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Amazing Grace: A Tribute to Brian Delaney

Brian Delaney jugs to the Heart Ledge on Yosemite’s Salathe Wall. Delaney passed away on July 12, 2014. [Photo] Travis Herbert

Brian Delaney died in an accident while rope-soloing at Cathedral’s Barber Wall on July 12, 2014. This obituary is adapted from a eulogy I shared at a memorial for him at Cathedral Ledge on August 16. More than 100 people hiked to the top of the cliff, where Ed Webster gave a moving speech about Brian and his place in New England climbing history, culminating it by having everyone there shout out, “Brian! We love you!” Four climbers then rappelled over the edge of the wall right of the Prow to spread Brian’s ashes. The ashes started to fall but caught an updraft and rose into the air above the cliff. It was a fitting symbol of Brian’s spirit. Brian is survived by his wife, Dr. Kristine Hoyt; his daughter, Hana; his parents, Bob and Mary; and his brother, Mark.

Anyone who climbed with Brian or watched him climb was blessed to witness the uncommon elegance and skill he displayed whenever he touched rock. I was fortunate to meet him early in my career, and my survival as a climber and whatever precision of movement and aesthetic expression I brought to the vertical realm were largely due to his influence. Of course, anyone who met him also knows that the grace Brian brought to climbing pervaded everything he did and touched anyone he met. He had an uncanny aptitude for finding the beauty in life and revealing it for all to see and share. And perhaps the most captivating part of Brian was that, despite being so accomplished in so many areas, he had a stunning lack of ego that attracted all who came near.

Brian was 13 when he started climbing in western Massachusetts in the early ’70s and quickly became known for his strength and skill. He partnered with leading climbers of the day like Ed Webster, Henry Barber, Jimmy Dunn and Joe Lentini, making first ascents and repeating test pieces in New England. His first ascent with Webster of the Women in Love/Book of Solemnity Linkup (5.11d) at Cathedral Ledge was considered a major free climbing breakthrough when they completed it in June 1975.

While at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Brian helped uncover and develop some of the state’s little-known gems, including the now-closed Rattlesnake Gutter and the now-popular Farley Ledges. Brian managed to find rock everywhere his life took him, whether it was bouldering on sea cliffs, cragging at a cliff tucked in the woods or climbing the walls of a hotel on a trip to Africa with his wife, Kris, and daughter, Hana. Over 40-plus years, his passion for climbing never abated. He still had routes he wanted to do or do again, whether it was on the crags near his home in Maine or on trips to Yosemite, Zion and Moab.

Delaney climbs on the East Buttress of El Cap. [Photo] Dominic Tracey

Despite his accomplishments as a climber, Brian was best known for his easy smile, his warm, generous personality and his flaming red hair. For me, three memories of Brian’s personality stick out.

First–the way he walked. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Brian was a bit of an ambler. It might seem contrary to my assertion about his transcendent grace, but it wouldn’t be unusual for Brian to stumble over a root on the approach or trip over a water bottle at the base. I had not previously thought about this anomaly–how someone so agile could at times be so clumsy–and now believe it was largely because, unlike many of us who keep our heads down, Brian liked to look up to see the beauty in life: the climb he was about to do, the butterfly dancing on the wind, the people around him.

Delaney during a trip to Machu Picchu in June. [Photo] Doug Lund-Yates

When I first met Brian, he had just been in a bad car crash. I was bouldering at the base of Rattlesnake Gutter when he limped up the trail, and I wondered what someone who was having trouble walking was doing wandering around at the Gutter. I found out soon after he put on his shoes. Shuffling to the base of the cliff, he grabbed two holds, stepped up with his good leg and swung his gimpy leg up like a sailor with a stump. As soon as all four of his limbs touched rock, he was off. All signs of impairment disappeared and he became unbound, flowing over the rock with power and precision. The transformation was breathtaking and stuns me now in recollection. When he flashed that disarming smile and asked if I wanted to do a climb, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

My second observation of Brian was of his ability as a writer. An avid reader and lover of words and word play, he composed letters that were pleasing to the mind and the eye. Not only did he express his thoughts clearly and cogently, he did it with a penmanship that would make a Catholic school nun jealous. He put each word in exactly the right place, one idea building on the next, every sequence leading to a seamless transition and all of it flowing toward whatever point he chose to make.

In Maine, Delaney leads Meltdown at Shagg Cliff. [Photo] Michael Lambert

My third recollection of Brian is of him putting on his climbing shoes. The image is still vivid in my mind. I can smell that mixture of chalk and sweat-stained leather, hear the laces being pulled through the eyelets and cinched tight, see Brian’s fingers dancing around his ankle as he ties the knot.

And now he’s on the rock and leading off. The rope snakes past sun-dappled stone as he climbs upward, commenting on the moves, placing impeccable protection, savoring the route like a connoisseur of fine wine who has uncorked a bottle of rare vintage. Soon he is at the belay and calling for me to start. I am not sure I can do this route. He has made it look easy, and I know that when I get up there the holds aren’t going to be nearly as big as he made them look.

He calls down to me, “You can do this, Pat.” Bolstered by his confidence, feeling it flow to me through the rope, I look up and catch the flash of his red hair in the sun as he leans back to scope out the next pitch. When I get stuck at the crux, he tells me again that I can do this. He tells me to take my time. He’s in the sun, has his shoes off and has a great view.

Delaney takes a break while climbing on the Salathe Wall. [Photo] Travis Herbert