It has been a bittersweet couple of weeks in the climbing world, specifically in the speed-climbing world. Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell set three speed records on El Capitan’s the Nose in Yosemite National Park, California, including pushing up the 3,000-foot route in just under two hours. In the middle of that stretch, though, a pair of climbers, Jason Wells and Tim Klein, died in a fall on a route called Freeblast on the approach to the Salathé Wall, also on El Cap.
It’s not known exactly why they fell, but an eyewitness report that was published yesterday points to a fall that was unprotected by gear as the two were simul-climbing. Hans Florine, one of the pioneers of speed climbing, said, “Because the rope was severed in the fall, we can’t know whether they placed gear or not…but because they fell, if they had put gear in it wasn’t very good.”
Jordan Cannon was also climbing on Freeblast, and for a time that day climbed concurrently with the pair. He was under a roof at the time of the accident, so didn’t see exactly what happened, but his description is harrowing, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:
“I remember hearing a yell or a scream of some sort, and then I heard something start to fall and my first thought was that it was a haul bag,” said Cannon, who was underneath a rock outcropping, known as a roof, and could only see out to his left.
Suddenly, Wells flew by, violently bouncing, rolling and sliding down the granite face, he said. As frightening as that was, Cannon expected his fall to be arrested by Klein, who, had they not been simul-climbing, would have been tied into a fixed anchor bolt at the bottom of the pitch they were climbing.
Instead, he heard Klein yell “Oh f—” as the rope pulled him off the wall. A split second later he too wooshed through the air, still attached to the rope. Their free fall was halted for a split second when the rope got snagged on a granite flake or block, but the force from two falling bodies was too much.
“The rope exploded,” Cannon said. “It was a blue rope, and we could see the white core strands fly out.”
Most people don’t free solo and most don’t speed climb, but there’s little question that interest is growing in these ultra-risky pursuits, both by the media and climbers themselves. A form of it is even in the Tokyo Olympics (though on artificial holds and with ropes). So, what’s your take? Good? Bad? Conditionally one or the other? Weigh in below.
Photo of “slow climber” on El Cap via Wikimedia Commons