The world, and the countless lives that he touched, will be lessened because Brian McCray is no longer with us. I am trying to come to grips with the fact that I will never again see that aw-shucks grin, those piercing eyes, or hear his nasally voice cutting right through the BS to get right to the point of the matter.–Matt Childers
Monday morning in the office I saw that Kurt “Burt” Arend had photos of my hero Brian McCray, 45, nearly 46, on his Facebook wall. He had written something about “losing a close friend,” and “the dark art of climbing,” but there was no name attached to the post. Then Brian’s ex-wife Roxanna Brock McDade posted pictures of Brian.
I called Matt Childers, a friend of Brian’s since the mid 1990s, who confirmed his August 23 passing. It was a suicide. This was the first conversation of many more I would have in the next couple of days that revealed a clear outline of Brian and his legacy. He was a climber’s climber, but a better friend and mentor. For Matt, it was the opportunity to climb with Brian in Yosemite that left such an indelible impression. In 1999 they went for a ground-up attempt of Freerider on El Capitan for what would be the third or fourth ascent. They nearly pulled it off and missed the send by two hangs on the entire route.
“Neither one of us really cared that we didn’t officially send the route,” explained Matt. “We had such a blast up there goofing around and trying hard that we never even considered going back for it. It was the experience rather than the redpoint that we were interested in. He was the best climber that I have ever roped up with.”
Brian trained hard and dedicated himself to completing the most difficult routes he could imagine. For him that led to ascents of both short and muscular sport climbs and intricate and committing aid routes. From May 3-21, 1999, he made a giant first ascent over two weeks with Jim Bridwell, Terry Christensen, Glenn Dunmire and Brian Jonas on the Bears Tooth, Ruth Glacier, called The Useless Emotion (VII 5.9 WI4 A4, 4,700′). It was Brian’s first alpine climb, yet he led more than half of the route’s 39 pitches.
I first met Brian, his then-wife Roxanna and their schnauzer dog in front of the mountain shop in Vegas in April or May of 1997. We chatted it up in the parking lot. He was a wall climber. I climbed walls, and I could tell that he definitely outranked me as a climber. But he was open and approachable. I learned that Brian left his mark in the New River Gorge by establishing the first 5.14 in the Proper Soul area. We kept meeting up at big climbing areas, and it turned out we had very similar close friends.
Roxanna, who went through a divorce with Brian in the late 1990s, said, “He got the same life breath from climbing that I did and wanted to spend every minute doing it–we were hooked…. Brian was childlike, always hypersensitive with a deep understanding of people and subtleties. He was always psyched for people who loved climbing, like he would lift them up, teaching them all he knew. Compulsively he pursued new adventures, pushing the limits in sport, trad and big-wall climbing; first ascents were his real love. [I’m] grateful to have gotten to tie in with him, learn from him, have long conversations about things climbing and not. Though it makes me very sad, I am glad Brian can finally rest.”
Brian’s one and only day climbing with “Wild Man” Warren Hollinger ended in an emergency rescue in February ’99 while they were establishing an A5 route on the Grade VI Rainbow Wall in Red Rocks. It was a route Brian had been working on for several weeks when he recruited Warren. During one lead, Warren took a giant fall into a ledge and broke his back in the process.
“I owe him my life, no doubt about it,” Warren said over the phone at 7 a.m. from his home in Hawaii.
Warren recounted the scene of the accident. “It was at a 5.10 section that was less than vertical. An edge that broke. Just a small, half-pad edge. And the piece I was holding onto just blew. I went for 60 feet. I knew my back was broken, but he was able to pull me up to a ledge a little over half a foot wide until I got my feet splayed on it. Then he came over to me via a rope solo. Then Brian called for a rescue. “I stood there pasted up against the wall for six hours,” said Warren. “He was integral in my last day of climbing…. Without him I would have a higher probability of being paralyzed.”
