March 11, 2014

Crowders Mountain victim identified as veteran climber

Shelby native Mark Byers, 53, had been climbing for four decades. He’s remembered as a skilled climber who didn’t take risks, and a family man.

On Saturday, Mark Byers went rock climbing by himself at his favorite spot – Crowders Mountain.

Two days later, on a return trip, he died there.

The 53-year-old Shelby resident, who started climbing four decades ago, fell Monday evening while descending a rock face on the Charlotte area’s best-known peak.

Once again, Byers was climbing solo.

Witnesses at the scene told authorities that Byers had reached the top of Middle Finger wall. During his descent, one of his climbing bolts, or “anchors,” used to hold his rope, gave way. He fell back and on the way down a second anchor came loose, they said.

Larry Hyde, superintendent of Crowders Mountain State Park, said Byers fell about 60 feet, hitting the mountain wall on his way down. His rope and climbing harness kept him from hitting the ground, leaving him hanging 10 to 15 feet in midair.

The husband and father was pronounced dead on the scene. A family member confirmed Byers’ death to the Observer on Tuesday afternoon.

Two sisters, Kerry Byers of Blacksburg, S.C., and Althea Smith of Lincolnton, said their brother started climbing as a 15-year-old, and Crowders Mountain was a frequent location.

On his online page for the Mountain Project, which serves as a guide and sounding board for the climbing community, Byers lists the Gaston County peak at the top of his favorite places to climb. Of the 30 or so trips dating back to 2009 that are listed on his personal log, two-thirds took place at the park.

Byers apparently left the sport during a large part of his adult life but returned in the last decade. He kept at it despite a massive heart attack in 2008.

On one of his posts on rockclimbing.com, Byers lamented his lack of climbing partners. “But I have been bouldering/climbing in the gym every chance I get,” he wrote. “I just hope the improvements I’ve made in the gym translate to improvements on real rock.”

Eddie Medina of Charlotte, a board member of the Carolinas Climbing Coalition, said Byers was an experienced solo climber and that scaling Middle Finger wall by himself was not a dangerous thing for him to do.

“He was not somebody who took a lot of risks – he played it safe,” said Medina, who had climbed at Crowders with a partner the same day Byers fell.

“Mark was not somebody who took up climbing because he enjoyed putting his life at risk. These kinds of fatalities happen. It shouldn’t be attributed to some kind of recklessness on his part.”

Middle Finger is not considered a difficult ascent for experienced climbers, Medina said, though it does get hit by weather systems moving in from the west, which can leave its rocks crumbly.

Byers’ death is at least the ninth at Crowders Mountain since the mid-1980s and the second this year. In January, Gary Mims, a longtime advocate for Gaston County’s trail system, was found at the bottom of a 70-foot outcrop known as David’s Castle. He apparently slipped while collecting trash.

Byers climbed David’s Castle on Saturday. “Roped solo,” his last Mountain Project post says. “Super Fun!!!”

Crowders Mountain attracts up to 10,000 climbers a year, Hyde said. Back in the 1980s, Byers regularly took his brother Thomas to his favorite Gaston County climbing spots.

Tuesday, Thomas Byers, now of St. Augustine, Fla., called his older brother’s death “a tragedy.”

Wherever he climbed, Mark Byers “knew what he was doing,” his brother said.

“He was a good man, a good family man, and he was fearless.”

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