Derek Hersey Obituary, August 1993

Derek Hersey 1989 Primrose

Derek Hersey Obituary, published as Derek Climbs to the End in Climbing No. 139, Aug-Sep 1993.

Derek Hersey died while soloing the Steck-Salathe route on Sentinel Rock in Yosemite on Friday, May 28th, 1993. He apparently fell several hundred feet and was killed instantly. Among his many notable climbing achievements are free soloing three routes on the Diamond face of Longs Peak in one day, and a similar triple-crown feat on the North Chasm View face of the Black Canyon. 

But Derek was far more than the sum of his achievements. Impressive lists convey only a little about who he was, about why over 300 people came to his wake in Eldorado Canyon, why his death provoked mentions in national newspapers from the Sun (UK) to the New York Times, and why his death was such a huge loss to so many people. 

As a climber he was a phenomenon. As I get older, and slowly accumulate more possessions, more responsibilities, reluctantly drag myself to dentists and chiropractors, and realize that I now participate in those conversations about property values and mortgages that once seemed so contemptible, Derek personified a simpler approach to life. Ten years after his arrival in the United States he still seemed to be on the two-week vacation he’d originally intended, and was still enjoying it enormously. Most of the times he went climbing he had the kind of day most of us have every few months and remember for years. Regularly he’d have the kind of day the rest of us only dream about. Thumbing through his copy of Boulder Climbs South guide fosters a sense of humility. It’s all there: “Naked Edge - solo;” “Le Toit - solo;” “Climb of the Century - solo;” “Jules Verne - solo;” “Neon Lights - solo." This list could get monotonous—‘solo’ adjoins climb after climb, most of the routes in the book. Once, he figured he’d soloed Outer Space probably 100 times. Another time he told me he’d done the second through seventh free ascents of Night (5.11b/c vs [very serious]). He had an insatiable appetite for climbs, and the cheerful confidence you get after cruising a route that you’ve been dreading and fearing for months. This enthusiasm translated into a quest to do climbs in as good a style as possible, and he sought the satisfaction of doing a series of difficult moves in relaxed, controlled manner. He thrived on this demanding discipline, which involves a complete understanding of physical limitations and abilities coupled with the mind-control necessary to practice these skills without a rope, high off the ground. While other climbers have dabbled in this other-world of free-soloing, Derek lived for it, for the adrenaline and risk involved. Two things helped him: his bird-like legs hanging from a scrawny but muscular frame (5’10” tall, he weighed about 135 pounds), and his uncanny memory for climbs and moves. He was a walking—and definitely talking!—encyclopedia of Eldorado Canyon. 

In Britain in the late 1970s, Derek was one of a generation of Peak District climbers who understood the importance of climbing more than just weekends in order to do the hardest climbs. At the same time, unemployment was rife; hence the appearance of almost “professional,” but poor, climbers signing on the dole every two weeks, hitch-hiking to the crags and dossing anywhere—bus shelters, public bathrooms, construction sites, the Stoney Middleton woodshed—out of the interminable rain. This was a cheap, simple lifestyle, allowing unlimited climbing time (except for signing-on day!) and a guaranteed pittance.

And a pittance was all Derek needed. He could live incredibly frugally. He once left Manchester for the Alps, taking no food, no money, just 24 Mars bars. While in Boulder, he worked as a part-time dishwasher and saved enough money for a three-month trip to England.

His first visit to the US was in 1980. He spent three months in Yosemite, flourishing in the splendid squalor of Camp 4. He next visited the US in early 1983, arriving in New York with $40 in his pocket, promptly hitchhiking to Boulder. In Colorado he found an environment he liked far more than rainy, damp Britain, and where his manner and accent, instead of establishing him as just another climbing bum, endeared him to people as the classic English eccentric. He was known at the time as much for his reluctance to look a showerhead in the eye as for his climbing. That, combined with a strict training diet of curried pork chops, french fries (“best chips in Boulder!”), and fried onions, washed down with Toothsheaf Stout, brought him the name Greasy Derek. He reveled in his reputation, enjoying others’ enjoyment of his antics and mannerisms and their bafflement at his climbing ability. For years he held a variety of menial jobs such as pizza-making and snow-shoveling, refusing to let anything interfere with his climbing. Two successive girlfriends did little to tame him. The second, Sharon Carroll, said she had finally left because she wanted a relationship with someone more adult and responsible. 

