/Life and Death on El Capitan

Life and Death on El Capitan

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Jason Wells’s phone buzzed as photos of crumpled climbing garb popped onto his screen.

“Knickers, pants, and 2 of socks, underware [sic], shirt, fleece. Also puffy and new with tags…rain jacket,” wrote Tim Klein in an accompanying text message. It was Thursday May 31, 2018. Early the next morning Jason would fly to California and the pair would head to Yosemite to climb El Capitan, as they had dozens of times before.

Tim, a 42-year-old teacher at a low-income public high school, lived with his wife, JJ, and two young sons in Leona Valley, a quaint ranching hamlet an hour outside Los Angeles. After climbing together in Yosemite, Jason would often stash clothes and gear at Tim’s home, a cheery one-story cottage decorated with framed Ansel Adams prints and bible passages taped to the wall. That way he didn’t have to shuttle so much back and forth from Boulder, Colorado, where the 45-year-old lived with his wife, Becky, and ran an asset-management firm. Tim and Jason climbed together in Yosemite so frequently—around eight weekends a year—that the arrangement made sense.

On this trip, they planned to tackle two El Capitan routes in two days: the Salathé on Saturday, June 2, and the Nose on Sunday, June 3. To most climbers, this mission would sound quixotic, but for Tim and Jason it was routine. While teams often take between three and five days to scale El Capitan’s 3,000 vertical feet of smooth granite, Tim and Jason usually summited in seven or eight hours. Occasionally they turned around and scampered up El Cap a second time in the same day—a stunning achievement for two recreational climbers in their forties with families and intense careers.

“Rental car is booked for less than a rental bike at the beach,” Jason messaged Tim as he packed for California. “Flight arrives at 10 but will hit [Trader Joe’s] and can work at Starbucks till whenever unless you want me to remove another stump. Psyched up!”

Jason was referring to the time he had landscaped the Kleins’ entire front yard while waiting for Tim to finish work so they could leave for Yosemite. Driven by deep religious faith, Tim dedicated himself to serving others, both as an educator and outside of school, where he coached a soccer team comprised of players with special needs. Jason, who had a knack for handiwork, was always eager to help him and JJ when he could.

This trip, the honey-do list that JJ had prepared for Jason was minimal: just a few dead light bulbs to change. In return, JJ handed him his climbing clothes, which she had washed and folded, as always.

School had just let out for the summer, and Tim made it home around 2 P.M. As he and Jason tossed their gear in the trunk and sped off toward Yosemite, JJ recalls that the men were even giddier than usual.

The week before, Tim had been named Antelope Valley Union High School District’s Teacher of the Year for his leadership of Palmdale High School’s Health Careers Academy, which prepares students to enter medical professions. His students adored his EMT classes, which he livened up with anecdotes of climbing adventures, and praised him for his generosity. When he received a $4,000 teaching bonus, he distributed it back to students in the form of $100 grants with a catch: the money had to be used to help someone else. To inspire a student to return to school after she was shot in a drive-by incident, he smashed the Guinness World Record for climbing the height of Everest on an indoor climbing wall. Once he quietly bailed a student’s mother out of jail.

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Jason and Tim after climbing El Cap two times in one weekend. (Jennifer Johnson/Facebook)

As they zipped past the flat fields of California’s Central Valley, Jason was similarly jubilant—he had recently learned that Becky, at 41, was pregnant with their first child. Shortly before he left for California, he and Becky went to the top of the first Flatiron, a peak outside Boulder, and opened an envelope from their doctor with the message “It’s a girl!” Jason had a teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and he was excited for her to have a sister.

After a few hours of driving, Tim and Jason neared Raley’s supermarket in Oakhurst, 30 minutes from Yosemite, where they usually picked up sandwiches for dinner. They often competed to see who could get a bigger discount. “Since we present the deli staff with a gleaming pre-[El Capitan] ascent smile that is hard to miss, the price is negotiable,” Jason once wrote in a trip report on SuperTopo, an online climbing forum. He called it their “only sponsorship deal.”

From there they continued to their sacred Yosemite sleeping spot—an undisclosed, not-quite-sanctioned camping area—and went to bed.

Jason and Tim met by chance around Christmas in 2004.