Brian later returned to the route, solo, and finished it. He called it Sauron’s Eye.
“Brian was very fun loving,” Warren told me. “He enjoyed every aspect of climbing. At the end of the day, he wanted to be on the sharp end, channeling that drive on a hard pitch. He was at a constant state of going that hard. It can burn you out. Even though we only had one intimate day together, we’ll be bonded for life.”
The second time I ran into Brian was around a Curry Village tent in Yosemite Valley. He was smoking unfiltered Camels and getting ready to head up Freerider with Matt. Then I saw him at the base of Surgeon General, an A5 route on the far east face of El Cap. He showed me the big gash on his arm from falling on the route, and told me how the rope burned over his arm until he threw his arms up in the air allowing the Gri Gri to engage properly. He received a five-inch-long, third-degree burn during that 60-foot fall.
Now, I think back to what Matt told me on the phone from West Virginia. “It takes a certain person who’s willing to push the boat out that far for that long. It takes a certain wiring for someone to do that.”
Around the time I saw Brian below Surgeon General, he and Ammon McNeely were setting speed records on some of Zion’s and El Cap’s hardest aid routes and putting up first ascents all over the Southwest: South of Heaven (VI 5.8 A4+) and Stigmata (VI 5.11R A4+) in Zion; Sauron’s Eye (VI 5/10+R A4) in Red Rock.
“We [also] did the first one-day ascent of Latitudes,” on the Streaked Wall in Zion, Ammon said over the phone from his home in Ogden, Utah. As they climbed the route they spied a first ascent and talked loosely about returning together to climb it.
“I called Brian, and we started talking about the route, and he let me go on and on about doing the first ascent with him before telling me he was already halfway up the wall solo,” he said with a hint of laughter in his voice. “Brian called it Lord Helmet because you go through this Darth Vader feature. He thought that would be a funny name.”
Ammon continued, “He was always fighting demons. He was so strong mentally and physically I didn’t think he’d go out like that. I can’t understand it. Never will…. Just sad, man. We lost a good one.”
I visited Brian in Vegas awhile ago. His living room had piles of climbing shoes waiting to be resoled. He ran a business called Fly’n Brian’s Resoles that was around for many years. He had a steep climbing wall in his backyard. He was working as a mineral miner at the time, a trade he picked up from Jimmie Dunn.
I reached out to a lot of friends of Brian to know more and to share stories.
Mike Lewis, a climbing guide and long-term partner and friend, posted this about him on Facebook:
“Brian and I put up Dogma in Red Rocks, the Oasis in Red Rocks (with Roxanna Brock McDade), routes at Potosi, Buena Vista, and the New River Gorge, and we freed the Rainbow Wall and Brown Recluse in a day. Brian belayed me on my first 5.14 and was a huge mental and emotional support.”
I called Mike up from home. He talked from the bouldering wall at a gym in Boulder as I typed: “[Brian] put his efforts into the resoling business. Then he got into rigging. He bouldered V10, climbed 5.14, did the hardest big walls out there and did crazy big-wall routes on expeditions. He was at the top level of every type of climbing out there. [But he] had a number of stressers and didn’t always see the way out of it all. He was my best friend for a while. I told him to his face many times that he was my strongest mentor.
“[After] Dogma we did 15 rappels in 30 minutes to get off of it. We were simul-rapping with Gri Gris. I was trying every time to get my Gri Gri setup before his. He showed no effort in his face and body, but he was ahead of me every time and I was trying really hard. He was always able to keep it cool.”
My last thoughts of Brian are from that conversation in El Cap Meadow standing by the road, his wild blonde hair sticking out in every direction. He was attempting to solo Nightmare on California Street, one of Warren Hollinger and Grant Gardner’s last great climbs. He talked about the stresses of life in Vegas but was quick to let his worries of the real world rest and focus instead on the intricacies of pasting micro heads in a fractured feature, solo, on El Cap–where he was in his element.