National News

Two Elite Climbers Fall to Their Deaths Scaling El Capitan in Yosemite

Posted June 3, 2018 4:56 p.m. EDT

Two elite climbers fell to their deaths Saturday while ascending El Capitan, one of the best-known rock formations in Yosemite National Park in California.

The climbers, Jason Wells, 46, of Boulder, Colorado, and Tim Klein, 42, of Palmdale, California, were scaling the Free Blast route on the granite monolith El Capitan when they fell around 8:15 a.m., the National Park Service said in a statement.

The climbers were tethered together, said Stefan Griebel, a climber who has ascended El Capitan with Klein and Wells in the past. Yosemite National Park rangers received several 911 calls and rescuers responded but the climbers did not survive the fall, the statement said.

El Capitan, a flat-topped cliff that looms more than 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley, is a favorite of rock climbers. During the park’s peak season as many as 80 people may be on the rock formation on any given day, said Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association.

The climbers who fell were “very experienced,” he said, adding, “Something weird happened. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

The Free Blast route that Wells and Klein were climbing is about 1,000 feet high, near another popular route called the Nose, said Yager, who has climbed El Capitan numerous times.

“People from all over the world come to climb it,” he said of El Capitan. “It’s definitely a destination climb. It’s a notch in your belt or a feather in your cap if you’re a serious climber.”

In September, a man died after rocks broke off El Capitan, falling on him and his wife. She was injured but survived because, she said, her husband shielded her.

In May, the speed climber Hans Florine was rescued from El Capitan. “I think I broke my leg,” he said on Instagram. “Rescuers please be safe.”

And in 2015, Tyler Gordon fell to his death while climbing the Nose.

Griebel said Klein had climbed El Capitan — known as El Cap among climbers — more than 100 times. Wells had also climbed it many times, he said.

“It’s safe to say they knew exactly what they were doing,” he said.

Brady Robinson, the executive director of the Access Fund, an organization that seeks to protect climbing areas in the United States, said Wells was one of his best friends, and they often climbed together on routes in Boulder.

El Capitan is “much bigger than anything around here, which is why he liked it,” Robinson said. “What he used to do was he would fly out on a Friday, climb El Cap twice — once on Saturday and once on Sunday.”

“That is almost unheard-of,” he added. Wells was “just one of these undercover world-class athletes that almost nobody knew about.”

Robinson said Wells and Klein were using a technique called simul-climbing in which both climbers are attached by a rope and move at the same time to go at a faster pace. They were doing this with a third person, a variation on an already rare technique that is “inherently riskier” than regular climbing, Robinson said.

The third person, who was not identified by the National Park Service, was on a separate rope and anchor, and not securely attached to the same system being used by Wells or Klein, according to Robinson, and was unharmed.

“He didn’t see what happened — he came to the top of the rope and his partners were gone. He didn’t witness it,” Robinson said.

The three were not speed climbing for fame or to achieve a record, he added.

“They were part of a very small, elite group of people who could do what they did,” he said. “And they weren’t trying to prove anything — they just loved it.”

Klein, a teacher at the Antelope Valley Union High School District in Lancaster, California, was recently named the district’s teacher of the year. He is survived by his wife, J.J. Klein, and two sons.

Wells, an asset fund manager, is survived by his wife, Becky Wells, and a daughter from a previous marriage, Robinson said.