Tim and JJ were visiting Tim’s parents in Orange County for the holidays when his back began to throb. As a teenager, Tim had ridden on a team with Floyd Landis, the Tour de France competitor, until he ruptured three discs in his back and began having seizures. After that, he could no longer board planes or sit for long periods, let alone mount a racing bike. One of the only activities that soothed his pain, curiously, was climbing—a hobby he’d picked up with his brother as a kid.

The couple thought about where they could go and settled on Mount Woodson, a granite climbing area north of San Diego. JJ felt torn. While she wanted to help her husband, she was less keen to wear a harness all day. She was five months pregnant with their first child, and even seatbelts felt constricting against her bulging belly. “I prayed to God to send me someone who could belay Tim so that I wouldn’t have to,” she remembers, chuckling.

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Jason and Tim on El Cap (Jason Wells/Facebook)

A few minutes later, a pickup truck chugged into the Mount Woodson parking lot. As the driver hopped out and began pulling together his ropes and gear, JJ sized him up: he was tall, slim, and sandy-haired, with a gentle face and bright blue eyes. More importantly for her purposes, he was alone and looked fit. “You’re my guy,” she recalls thinking. JJ, a petite brunette with a sunny demeanor, asked the man where he planned to climb that day. When he said he was headed to the same route Tim wanted to try, JJ silently rejoiced.

The men decided they would take turns doing laps on the same pitch. While Tim zipped up and down, his back relaxing with each ascent, JJ asked the other climber about himself. His name was Jason Wells and he was in the San Diego area visiting his parents with his wife and young daughter, Amelia. His uncle had introduced him to climbing as a teenager, and he’d been hooked ever since, climbing at the gym on nights he could escape his job in finance and scaling big walls in Yosemite when he could take weekends away from his family.

Had he ever climbed El Capitan? JJ asked.

Summiting the iconic granite monolith had long been a dream of Tim’s, but one that seemed farfetched. Most ascents of El Capitan take several days. Because of his back condition, Tim couldn’t climb with a haul bag; any climbing partner would need to carry his food, water, and portaledge, in addition to their own. He had attempted El Cap twice, but in one case his partners couldn’t even lift the massive bag off the ground.

Jason said that he had climbed El Cap several times but found hauling gear—which he did only once—miserable. He wasn’t interested in any more multiday ascents.

When Tim descended to belay Jason, JJ grabbed him excitedly by the arm.

“This guy’s your ticket up El Cap.”

Tim grinned as he wiped the sweat off his pale forehead and into his blond hair. He was lean but solidly built, with wide features, dense muscles, and blue eyes that squinted in the sun. “That’s not really how it works, love,” he said teasingly. “You don’t just meet someone and do one pitch with him over and over again and say, ‘Hey, let’s go do El Cap.’”

JJ insisted that Tim at least ask for Jason’s contact info, which he sheepishly did before they got in their cars and drove back to their respective lives.

When Tim still hadn’t connected with Jason after a few months, JJ stepped in again. “Don’t let this guy get away.”

Tim reached out, and the men made plans to meet in Yosemite.

After their first Yosemite trip, Jason and Tim began climbing together regularly, tackling classic shorter Valley routes like the Steck-Salathé, Washington Column, the Rostrum, and Astroman. They quickly realized their priorities and climbing strengths aligned to make them a formidable team.

Tim loved aid climbing, using tools like ladders and ascenders to move up the rope on particularly steep or overhanging sections of rock. By contrast, he compared Jason’s aid climbing to “forcing a cow to step across a cattle guard.” Jason was much happier with his hands and feet touching stone. Both men were naturally fast and had a similar tolerance for risk. Each had extraordinary endurance. When they took a weekend to climb, they wanted to maximize their time on the rock before rushing home to their families.

They also had a blast together. Listening to Tim and Jason climb up a wall made it hard to believe both men were sometimes described as shy. “Tim on the headwall, aw yeaaaah,” Jason once narrated as he shot a video of Tim leading a pitch. “Woooo!” Tim shouted from up above. “And then,” Jason said as he panned the camera down towards the treetops of Yosemite Valley’s ponderosas. “Woo-hoo, yeee-ah!”

