On March 6, Nolan Smythe, 26, a highly regarded climber and BASE jumper from Moab, Utah, was climbing Pitch 14 of Logical Progression (VI 5.13, 2,800′)– a famous 28-pitch sport climb on El Gigante in northern Mexico–when a ledge he was standing on gave way beneath him; the rockfall cut his rope and he fell 1,500 feet to the valley below.
Smythe’s longtime climbing partner Aaron Livingston, also of Moab, was stranded on the wall until Mexican climbers Tiny Almada and Jose David “Bicho” Martinez were able to reach him around 7:20 p.m. on March 7; the team reached the top of the wall around 2:20 a.m., according to a report from Mexican authorities.
Smythe’s body was found Monday, March 9. Livingston returned with Smythe’s girlfriend Savannah Cummins and other friends to recover his remains on March 10.
Cummins posted on Instagram March 11:, addressing Smythe:
[Aaron] and [Jackson Marvell] had set up the tent by [the] time we arrived. We quickly sorted gear and set off to the base of the wall to find you. I was in back, still unsure [if] I wanted to be the first to find you. But I quickly caught up to everyone knowing I was here to find you. Jackson made some noise, and told us to be careful coming over. He found you. Aaron went over next. I asked if I could come; he said only if you want, and I did. I held your hand, I felt at peace, it brought me some amount of closure. The heli then flew two forensic guys in…. They did the necessary documentation…then helped us put you in a body bag for transport. The boys headed back down chopping a trail with a machete. I sat with you, my hand on your chest crying and telling you how much I love you.
We all got back to camp. [Angela Vanwiemeersch] packed us a bottle of tequila, it felt like a bad idea for me to drink, considering [I’d] had next to no food or water in my system for 36 hours, but I couldn’t resist. We both loved tequila. Jordanna made Jackson, Aaron and I dinner. We sat on a pad on the ground eating, passing around the bottle and sharing stories about you. It was the happiest day I’ve had yet. Honestly, it felt like I was I was just on an adventure, my favorite thing. We eventually all 4 crawled into our 2 person tent and all slept like logs. The first time I’d slept in what felt like forever. #realityofadventure
El Gigante is very remote, requiring hours rugged driving into Basaseachic Falls National Park, followed by a strenuous descent from the rim of the huge canyon. In a 2017 story for Evening Sends, titled “The Day I Sent Logical Progression,” Hayden Kennedy described approaching the climb through “jungle-choked gullies.”
Logical Progression is also approached by rappelling the route instead of hiking down to the base. This top-down approach also made the route appealing for a film crew, since it would be easier to fix ropes at strategic locations.
Smythe and Livingston did just that on their way down the wall, rigging for videographers to record an ascent by Sasha DiGiulian. That work was finished and the two friends were climbing the route for fun when the accident happened.
“We had rigged the selected pitches already and we were simply climbing, as well as sending at [the time of the accident],” Livingston told Alpinist. “[Nolan] was a climber’s climber. He was world-class in every way, not only in his climbing ability, but as a human, son, friend and lover.”
On March 12, Livingston posted a video of their last night together on the portaledge, in which Smythe is howling into the darkness, full of excitement: “I’m so psyched. This is so much fun,” he says, nodding his head.
Livingston’s post read:
…You knew you were ready for this and had 100% confidence. I was intimidated, it’s a really big wall. But I knew we could do it together. We played Rock Paper Scissors to see who would lead first. We always jokingly referred to it as the “sacred ritual.” I couldn’t have imagined your fate was decided at that moment. Something so simple chose who would come home. We checked knots, harness and belay device. Everything was good. I told you “climb on” and you started howling like the wild animal you were. You climbed with the same smile, the same style and grace as always. You climbed for fun, not for accolades or a pat on the back. We climbed the first 8 pitches quickly. Ate dinner and got to work on the first crux, 12d. I had some bad beta (as always), and you fixed it (as always). We both led the pitch without falling on our next tries. We bumped fists and had a wonderful night talking about our loving girlfriends, catching up on our winter activities and talking about our plans for the year. No subject was off limits. I’m usually quiet but with you the conversations flowed as easily as the waterfall that you couldn’t stop admiring. You always filled my heart with joy on the wall and you heckled me for being paranoid and hanging my helmet above my head on the portaledge. It would be our last night together. I wish we’d stayed up longer. The canyon rang with your laughter and it was so good to be there with my best friend. My buddy from childhood. The man I discovered climbing with. The man who saved my relationship and my life when I considered suicide. The next night was going to be the longest and loneliest of my life. #nolansmytheforever #love #family
Funding and support for rescue and recovery
DiGiulian is sponsored by Red Bull. It wasn’t initially clear if the men were hired directly by the company to rig for filming. DiGiulian told Alpinist on March 10:
Red Bull didn’t directly hire Nolan; Savannah and I did… This was for an expedition of mine with the hope of making a film. Savannah was the lead [director of photography] and so she recommended her boyfriend, Nolan, rig the static lines for her to film on. [Smythe and Livingston had completed rigging the lines before the accident took place.]
But yes, Red Bull has helped us in major ways, including enabling us to locate Nolan’s body. We initially were trying to work with the military but there was inaction and dragging feet. Red Bull [provided] a private chopper to fly in a small team to recover Nolan’s body and also to fly him out. They are also coordinating the efforts in getting Nolan back to the US.
Meanwhile, a GoFundMe campaign was started by Heather Lightfoot with the goal of raising $100,000 “to help support Nolan’s family, Richard, Daidri & Ryan Smythe and Nolan’s girlfriend, Savannah [Cummins], while they pick up the pieces. Also, for any additional costs not covered by the rescue support….”
A March 9 Instagram post by Cummins, in which she also writes to Smythe, reads:
…Aaron is now here with me, comforting me, telling me how much fun you were having, how you weren’t scared when you fell, that it all happened so fast, and how much you loved me; it’s easing my mind. I know exactly why he is your best friend. I love you forever, Nolan.
Alpinist plans to follow up with more details about Smythe’s life at a later date. A link to the Climbing Grief Fund can be found here.