Reflecting on the Loss of a Fellow Thru-Hiker
I first met Grandmaster at Tray Mountain Shelter in Georgia. My mom and I had arrived at the shelter in mid-afternoon after climbing Tray Mountain in torrential rain. We were soaking wet, cold, and exhausted when we reached the shelter and were extremely happy to see that there was just enough room for the two of us to squeeze inside.
Everyone else at Tray Mountain Shelter that afternoon had already peeled their wet clothes off and climbed into their sleeping bags to stay warm. We quickly did the same. The following few hours were spent staring out into the rain, sharing some conversation, and digging through our food bags as we decided what we’d cook for dinner. A few of the hikers that we stayed with in that shelter have become friendly faces that we continue to regularly see along our journey, including Nitro, Mountain Doctor, and Wise One.
As we settled into our home for the evening, a few more drenched hikers trickled into the shelter. First was a woman from Poland (her trail name has escaped me). She was so cold and wet, that when she saw that the shelter was full she burst into tears. All of us quickly scooted over to make room for her, allowing her to take off her wet clothes and get warm.
The next soaked thru-hiker to show up at the shelter was Grandmaster. He looked into the shelter and saw that it was already packed full. When he recognized one of our shelter inhabitants – Mountain Doctor – he shouted an enthusiastic greeting. They chatted for a bit, then with a shrug and a smile, Grandmaster said, “I’m going to go set up my tent.”
I was struck by his positive and carefree attitude in that moment. While all of us were huddled together in the shelter trying our best to stay out of the cold rain, Grandmaster was unfazed. I remember thinking, that guy must really like backpacking.
While Grandmaster set up his tent in the rain, Mountain Doctor explained to me where his trail name had come from. During one of his first nights out on the trail, Grandmaster had stayed up past dark engaged in an epic chess game with a fellow thru-hiker. Although he had ultimately lost the game, his steadfast and thoughtful approach to the chess game had inspired his trail name.
The next morning the clouds had cleared and we were treated to an amazing sunrise through the still leafless oak trees on top of Tray Mountain. My mom and I got an early start – we were headed for the road into Hiawassee, GA that afternoon. Grandmaster had not emerged from his tent by the time we left.
We spent part of the day hiking with Wise One, a woman in her early to mid-50s from the Boston area. We were hiking at right about the same pace and decided to share a shuttle into Hiawassee as we approached the road. Although Wise One had called ahead for the shuttle, we ended up waiting 30-40 minutes for it to arrive. Just as the shuttle pulled into the parking area, Grandmaster came bounding down the trail, arriving just in time to jump into the car with us.
This was our first formal introduction to Grandmaster, since the conversation at Tray Mountain Shelter the previous day had been very brief. We chatted a bit, learned that he was from the Netherlands, then got dropped off at Hiawassee’s Budget Inn and went our separate ways.
After laundry and showers, my mom and I headed down the street to the local brewpub for dinner. There was a raucous crowd of thru-hikers at the pub, but Grandmaster was not one of them. When we returned to the Budget Inn, we found Grandmaster sitting on the concrete patio of his motel room pulling apart a rotisserie chicken. We stopped and chatted with him for a moment, learning that he was planning on taking a zero the following day.
My mom and I jumped back on trail the next morning. Soon, we crossed the border into North Carolina, where it started to snow. By the time we were approaching Standing Indian Shelter, the snow was coming down hard and fast with several inches of accumulation.
Standing Indian Shelter was packed with people that night, and lots more had already pitched their tents. We quickly threw our tents up and then walked over to the campfire where a group of thru-hikers was congregated. Here, we saw Grandmaster again. He had arrived while we were setting up our tents. We also met a few of the folks he’d been hiking with for the past few days – Robyn (who didn’t yet have a trail name), and KaPow.
The snow was projected to continue for the next couple of days, and a group of the hikers at the shelter that night were working on an exit strategy. The next morning, as everyone crawled from their snow-covered tents and put on their frozen hiking shoes, about half of the group from the shelter hiked back a couple of miles to a dirt road where they had arranged for a shuttle to bring them into town. My mom and I weren’t going to let a bit of snow stop us from walking, however. Grandmaster and his crew were on the same page – so we continued up the trail, climbing our first peak above 5,000 feet as the snow continued to fall.
Grandmaster, Robyn, and KaPow were all hiking quite a bit faster than my mom and I, but we ran into them at Carter Gap Shelter that afternoon. Someone had built a campfire inside this shelter the night before, and a few hikers had stayed behind and kept the fire going throughout the entire day. It was warm and smoky inside the shelter, and there were about a dozen hikers crammed inside. Grandmaster and KaPow were leaving as we arrived – they had decided to push on another three miles to the next campsite. Their friend Robyn followed them soon after. We decided to spend the night at Carter Gap.
The next day the weather cleared and the snow began to melt. We climbed up Albert Mountain, had some amazing views, and crossed the 100-mile mark on our NOBO thru-hike. We decided that we could make it to Rock Gap and get a shuttle into Franklin, NC that afternoon, so I called to reserve a spot at a hostel and set up a shuttle into town.
We arrived at Rock Gap, and I called the shuttle driver to confirm our location. He said that he was picking a few hikers up from Winding Stair Gap, about three miles north of us, then he would come for us. Fifteen minutes later, the shuttle arrived, and we were delighted to see Grandmaster, Robyn, and KaPow sitting in the back seat!