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Levi, Jack, JJ, and Tim (JJ Klein)

The rock seemed to melt their inhibitions. They had pre-dawn dance parties with other climbing teams before beginning their ascents and cheerfully chatted with every party they passed, which—given their speed—was many. One climber who encountered Tim and Jason in Yosemite compared being overtaken by Jason to being passed by the Incredible Hulk.

In 2006, a year and a half after Tim chuckled at JJ’s naive suggestion that he would someday climb El Capitan with Jason, the men finally made plans to tackle Yosemite’s most iconic wall. They settled on an ambitious goal—ascending the Nose in a day—a feat many recreational climbers only dream of. JJ drove to Yosemite for the occasion with their one-year-old son, Levi, in tow. As they settled in to sleep the night before, JJ recalls Tim having first-time jitters, but also a quiet confidence that, with this partner, he would finally summit.

After 22 hours of grueling climbing, Jason and Tim topped out a few hours after Levi had taken his first steps on the El Cap bridge, a gathering place for Yosemite’s big-wall climbers. Tim was elated but also apparently content to tick El Cap off his bucket list. “Thank you so much, man. I’m good. I just wanted to do it this one time,” he told Jason as they poked around for the hiking trail that would lead them back down El Cap to their families in the valley.

Jason, however, was like a confidence hypnotist. Spend enough time around him and suddenly, without realizing it, you were doing things you didn’t believe yourself capable of. If he sensed someone was truly frightened—like the time the shale began to shift under his dad’s feet on a cliffside hike in the Sierra—he would never push. But if he thought someone had more of themselves to give, it was a different story. His favorite refrain was “just one more pitch,” says Becky, who often climbed with him. He would repeat it over and over until the summit.

Whether Tim came around by himself or Jason persuaded him to climb El Cap just one more time, the pair was far from finished. They would go on to summit the hallowed formation at least 75 times together over the next 12 years—always in less than a day. Legendary speed climber Hans Florine, who keeps an unofficial tally of El Cap climbs and holds the record for most ascents (165 as of October 2018), calls this volume “totally amazing.”

“They could probably be silent the whole day and still know each other’s moves,” Florine said. “It’s like an old married couple—you put the saucer underneath the coffee cup before your partner puts it on the table.” By Florine’s count, Tim was one of four people—and the only recreational climber—to scale El Capitan more than 100 times (at least 106).

Familiarity with one another and the El Cap routes they climbed allowed Tim and Jason to move quickly. While it took more than 22 hours the first time they climbed the iconic wall together, they would later summit in as little as five hours.

In mid-May, Jason and Tim found themselves blazing up the Nose right behind Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, who were practicing to break the speed record. When he saw Jason and Tim approaching, Austin Siadak, a photographer documenting Caldwell and Honnold’s effort, yelled up the wall to Honnold: “Dude, you better get moving or you’re gonna get passed!”

Tim and Jason did not climb quickly to attract attention. Tim was “physically unable” to brag, explains Jim Herson, another one of Tim’s frequent climbing partners. Jason was the same. Since 2015, he and his friend Stefan Griebel have held the speed record on the Naked Edge, a classic climb in Boulder. But when chatting with acquaintances about the route, he would simply say, “It’s a great climb!”

Tim and Jason knew they would never break a speed record on El Capitan. Nor was that something they aimed for. They climbed fast in Yosemite simply so they could climb more.

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Tim climbing with his brother, Andrew, in Tahoe circa 1996 (JJ Klein)

Many climbers call El Capitan the Big Stone; Jason referred to it as the Magic Stone. Even as it shredded their hands and strained their muscles, nothing restored the partners more than working their way up its cool granite face. Scrambling over the top, peeking down at the imposing valley below made them feel keenly full of life, but also at peace.

They chased that sensation relentlessly. “[After climbing Triple Direct we] found ourselves [at] the base of the Nose at 8 P.M.,” Tim wrote in a SuperTopo trip report in 2011 that chronicled a trip in which he and Jason aimed to climb two routes up El Cap in a day. “We ended up passing parties camped on all ledges including a couple of parties in port-a-ledges. During the lower sections, Jason was somehow able to arrange the rope to make sure it kept smacking every sleeping individual in the head, setting me up for an explanation and profuse apologies.” They finished both routes in a little over 24 hours. On another trip, Tim and Jason climbed the Nose twice in one day—the only time in history a team has ever done so, according to Florine.

