Legendary rock climber died doing what he loves on cliff in Dunbar Township
A Facebook post including a photo of Calvin Swoager Jr. said it all about the fit, 66-year-old man who had been scaling mountains for decades before falling to his death on a climb Sunday in Dunbar Township, Fayette County.
“The man in this picture is a climbing legend and today he died doing what he loved ... our hearts are heavy with sadness as we lose another friend ... may you RIP and your legacy live on.”
In climbing circles, Swoager of Canonsburg, Washington County, earned legend status by being the first to tackle mountain faces others would shun — establishing some of the oldest, hardest climbs throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said Joe Brady, president of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Rock Climbers Coalition.
“He was known for doing very scary routes,” Brady said. “Being the first person to climb them ... you are considered a trailblazer. Being the first one, being a trailblazer of especially difficult, dangerous routes, is noteworthy.”
In a photo that appears in the book, “New River Rock: Rock Climbs in West Virginia's New River Gorge,” published in 1997 by Rick Thompson, Swoager is pictured “soloing” — climbing without a safety rope to harness him if he fell — up the perpendicular face of “New Yosemite” in 1985.
Thirty years later, he died free-soloing while climbing with friends at Coll's Cove — known as one of the premier climbing sites in Southwestern Pennsylvania, said Brady, who said he arrived at the site shortly after Swoager had fallen.
Although the remote site is on state gamelands, about nine miles from Ohiopyle State Park, information about whether other accidents have occurred there was not available Monday.
“It was a tall cliff, 40-feet high. He made an assessment that the terrain was well within his abilities ... and that a rope would not be necessary. It was a calculated risk, a decision which Cal made as an individual,” Brady said. “What I am told is that a foothold broke, causing him to slip and fall.”
Brady said climbers in the vicinity responded quickly by calling Fayette County 911 and attempting CPR on Swoager for 45 minutes under the direction of the emergency operator. They rigged anchor ropes under the assumption that rescue personnel would need to extract the injured climber on a board from above when they arrived, Brady said.
But the arrival of the emergency crews was too late. Swoager was pronounced dead at the site by the Fayette County coroner Sunday afternoon.
“We're all pretty devastated by what happened,” Brady said.
Veteran rock climber Mike Varlotta, 50, met Swoager about a year ago and has been climbing with him regularly ever since. The Pittsburgh school teacher said even though Swoager gave up climbing for a time in the 2000s to devote his energy to training as an evangelical pastor, his “passion for climbing” was evident the first time they met.
Varlotta recalled the day when he and his three sons met the legend while on a climb.
“I introduced myself and my kids, and Cal took an immediate interest,” he said. “He loved the fact that we climb as a family. He was as nice to us as any stranger has ever been at any crag I have ever climbed in 25 years of climbing. I still can't get over that he was as interested in our stories as we were of his.”
A neighbor, Michael Stiteler, said Swoager went rock climbing almost every weekend. But when he was around, Stiteler said he couldn't have been a better neighbor.
“Cal was always willing to lend a hand whenever he could,” Stiteler said. “When he bought a new tractor a few years ago, he gave me his old one ... that's what kind of guy he was.
“He was a very religious man, and he really loved climbing. I just can't say enough about him. He will surely be missed.”
The Fayette County Coroner's Office has not determined if an inquest will be held into Swoager's death.
Results of an autopsy were not released Sunday night.
Friends said Swoager is survived by his wife, Terry of Canonsburg, and a sister, Melissa Swoager Egan of Chicago. He was preceded in death by his father, Calvin Sr., a former Castle Shannon councilman, in 2002, and his mother, Dixie Lee, in 2009. Funeral arrangements were pending Monday afternoon.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.