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Update: For new details about the accident, see Eye Witness Recounts Tragic Accident on El Cap’s Freeblast.
On the morning of June 2 at 8 a.m., while speed climbing on the lower pitches of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan—a section called Freeblast—two highly experienced climbers, Tim Klein and Jason Wells, were involved in a fatal accident. The team was simul-climbing through Pitch 9 or 10, 5.7 terrain approaching Mammoth Terraces, when the incident occurred. A scream was heard and both climbers fell, roped together, 1,000 feet to the ground.
Wells had dozens of El Cap ascents under his belt, many of them with Klein. It wasn’t uncommon for the pair to ascend the 3,000-foot formation—a wall that takes most experienced parties several days—multiple times together in the same weekend, or sometimes twice in one day. “Tim told me that Jason was the strongest and best partner he ever climbed with,” friend Wayne Willoughby said.
Willoughby said the two men began climbing together while living in San Diego during their college years.
“This would have been Tim’s 107th [in a day] El Cap ascent,” continued Willoughby. “Two weeks ago, in a typical weekend, Jason flew out from Boulder to Fresno and Tim picked him up from the airport. Then they climbed the Nose on Saturday and did it again on Sunday, and then on Sunday afternoon Jason flew home to his family.”
Two years ago, Willoughby, 65, an adaptive climber who contracted paralytic Polio at nine months, climbed El Cap in a day (Lurking Fear in 17 hours) with Klein and partner Kristoffer Wickstrom. “It was nothing but smiles and laughter the whole time even though it was 107 degrees that day,” Willoughby remembered.
Wells was a cutting edge speed climber who raced up Colorado’s The Naked Edge route with partner Stefan Griebel, still holding the speed record at 24:29 for the demanding 650-foot line. In May 2012, Wells and Klein climbed both El Cap’s Nose and Salathé Wall routes in 22 hours. The previous year they climbed the Nose twice in fewer than 22 hours.
Tim Klein, 42, from Leona Valley, California, was a teacher at Palmdale High School. He was honored several times for his outstanding work in education and in May of this year—for the second time—he earned Teacher of the Year at Palmdale High. Klein graduated from Loma Linda University Health in 2000. He was married April 14, 2001, and had two young sons.
In 2014, in a fundraiser to help a student who was paralyzed by a drive-by shooter, Klein climbed at an indoor gym in Santa Clarita, California, for 9 hours, 26 minutes and 15 seconds for a total of 29,065 feet, topping the height of Everest by 36 feet. He broke a Guinness Record in the process, beating the previous time of 13 hours and 25 minutes. “He’s always out to help other people,” Wells told HOSA Future Health Professionals about his friend Klein. “Everything he’s doing, he’s always thinking about the people around him.”
Jason Wells, 45, from Boulder, Colorado, worked as an investment manager at Granite View Asset Management. Wells graduated from the University of California, San Diego, in 1995. He was married in June 2016. He is survived by his wife and daughter from a previous marraige.
Today’s sad news marks the 25th accident resulting in a death on El Capitan. In recent years, Tyler Gordon died on the Nose in 2015 when he hit a ledge after an accident made while rappelling. In 2013, Felix Kiernan died on the East Buttress after being hit by rockfall dislodged by the leader. In 2013, Mason Robison died when a block detached from the Muir Wall and cut his lead line. The first accident by a climber on El Capitan was by Jim Madsen, in 1968, who rappelled off the end of his line while descending the wall to check in on a team on the Dihedral Wall.
On May 8 of this year, longtime big wall speed climber and author of On The Nose: A Lifelong Obsession with Yosemite’s Most Iconic Climb Hans Florine, broke both of his legs while making a one day ascent of the Nose. On October 11, 2017, speed climber Quinn Brett fell more than 100 feet on the Nose during a rapid ascent, hitting a ledge. The injury caused her to become paralyzed from her waist down.
“I’ve been worrying about this speed game for awhile. The faster you go the more dangerous it is,” Ken Yager, founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association, and Facelift, said. “I understand the attraction of it, but [speed climbing’s] a lot different than what we did here 30 or 40 years ago, and what we did then was plenty dangerous. With speed climbing you don’t have time to double check your systems. It’s all fun and games until you lose a party like this. It’s horrible.”
The cause of Wells and Klein’s accident is still under investigation. We will update the story with new information as it becomes available.