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Hiker from the Netherlands has died after McAfee Knob fall

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The long-distance hiker who fell 50 feet off a cliff just north of McAfee Knob’s summit early Sunday has died, the Roanoke County Fire and Rescue Department said Tuesday.

Paul Classen, a 23-year-old from the Netherlands, died at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital later that day, after a dramatic rescue operation involving first responders, fellow hikers, a physician wilderness medical care specialist, an ATV and a helicopter retrieved him from the remote mountain near Catawba.

Robyn Urdaibay, a member of Classen’s “tramily” — trail family — also confirmed his death on the Appalachian Trail Hikers 2022 page on Facebook Tuesday.

Urdaibay said in her post that she was sharing information about Classen “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,” Urdaibay said. “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.”

Matt Johnson, 40, of Roanoke, witnessed the incident out of the corner of his eye. He said Classen was with a group of about 12 hikers, including members of his group of thru-hikers, who all seemed to be smiling and “having a good time.”

Johnson said he was about 20 feet away from Classen when he fell, adding the incident wasn’t due to “extreme negligence.”

“It wasn’t like he was bouncing around on the edge,” he said.

Johnson said he quickly reached Classen amid large boulders below the crest because he knew a fast route down the craggy mountainside.

“We were also able to send teams of hikers in both directions to help the first responders carry gear,” Johnson said. “Paul’s trail family really came together and did all that was possible to attempt to save him. They kept him still and calm, talked to him the whole time we were waiting on rescue. Everyone there was willing to help.”

“He was our friend, and the most lively, empathetic, personable, fun and goofy guy you could ever meet,” Urdaibay said on Facebook. “If you met him on the trail, I’m sure you will remember him.”

Jimmy Moore, 55, of Roanoke said he met Classen on Saturday. Classen  used a nickname, as many Appalachian Trail hikers do, calling himself “Grandmaster.”

“I went to take some photos of a trail-running friend, Kacie, on her thru hike,” Moore said Tuesday. “We ran into Grandmaster along the way. I only talked to him for a few minutes.”

“He said he carried a chess set, hence the name Grandmaster,” Moore continued. “He was laughing, because someone had just beaten him at chess. He told us he was hiking to Daleville on Sunday and leaving the trail. He needed to get to Washington, D.C. to fly home. While we were talking, I took a few pictures.”

Moore said in a Facebook post that Classen had indicated an interest in hiking the entire Appalachian Trial.

“So very sad for him and his family,” Moore wrote.

Urdaibay invited members of the hiker Facebook group to send photos and stories of Classen to stories.grandmaster@gmail.com.

“These will all be sent on to his family,” Urdaibay said. “He will be incredibly missed. Thank you all for keeping his family in your thoughts.”

“We have witnessed an outpouring of sympathies and support from the greater A.T. hiking community, a reminder of the close connections the trail creates even between those who have not met directly. We hope that such sympathies offer a degree of comfort to all those grieving his loss,” said Sandra Marra, president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the organization that manages the backcountry footpath.

“We also express our sincere thanks to the rescue teams who assisted in the rescue operation,” Marra added.

Classen is not the first to die after falling from 3,200-foot picturesque McAfee Knob, among the most popular hiking destinations both in the Roanoke Valley and along the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, which extends between Georgia and Maine.

In July 2018, Gregg Marr Sr., 67, of Florida, slipped and fell 100 feet from the summit. He was hospitalized and died about a week later.

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Emma Coleman covers public safety and courts in the Roanoke Valley. She can be reached at (540) 981-3198 or emma.coleman@roanoke.com.

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