We greeted each other happily as we squeezed into the SUV and started off down the highway into Franklin. We shared stories from the day’s adventures and talked about our plans for the upcoming section of the trail. Grandmaster commented on how this was the second time in a row that we had coincidentally ended up in the same shuttle heading into town.
In Franklin, we were all given the rundown on the hostel facilities. We picked out loaner clothes while cracking jokes about our fashion decisions. This was the first hostel along the AT that any of us had stayed in, so all of us were experiencing the loaner clothes situation for the first time. It was a Sunday night, and we were told that there was only one restaurant open in the entire town – a Mexican place. Let’s shower and meet at the restaurant, I suggested.
My mom and I made it to the restaurant first and grabbed a large booth. We ordered oversized margaritas, and they arrived right as Grandmaster, Robyn, and KaPow walked through the door. This was a typical Mexican restaurant, the likes of which one can find in virtually any town in America, but Grandmaster and Robyn were in awe. Grandmaster was from the Netherlands and Robyn is from the UK. Neither were accustomed to the type of Mexican food that we all take for granted here in the US. They ogled over the menu before finally placing their order. When the food arrived, all of us were in bliss. We had hiked just far enough for our hiker hunger to have kicked in, so the food was eagerly devoured.
We all got to know each other a bit more over the course of this dinner, and Grandmaster expressed particular interest in the fact that my mom and I were hiking together. He explained that a few years back, he had hiked the Camino trail in Spain with his mom. This had clearly been an important turning point in his life and surely provided inspiration for his Appalachian Trail hike. He shared some stories from the Camino with all of us and mentioned several times how cool he thought it was that my mom and I were hiking the AT together.
When my mom learned that Grandmaster was only 23 years old, she was taken aback. Despite his slightly goofy, lanky appearance, he had a definite maturity in his style of communication that made him seem older. Instead of partying with all the 20-somethings out on the trail, he was cultivating a tramily of unique and interesting people coming from a wide range of backgrounds.
We also discussed our upcoming plans for the hike at dinner. While my mom and I were taking a zero the following day, Grandmaster, Robyn, and KaPow were getting back on trail.
After dinner, we walked back to the hostel together as it was getting dark. When we arrived, my mom and I headed for bed, while our friends started organizing their gear and food supplies in preparation for an early start the following morning. Before going to bed, I wished them luck and told them that I hoped to see them again down the trail. That was the last time that I saw Grandmaster.
My mom and I have now hiked over 700 miles since sharing that meal with Grandmaster, but he never entirely left our thoughts. He had made an impression on both my mom and me, and my mom tells me that she was hoping we would catch up with him. You never know when you’re going to run into someone on the trail. Chance encounters with folks who you haven’t seen for weeks or months are one of the great things about thru-hiking the AT.
My mom and I were staying at a hostel in Pearisburg, VA when our friend and fellow thru-hiker Rawhide approached us to ask if we’d heard about Grandmaster. “What about Grandmaster?” We asked. “He died a few days ago,” Rawhide told us. We were dumbfounded. How could this have happened? The AT feels like such a safe place, with an amazing community of support. How could such an amazing human lose his life while participating in this idyllic mobile community?
Rawhide shared everything that he knew about what had happened to Grandmaster. His account was basically the same as what has now been reported across many media outlets. While eating breakfast at one of the overlooks on top of McAfee Knob, he appeared to have passed out, or fainted, then slumped forward and fell over the edge.
The woman who saw Grandmaster fall was Robyn, and it is her account of the tragic incident that has appeared in every media story recounting Grandmaster’s death. She posted her statement on the Appalachian Trail Hikers 2022 Facebook group – here’s what she said:
The hiker who fell was Grandmaster, and I can confirm he passed away in hospital shortly after his fall. I am part of his tramily and posting on all of our behalfs and with approval of his family to clarify the truth of what happened.
He was sitting at the edge of the cliffs past McAfee with his feet on a lower rock, not right on the edge, not posing for a photo, and not on the knob itself. He spontaneously slumped forwards and fell. He was totally well, just chilling eating breakfast. We think he must have passed out, but we don’t know why and will never know for sure.
He was our friend, and the most lively, empathetic, personable, fun and goofy guy you could ever meet. If you met him on the trail I’m sure you will remember him. We have set up an email address if you have any photos or stories you would like to share about him, these will all be sent on to his family. [email protected] He will be incredibly missed. Thank you all for keeping his family in your thoughts
Most of the hikers at the hostel in Pearisburg, where we received this news, had never met Grandmaster, but everyone was talking about the events surrounding his death. For many of the folks who didn’t know him, it felt like his death served as a reminder that hiking the AT can be dangerous. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had numerous conversations with fellow hikers about this shift in their mindset. Thru-hikers are being more careful as they approach the edges of cliffs and viewpoints. I spoke with a thru-hiker recently who told me that as he was descending the steep, rocky trail from Dragon’s Tooth overlook, he couldn’t stop thinking about how one wrong step could lead to a catastrophic outcome.
It’s clearly too soon to assess what effect this tragic incident will have on the AT and thru-hiking culture long term. All I can say is that despite the fact that I only knew him briefly, I continue to think about Grandmaster every day that I’m on the trail. Although there is a great deal of sadness associated with these thoughts, I also feel appreciation for the opportunity that I had to spend a small amount of time with this unique individual. Life is fleeting, and it’s clear that Grandmaster died doing something that he loved with all of his heart.
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