A Durango man died Sunday on the face of Starlight Peak, a 14,200-foot mountain in California.
Tom Zajicek, an employee at Backcountry Experience, was climbing the peak with Laura Scull, an associate professor of mathematics at Fort Lewis College.
Zajicek was killed when his rappelling system became detached from the mountain, according to a news release from Inyo County Sheriff’s Office.
The two climbers reportedly reached the summit around 2 p.m. Sunday and then began their descent along the northwest ridge.
They changed their descent route and began rappelling down the face of the mountain. The accident happened when the rappelling system failed.
Zajicek was left hanging by the rope when it became entangled on a rock.
Scull survived and then ascended to a small ledge where she waited 26 hours to be rescued by a Yosemite Search and Rescue helicopter.
Scull was not seriously injured.
Zajicek was described as an experienced climber by his friends and colleagues.
“We just found out last night. It has been a hard day because he is like our extended family,” said Ginny Chandler, operations manager with Backcountry Experience, on Thursday. “He was really dear to a lot of us and a big influence on the younger staff.
“We’ve had people calling us and coming in to ask about him all day.”
Friend Lynn Coburn met Zajicek about 10 years ago through Seniors Outdoors, an outdoor recreation and social club in Durango. She said they often climbed together.
“He was the best climber I’ve ever been with and extremely safety conscious,” Coburn said. “I’ve seen him in action a lot, and he was one of the most skillful people I’ve been around.”
Coburn said she can only speculate how the accident happened.
“They did not summit until 2 p.m., so they were running late. I suspect they were rushed and took a short cut,” she said. “They probably did not want to get stuck on the mountain in the dark.”
Coburn said they climbed together as recently as several weeks ago, and Zajicek was looking forward to his trip to California.
“We were talking about this climb. He was really excited about it. It was a big deal for him,” she said.
Coburn said she hopes Zajicek is remembered for his outgoing personality.
“He was a hell of a sweet guy. That’s what I want people to know,” she said.