By the time Derek met Annie Whitehouse, in 1991, he had changed, and those changes continued. Whether he would admit it or not, his relationship with the showerhead had been transformed. He actually held a more or less full-time construction job for several months, and was starting a climbing-guide career. In the next two years, his Extreme Rock guide service steadily expanded with referrals and repeat clients. Derek’s niche in the market was distinctive—“5-whatever to 5.12.” Many of his clients were competent climbers visiting the Front Range for business reasons, happy to pay for “the Derek experience”: point him at a climb—any climb—and you’d be seconding it 20 seconds later. Later, you’d get a tour of the bars of Boulder. When not guiding, he was also traveling across the country with a unique slideshow, always irreverent and hilarious.

Through Annie he matured and developed more. She, a veteran of Himalayan trips, encouraged and helped him with his slideshows, developing contacts and the logistics required to market oneself as a climbing personality.* Annie was in the Himalaya at the time of his death, but friends reached her with a fax in Kathmandu. The spring of 1993 it seemed that Derek was finally doing well in all aspects of his life, climbing better than ever, and successfully making money the two ways he liked best: climbing, and talking loudly with a beer in hand. His accident came at a time when he was really happy, and this final Yosemite trip was a vacation for him. Yet, with his life on a roll, he must have been thinking of the future and its possibilities.**

Derek will be remembered for his outsize personality and style, his huge grin, loud voice, and irreverent humor. Or his ubiquitous, “Hey up, punter!” echoing across the bar, or drowning out South Boulder Creek. Or his helpfulness to others when they were in a fix on the rocks, whether by dropping a toprope to someone, or helping a hurt climber. His enthusiasm for climbing was equaled by his enjoyment of people. 

Some days he’d get so many phone calls on our shared land-line, I’d answer “Hello, Derek’s answering service.” Derek was very proud of his climbing abilities, yet his natural selflessness and humility never let him brag or pretend to be anything more than just another punter. If anyone, even a client, penniless, had turned up at the front door wanting a climbing partner, he’d have happily climbed with him. A reporter, on seeing Derek’s room a few days ago, commented that it appeared almost monastic. While  “monastic” is hardly a word I’d have applied to Derek, perhaps it does fit. He didn’t care that he had no money, no insurance, no rich relatives, no possessions beyond a few clothes and a small rack of gear, no job skills, and couldn’t drive a car. He understood that possessions don’t get you up more climbs and don’t win you more friends. Derek should have had no regrets about his life.

After his death, the Derek Hersey Memorial Fund was established to help defray the costs of cremation and returning his remains to Colorado. Donations were generous enough to allow the Hersey parents to be brought to Colorado to meet his friends and see Eldorado. Organizers hope contributions will allow a memorial tree grove to be planted in Eldorado Canyon.

— Steve “Crusher” Bartlett, 1993

2015 Postscript: 

*with no internet, no cell phones and virtually no commercial sponsorship, this was done the hard way, earned by brave deeds, spread by little more than word of mouth.

** The circumstances of his death have always seemed strangely unclear to me. The Steck-Salathe, at a humble 5.9, should have been well within his ability. What went wrong?

Some say there was a sudden storm that day that rolled over Sentinel Rock. Of course, for a solo climber partway up a 1,500-foot climb, with no possible escape, being faced with the threat of a storm would have been a frightening prospect, with potentially dire consequences: falling stones, lightning, wet, slippery rock, hypothermia. Yet, I’ve also heard people say the weather that day was fine. Some suggest that, though he set off saying he was heading to the Steck-Salathe, he may have changed his mind and attempted the 5.11 next door, a climb that in the guidebook might have sounded reasonable but was regarded by locals as insecure, with a devious crux—located above where his body was found. One thing for sure, he had just climbed El Capitan’s Nose-in-a-day, with Craig Luebben, and was surely still tired from this.

Conversations with friends who were with him on trips just prior to his last one suggest that during his last few months he had been making a conscious effort to ramp up his soloing, pushing himself hard. Perhaps awkward questions about where his life was going distracted him from his customary living-in-the-moment mindset, creating a subtle shift in his risk-assessment skills.

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This was my first published piece. A big Thank You to Alison Osius for her faith that I could write at all, and her patience while we wrestled my draft into some kind of shape. It still seems scattered, elliptical, raw, but captures something of the grief and shock we all felt at the time.

Derek's death came at a time of transition for the climbing world. Before this, climbing was a truly extreme sport, climbers were careful daredevils, the best of whom attained some athletic prowess. Now, athleticism is mandatory, and risk-taking is optional. Derek was the embodiment of the old-school daredevil climber, and, looking back, his death a powerful symbol of changing values.