The spirit rock at Kannapolis’ A.L. Brown High School said it all: “RIP Chris Overcash, c/o (class of) 2014.”
Late Sunday, grieving students painted the message and stood with parents at the rock praying for Chris Overcash, who died in a Saturday hiking accident. Before Monday’s first block bell, a stream of Overcash’s friends and schoolmates stopped to say goodbye. They left flowers and lit candles and remembered the sociable, inquisitive junior who had talked about joining the Army after high school.
About noon Saturday, Overcash, 16, was part of a Boy Scout hiking trip to Stone Mountain State Park in Wilkes County, when he and at least two other scouts strayed from the trail and the rest of Concord-based Troop 128 as they reached the summit.
There they suddenly found themselves in a precarious position on the mountain’s iconic granite dome.
Overcash apparently slipped and fell 400 to 500 feet to his death, state parks spokesman Charlie Peek said Monday.
“The trail opens onto a huge granite ball, and it’s not unusual for people to scatter to some degree to get whatever vantage point they can,” Peek said. “Some of this group of scouts got too far from the trail in an area that gets steep very suddenly.”
It’s the second death at the popular park – about 90 miles north of Charlotte – since June. UNC Charlotte student Jordan Slusher died June 9 after he apparently fell off the same south-facing slope.
Slusher was found at the base of the dome in the same vicinity where Overcash’s body came to a stop.
Park rangers were already investigating the June incident to see whether any precautions needed to be added when suddenly they had a second death to investigate.
The rangers are law enforcement officers and are the lead investigators in both fatalities, Peek said.
“We have many areas in state parks that are dangerous and accessible and they are where people want to go,” Peek said. “In some cases, the spots are the impetus for state parks being created.”
Until the weekend fatality, Stone Mountain officials were more concerned about the park’s waterfalls area where three had died since the early 1990s.
Warning signs at the park mark trailheads and areas that are dangerous. Their general message: “You’re reaching an area of cliffs and rock faces, so stay on the trails,” Peek said. “If you stay on the trail, there’s less danger to you and, secondarily, to the natural resource.”
Short of restricting or cutting off access, there’s little else that can be done to keep hikers away from danger.
“It’s the conundrum we have in wild areas,” Peek said. “Do you want to give a true outdoor experience? Or do you want to ensure 100 percent safety?
“Some of these areas are so vast, you can’t build a fence to keep people out. Traditionally people want an outdoor experience, but at the same time they have to accept personal responsibility.”
Sheer granite outcrop
Troop 128, based at Epworth United Methodist Church in Concord, was one of two scout troops at Stone Mountain on Saturday, said Todd Walter, executive for the Boy Scouts’ seven-county Central N.C. Council.
Eleven scouts and three leaders, including Overcash’s foster father, entered the eastern trail head in late morning, and had climbed two miles and 600 feet before the trail opened onto a vast outcrop of sheer granite.
The scouts began scattering. Three, including Overcash, wandered into an area that quickly drops, Peek said.
One of the leaders was on his way to bring the boys back to the trail when a scout rushed to tell him Overcash was missing, he said.
A half-dozen witnesses on the ground and about 20 climbers scaling the granite saw Overcash fall. One of the climbers was a doctor and got to the teenager within a minute.
“By that time it was primarily recovery,” Peek said. “He couldn’t be revived.”
Throughout Sunday and Monday, Walter said the Boy Scouts mobilized grief counselors for the other scouts and leaders – and Overcash’s family.
“The park rangers are collecting the information and our primary focus is on the health and well-being of any of our boys as they go through this devastating ordeal,” he said. “…The leaders are having a difficult time. My focus also is making sure they can get through this.”
The park is a popular hiking destination for people from the Charlotte and Triad areas, he said.
‘Never met a stranger’
Overcash was well known and popular at A.L. Brown, principal Kevin Garay said.
He was friends with students who played music after school and off-campus, with skateboarders and student actors. Recently, he’d taken up running.
“You could tell him anything. You could trust him with anything,” A.L. Brown student Keith Nicholson told WCNC-TV, the Observer’s news partner. “He was just a sweetheart to everyone.”
Earlier in the summer, Overcash and Garay ran into each other at a 5K race in Salisbury. An ROTC student in his sophomore year, Overcash told Garay he might join the Army after graduation.
“I talked to him on Friday in his carpentry class,” Garay said. “He was excited about the class and he began talking to me about running and asked if I was going to do more races.
“He was very outgoing, a kid who never met a stranger.”
And he was always asking questions. Normally you’d find him out front of the school greeting his friends and teachers.
“Even if you were a teacher, or staff member, or an administrator like me, he’d want to know what kind of music you liked,” Garay said. “He was a real conversationalist.”