mcafee knob
McAfee Knob, Catawba Mountain, Va.; (photo/Nico Schueler via Shutterstock)

Appalachian Trail Hiker Falls Off Cliff, Dies; Investigation Underway

A 23-year-old hiker suffered severe injuries and died when he fell 50 feet from a prominent and popular outcrop on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.

On May 29, Paul “Grandmaster” Classen fell from one of the most photographed places in Virginia and later died from his injuries.

Classen, 23, fell 50 feet from McAfee Knob, which juts from the summit of Catawba Mountain (3,197 feet). Rescue crews from the Roanoke County Fire & Rescue Department responded to the incident at 6 a.m. on Sunday. Per the department, a robust party comprising about 30 rescue personnel and three all-terrain vehicles located him 54 minutes later.

Rescuers reported they gave Classen first aid and “began” to carry him back to the summit. According to a statement, they then transferred Classen to an ATV and finally to a waiting medical helicopter, which transported him to Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

By 9:30 a.m., the department said all hikers and rescuers had left the trail.

Classen Reported Dead

On Monday, May 31, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reported, “It was announced today that Paul died from his injuries.”

The hike to McAfee Knob is one of the most popular hikes on the East Coast. It offers 270-degree panoramic views of the surrounding valley and mountains, according to Visit Roanoke Virginia.

Officials have not determined what caused Classen, originally from the Netherlands, to fall from the precipice. But anecdotal information has become available.

Hillary Taylor, who self-identified as part of his “tramily,” addressed the incident in the comment thread of Roanoke County Fire & Rescue’s post.

“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,” Taylor wrote.

“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.”

The same text appeared in the caption of another post on the Appalachian Trail Hikers 2022 Facebook page. Robyn Urdaibay, who joined the group the day of the accident, posted it there.

Witness Account

Matt Johnson, 40, of Roanoke, witnessed the incident from close range. Johnson told the Roanoke Times he was standing only about 20 feet away when Classen took the fall. Per the Times, Johnson did not think the hiker fell due to “extreme negligence.”

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

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.”


Classen’s friends organized an email campaign to share stories and photos in the deceased hiker’s memory via Facebook.

“We have set up an email address if you have any photos or stories you would like to share about him,” the post said.

“[T]hese will all be sent on to his family. He will be incredibly missed. Thank you all for keeping his family in your thoughts.”

Catawba Mountain is located about 190 miles west of Richmond. Classen is not the first hiker to die from a fall there. 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 after the accident.

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Sam Anderson

Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.