Both men seemed able to survive on less sleep than other people. On climbing days, Jason would pop out of bed around 4 A.M., mainline Peet’s coffee, and blast Metallica out of his portable speaker. Tim was comparably energetic. Once Herson commented in passing that he was turning 54 and wouldn’t linking the 54 pitches of El Capitan and Half Dome be a fun way to celebrate. The next morning Tim texted: “I checked my calendar. I have an all day conference in Sacramento Saturday that ends at 7pm. I'll drive to the Valley by 11pm. We’ll start climbing at 2am. Topout by midnight and run back to the car, start driving by 2am, and get to school by 7am. I might have to skip the shower before class though.” Herson was tempted to take a nap just reading the text. But Tim meant it.

It is difficult to carve out time for hobbies—even those that electrify us. There are work obligations, budgets to balance, and family members in want of attention. It wasn’t that Tim and Jason didn’t think about such things. But suspended thousands of feet above the ground, they were forced to focus on the present: Can I stretch my foot to that nub of rock? Will my hand jam into that crack? Is that sliver of granite textured enough to grip?

It was their form of meditation—and they knew they would be kinder, happier, and more effective in every other facet of their lives if they leaned into the joy and serenity that climbing brought them.

Last summer, on June 2, the men woke before the sun and headed to the El Cap bridge to pick up another friend. While Tim and Jason usually climbed as a pair, this time they had invited Kevin Prince, a medical resident whom Tim had met in 2009 when he was part of the Yosemite Search and Rescue team.

The trio reached the base of El Cap just after first light. Their chosen route that day was the Salathé, a 2,900-foot 35-pitch route which Tim and Jason had summited more than 30 times together, and once with Prince. They racked up and began their ascent around 6:30 A.M.

They were climbing what Prince describes as caterpillar style, with Jason and Tim connected by one rope and Tim and Prince connected by a second rope. Jason would climb a pitch and tie the first rope to an anchor. Then Tim would jug up behind, stepping his feet into aid ladders and pushing ascenders up the rope until he reached the anchor. At that point, he would clip himself into the anchor, put Jason on belay for the next pitch, and fix the second rope so Prince could follow.

The three men moved quickly up the rock, whose grooves and cracks were by then as familiar to them as the turns of a commute. By the third pitch, Jason had caught up with Jordan Cannon and Jeremy Schoenborn, two young climbers who were attempting a free ascent of Golden Gate, a difficult route up El Capitan that begins with the first 20 pitches of the Salathé. They were climbing with ropes and protective gear, but no aid tools. After Jason had waited behind them at the second belay for 20 minutes, Cannon and Schoenborn offered him the chance to pass. Jason refused, stating excitedly that he wanted to see them tackle the next section: a roof he had successfully navigated dozens of times before. No one was in a rush.

As Schoenborn followed Cannon up the fifth pitch, a difficult section of slab where climbers must rely on friction and balance to advance up the wall, Jason climbed close behind him and the two got to chatting. Jason told Schoenborn how much fun he was having and how stoked he was to see two climbers in their early twenties gunning for a free ascent of El Cap. At one point, the conversation turned to Alex Honnold and how crazy it was that he had navigated such hairy slab moves with no ropes during his 2017 freesolo of Freerider, which takes a largely identical route to the Salathé wall with a few variations to avoid particularly gnarly sections.

At the top of the sixth pitch, at a spot known as Triangle Ledge, Jason, Tim, and Prince finally passed Cannon and Schoenborn. As Tim belayed Jason, it became obvious to Schoenborn that he was in the company of some of the best climbers he had ever encountered.

“Jason sure is a superhero,” Schoenborn said as he watched him float up the next pitch.

“He really is,” Tim replied.

From Triangle Ledge, the trio scaled approximately 100 feet of moderate terrain before traversing into the Half Dollar, a trickier section nearly 1,000 feet off the ground where climbers must shimmy up a fissure in the wall. When Tim emerged at the top after Jason, he fixed Prince’s rope to an anchor and Prince followed up the Half Dollar, his view of his partners obscured by the granite chimney.

