Dr. Brad VanDiver’s Cliffside Brush with Death


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longspeak2005wikiResearching Dr. Bradford VanDiver’s life and telling his full story isn’t possible in this brief format, but if you read last week’s account, you’re at least privy to the amazing and varied highlights. There remains one stunning and frightening event that he failed to mention during published interviews about various achievements and key moments in his past.

While plumbing for details that might have occurred prior to his professional career, I encountered reference to VanDiver’s participation with the National Speleological Society in exploring several new caves in the Howe’s Cavern area of Schoharie County in 1948. Some of the underground sites there involved drops of more than 100 feet, for which the spelunkers’ group called upon Brad VanDiver and his close friend, Ernest Ackerly, to handle the rigging of ropes, ladders, and other safety equipment. They also joined in the exploration of new passages.

After his second trip underground, VanDiver was quoted as saying, “Caves are an adventurous challenge, but mountain climbing is cleaner and healthier. You are out in the sunlight,” he said, as opposed to darkness and often muddy conditions beneath the surface.

Since he was only 21 at the time, that comment about mountain climbing, and his widely respected skills in climbing with ropes, raised my suspicions that he must have developed those advanced capabilities quite recently. Further digging led to another story linking to Dr. VanDiver’s mention (during an interview decades later, in 1979) of a first ascent on a section of Longs Peak in Colorado, which he counted as one of his memorable experiences.

Memorable? He was clearly a master of understatement. It turns out that on July 17, 1948, he and a climbing partner, William Eubank, both residents of Boulder, were tackling a 2,000-foot-high wall when a rock-climber’s nightmare occurred: VanDiver fell. The story is best related in this brief account of incidents reported by the American Alpine Club.

“B. B. VanDiver (21) and William Eubank (20) were attempting to climb the east face of Longs Peak by the Stettner Ledges. At some spot near the top of the ledges, VanDiver, who had taken a 20-foot lead beyond his last piton, slipped and fell. Eubank, who had secured himself to a piton, applied the principle of the ‘dynamic belay’ and thus was able to arrest Van Diver’s 40-foot fall. Despite the ‘dynamic belay,’ however, he was pulled tightly against his own belay piton. Van Diver suffered a head laceration and mild concussion. The excellent rescue team of the Rocky Mountain National Park effected a prompt rescue, and further injury and shock were avoided.”

While the report gave no additional information on his condition or the rescue, newspaper accounts added that VanDiver’s unconscious form was dragged to a rock ledge by Eubank, who shouted for help and waited for rescuers to arrive. They were finally removed from the wall after five hours of effort by the cliff rescue team. His principal injuries were defined as “severe head lacerations.”

Considering his impact in the Adirondacks, plus all that he accomplished and the great number of lives positively affected by VanDiver’s work during the ensuing 64 years, it’s safe to say that many of us owe a debt of thanks to Eubank and the rescue team for a difficult job well done.

Photo: Longs Peak, Colorado. VanDiver’s fall occurred near the upper center of the wall. (Pete Seel, Wikimedia Commons)

A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.

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