor was there any question that he was doing it out of pressure or for accolades - out of anything but love of the experience.

In the rock-climbing world, whose best practitioners often diet and drink carrot juice to keep their weight down, he was famous for his regime of chips, hot dogs, pork chops, and bright-pink 'Twinkies' cupcakes. When interviewed for various articles, he would obediently give some quotes about why he soloed, and the intense, exhilarating focus it required, yet he was likely to lighten up the proceedings by saying that he once fell 18 feet because he was hungry and thinking about a cheeseburger. (The route from which he dropped was Edge Lane, at Millstone Edge, near Sheffield; he merely bruised his heels, and was able to walk to the pub on his toes.)

In one of his explanations of soloing, he said: 'There's nothing that makes me feel so alive. You're thinking - but not in words. You're thinking in movement, in rhythm.'

Climbing was Hersey's whole life; it had long been all he wanted to do. However, in recent months he had actually begun trying harder to make a living at it, through slide shows and his increasingly busy guiding service, and to develop his life in other ways - to get a driver's licence, for example (he had always hitch-hiked). He had also worked to develop his climbing style, which formerly could be a little sloppy, into one that was continuous and flowing. He was very careful, vigilantly testing handholds before weighting them.

On 4 June, some 200 to 300 friends congregated for a 'wake' and slide- show about Hersey in Eldorado Canyon. There had been a run on Sheaf Stout, Hersey's favourite, in Boulder, with all the town's many liquor marts selling out (one shop sold a specially ordered 20 cases). Restaurateurs who had known Hersey donated pizzas and other foods.

The friends present were dazed, not so much surprised as shocked, by the death. After, perhaps, worrying about Hersey in earlier days, many had come to think of him as almost immortal, as being so experienced at what he did that his 'number' was never going to come up.

Craig Luebben, who was Hersey's partner on his trip to Yosemite and on the Nose, recalled: 'We passed a lot of parties, and Derek was everybody's hero, so they were psyched to help us pass them.' Those same climbers, days later, came down into camp to look for their new friend only to find out the terrible news.

(Photograph omitted)

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