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Frayed webbing blamed in deaths

Two rock climbers found dead Tuesday evening in the Red River Gorge area fell about 50 to 60 feet after frayed, discolored webbing "blew out," officials said Wednesday.

Benjamin E. Strohmeier of Hebron and Laura Fletcher of Brownsburg, Ind., both 18, were found off Ky. 11 at Emerald City, a climbing area near Natural Bridge State Park in western Wolfe County.

Dan Brayack, a friend of Stroh meier, says Strohmeier had been a climber since he was 5, and he climbed everywhere around the nation, including Yosemite in California and Red Rocks Canyon in Nevada.

Brayack said Strohmeier was "a talented and enthusiastic climber."

"He earned all of our respect with his attitude towards climbing, his creativity and his goofy antics," Brayack wrote in an e-mail. "He was a gifted and intelligent person, skipping two grades to graduate high school at the age of 15."

Brayack said Strohmeier "began an extended stay at the Red River Gorge, during which he became an integral part of the community."

"Ben was a younger brother to many, a good friend, and a familiar, happy face around the shop," Brayack recalled. "To everyone he was a member of the climbing family and will be sorely missed by all of us. We all loved him very much."

Brayack said Fletcher had been climbing for less than two years, and had progressed quickly as a climber.

"Her signature smile spread a lot of warmth, whether she was walking into the climbing gym or hiking up to the cliffs," Brayack wrote. "Blessed with a caring personality and a fun-loving spirit, she shared much joy with those she spent time with."

He said friends of the couple are planning a memorial, but he was not sure when.

Charlie Rittenberry, vice president of the area climbers coalition, said he started climbing with Strohmeier about three years ago. Rittenberry said he did not know Fletcher well, but Strohmeier was dating her.

Strohmeier, who also enjoyed writing poetry and short stories, had been working at Miguel's Pizza at the gorge.

Crews returned to the area where Strohmeier and Fletcher died Wednesday morning, inspecting equipment they hadn't seen on the rock the day before, said John May, a member of Wolfe County Search and Rescue.

There was webbing, a type of strap climbers use, on an anchor bolt, and the webbing "essentially tore in half, and as a result the climbers fell," May said.

They probably died from the impact, he said.

"That's the best information that we have, and that's what it looks like happened," May said. "Unless you were there and actually witnessed it, you can't say 100 percent."

May said crews initially thought their deaths had resulted from something more than a climbing mistake.

On Wednesday, two climbers inspecting the area rappelled down the climb Stroh meier and Fletcher were on and found the piece of frayed webbing about halfway down, May said.

May said the webbing was probably left on the rock by other climbers and used by Strohmeier and Fletcher. Their other equipment was in good condition. It's not uncommon for climbers to leave gear behind because of the difficulty of the climb.

The webbing that was left behind could have been 10-15 years old, because climbers don't often use webbing as anchors these days, said Shannon Stuart-Smith, founder of the Red River Gorge Climber's Coalition.

The number of climbers visiting the gorge has gradually increased in the past decade, and there's been a tremendous surge of people in the last three years, Stuart-Smith said. The gorge has gained a reputation for climbing, and the area is within driving distance for many people in surrounding states.

According to forest service records, it's the first time professional climbers, using ropes and other gear, have died at the gorge, said Stuart-Smith. Until now, climbing-related deaths at the gorge included people climbing on rocks without gear and people rappelling for sport, she said.

"We have feared that this day was coming," Stuart-Smith said.

Funeral arrangements have not been made.