Meanwhile, Jason and Tim continued into the relatively easy terrain that leads to the top of Mammoth Terraces—the gentlest 250 feet of climbing on the route. It was such a tame section Tim and Jason often climbed it at the same time.

Around 8:05 A.M., as Prince was still working his way up the Half Dollar, Schoenborn heard “some slamming noises” and saw Tim and Jason falling through the air less than 50 feet to his left. The rope connecting them likely caught on something, briefly arresting their fall. Then it severed and the men continued downwards.

Prince poked his head out of the Half Dollar in time to see two men and a rope drop by him. “I hope they didn’t hit Tim and Jason,” he remembers thinking as he raced to the anchor. Nearing the top of the chimney, where he would be able to see the next section, it dawned on him that it might have been Tim and Jason. But it didn’t make sense, he thought, there was no way they would have fallen—particularly in such easy terrain.

When he emerged from the Half Dollar and saw the wall above was empty, he dialed 911. Yosemite dispatchers picked up and he told them Jason and Tim were dead at the base.

Tim and Jason’s deaths shocked the climbing community. Their accident sparked frenzied posting in climbing forums as people speculated about what happened—did the men not place enough gear, or not place it correctly?

Later, Yosemite rangers released a report on the accident. It did not determine who fell first or why. But it did suggest that something went wrong before Tim and Jason fell.

When Prince arrived at the top of the Half Dollar, he found that the rope connecting him to Tim had been untied and left fixed to a piece of protective gear wedged into the rock. This suggests Tim had to continue up the wall for some reason—to shake loose a stuck rope, perhaps—but intended to return, otherwise Prince would have been stranded (though totally secure, as he was tied in to an anchor).

The report also suggested that Tim and Jason had placed no protective gear in the section where they fell, adding that: “The difficulty of the terrain in the section of rock leading to Mammoth Terraces is relatively moderate and would lend itself to experienced climbers placing less protection. However an unprotected fall in any terrain has catastrophic consequences.”

Jason and Tim were not adrenaline junkies and they certainly weren’t in a rush. “We were, essentially, on a casual trail run up our favorite mountain,” Prince recalls.

Both Becky and JJ chafe at the idea that their husbands were doing anything uncommon for climbers of their ability. Something just happened to go wrong, in the way that it can while driving on the freeway, or walking down the stairs. Perhaps a loose rock hit one of them, or a bird; both women find it hard to believe that either Tim or Jason simply slipped.

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Jason and Becky on El Cap (Jason Wells/Facebook)

While on a hike in Colorado’s El Dorado Canyon State Park in September, Becky, who was by then seven months pregnant, tried to explain. “Look, it’ll be hard for a non-climber to understand but they were just really comfortable on the rock. That was like their home. It was like walking on a little sidewalk for them,” she said. “I mean could they have done something different? I’m sure. But we could say that about a lot of things where something goes wrong.”

Since June, Tim and Jason’s loved ones have paid tribute to the men in myriad ways. After Jim Herson’s 15-year-old son, Connor, climbed the Nose without using any aid equipment in November—becoming by far the youngest of the only six people to do so—he clipped one of Tim’s locking carabiners to a bolt near the summit in celebration. “No two climbers have ever had [as] much fun on El Cap as Tim and Jason and they shared it with all of us,” Jim narrated in a summit video. “So when you top out on the Nose and you see Tim’s biner here: think of Tim and Jason and all the fun they had.”

Others have organized memorial services or taken long hikes in wild places. They have prayed. They have gotten tattoos in the shape of mountains. They have delivered vats of fried rice and coolers full of wraps to Becky and JJ to make sure they eat despite their sorrow. They have placed memorial plaques atop steep trails where those who want to pay their respects will need to sweat to do so.

But above all, they have endeavored to live by Tim and Jason’s example.

When I traveled to Boulder to interview Becky, despite her searing grief and constant morning sickness, she offered to take me climbing. As we drove up the sinuous road that leads to Boulder Canyon, where one of Becky’s friends was celebrating his birthday by climbing laps with his wife, my palms began to sweat. I was happy just to watch, I told Becky, hoping she wouldn’t notice that my voice had raised an octave.

She turned to me, her blue eyes twinkling, “Just try one pitch.”

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