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TNB: The Great Tragedy at Carderock

By Alison Osius

John Gregory (left) and Geoff Farrar in front of Barnacle Face, which is more commonly referenced as X-Face, at Carderock, Maryland. Photo: Paul Hess. Last week an article on “Carderock Geoff” appeared on Geoff Farrar, 69, died December 28 after a climbing day at his haunt of Carderock, Maryland. He had argued earlier that day with a protégé, Dave DiPaolo, 31, a troubled person with a history of substance abuse. Farrar walked from the parking lot to a rock wall to boulder, and minutes later DiPaolo ran from the scene. Friends found Farrar lying at the base with severe head trauma.

At first the death appeared to be an accident. Farrar usually bouldered or soloed; he’d been doing a high traverse; and an early report from John Gregory, who found him, was that he had hit his head on a sharp rock and the edge of a railroad tie.

As Hunt Prothro, a longtime local climber, says, “No one wanted to believe that Dave would do that. We were resistant.”

The locals all knew DiPaolo, had climbed with him. DiPaolo and Farrar had been climbing together since Dave’s teens, though their partnership had fallen off in the last couple of years.

Two and a half weeks after the incident, police apprehended DiPaolo in upstate New York, and as locals verged into a twilit acceptance, he admitted killing Farrar with a claw hammer.

He said he had acted in self-defense, while leaving the rest of us to shake our heads at the sorrowful event, and wonder, Who brings a claw hammer to climb? DiPaolo’s story was that he had found it on the ground.

I cannot extrapolate any national issues in our sport from an isolated conflict, cannot tie them together. I read the detailed account, by Sid Balman, Jr. with interest and admiration for the author’s painstaking research, though I was surprised to find myself in there. I was correctly identified as a Rock and Ice editor and a past president of the American Alpine Club. I did arrange, as stated, an online obituary by Prothro, a D.C.-area climber who knows all involved and whom I have worked with before. (I am also from the area, and have climbed at Carderock.) On the phone, Hunt described the events with pain and wonder, and over the next few days he wrote an eloquent account.

But I knew nothing about some unnamed figure from the AAC said to have contacted Hunt “within hours” of our conversation, “to make him aware that the ‘leadership/board/past presidents of the AAC hope’ he would write the obituary in a way that the killing ‘is not seen as a “climbing event” showing the devolution of the sport.’” Promise: I didn’t sic anyone on him.

The real problem, though, is this bewildering paragraph, appearing seemingly out of nowhere: “There has been … more than a tiny bit of hand-wringing by national climbing groups concerned that this incident might somehow be interpreted as another sign that the heyday of traditional rock climbing, and the largesse of the industries that support it, may be drawing to a close.”

Huh? It is not clear what “national groups” the article is talking about (having only mentioned the AAC), nor what “traditional” values have a bearing (it refers to a relative lack of mentorship in today’s flourishing gym era, but the Farrar-DiPaolo relationship was an example of mentoring); nor why industry support would possibly be germane to anything in this dreadful situation.

I contacted Balman, a former international correspondent for UPI as well as Outside contributor, asking for an explanation.

Dave DiPaolo (Warren County Sheriff)."After writing almost 3,000 words, I don't have anything else to say,” he e-mailed. “This tragic, multidimensional story speaks for itself."

To me the above paragraph is a shame, extraneous. I cannot extrapolate any national issues in our sport from an isolated conflict, cannot tie them together.

In any case, Balman writes from the ground. He lives and climbs in the area and told me that he has climbed “tons” with both men. What the article does exceptionally well is detail the day in question, through extensive research and access to the climbers and authorities involved. Balman recounts DiPaolo’s history of drug (including heroin) use and rehab, theft and aggressiveness. The article observed Farrar’s own confrontational side, and reported that DiPaolo hated criticism, while as a mentor, Farrar tended to reprove him.

Farrar was an institution at the crag; we all have “characters” in our little communities. He was outspoken, shouting unsolicited beta or telling others they were using off-limits holds. That could be annoying, but was a given, and he was respected, dedicated and friendly. He was a particularly good climber who made hard, thoughtful problems using new moves and eliminates, and he was a mentor to other young climbers as well as DiPaolo.

Dave DiPaolo was flawed, struggling. Climbers came to avoid him or his belays. Yet he was “nice,” Prothro adds, and “encouraging to others, especially to climbers new to Carderock.”

Prothro says in wondering tones, “Just last month he gave me a Counting Crows CD,” and the younger man was generous with credit when they climbed or when he’d done one of Prothro’s routes elsewhere, at Seneca Rocks.

“He had a lot of talent and, like most talented people, he respected it in others … [H]e had a kind of deep respect for very few. I think Geoff was one.”

DiPaolo currently faces charges of voluntary manslaughter.

The tale is both smaller and bigger than an issue in climbing, a tragedy in the literary genre: the downfall of a great character, and a disastrous conclusion for all.

Prothro calls Farrar the “repository of all knowledge at Carderock” and the tale “Oedipal, mythic.”

“The two were deeply connected,” he says, and that he saw elements of a “father-son” dynamic between them. “There was deep affection between the two.” 

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