The death of Jim Madsen

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Dick Erb

climber
June Lake, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Dec 9, 2009 - 10:39pm PT
I was in the Valley that fall when the tragic attempt to rescue Chuck Pratt and Chris Fredricks took place. In those days most of the time there was no one on one of the several existing El Cap routes, and if any one was, all the climbers in Camp 4 usually knew them and kept track of their progress. While Chuck and Chris were high up on the Dihedral Wall a big storm came in. It rained and blew all day and night. The next morning someone went over to check and saw them on their bivy ledge. In the afternoon they were still there. They hadn't moved all day, and we became concerned. There was no YOSAR then, and Jim Madsen was the prime motivator for a rescue. The rangers were contacted and a number of climbers were helicoptered to the top of El Cap. At first light Jim Madsen and Loyd Price rapped off the top. They fixed one rope, and Loyd watched Jim rappel out of sight on the next one. He then heard something like, "What the...". Loyd pulled on the rope. It was limp. Jim was gone.

Down in Camp 4 climbers got the word that Madsen had fallen from the top and was dead. People were stunned with tears in their eyes and flowing down their faces. The dynamo of our generation was gone. How could it be that the birds were still singing in the trees. Some rangers came in to camp and asked if someone could take them to the body. I had a rough idea where he would have landed and volunteered. We drove over there and got out of the car. Steve Williams and Bruce Kumpf came walking out of the woods and told me the exact location. Walking up to the wall with a group of rangers and a body bag I was wondering what this was going to be like. At this point in my life I had never even seen a dead body, and I was going to see what was left of one of my close friends and climbing partners. Then there was the body lying in the talus, split open but recognizable. I felt somehow so detached. It was almost like I was staring at a side of beef. I walked away and left the rangers to their job. Once I was a ways away some other friends came by and we looked up at that great wall. Way up there thousands of feet above we saw Chris and Chuck. They were climbing, above the ledge where they had been so long, and heading for the top.

The next day I sat with rapt attention listening to Chuck recounting their experience. They had gotten totally soaked and cold in the storm. When the morning dawned clear, and they were sitting on a big ledge with plenty of food and water, they spread out their clothes to dry, ate food, drank water, basked in the sunshine, and rested. The next morning they arose and were ready to continue. Chuck said they heard something sail by and thought it was a large rock. Higher up he saw a coiled rope in a crack. He thought it must have been left from the first ascent which was done as a siege with many ropes. Then he saw some blood and part of a pair of glasses. It then struck him what had happened. He was looking at the blood of one of his friends who had come to rescue them. They continued to climb all day and arrived on top at dark. They saw a nearby campfire and walked over. Chuck asked, "Who was it?"
mrtropy

Trad climber
Nor Cal
Dec 9, 2009 - 10:42pm PT
What a question to have to ask.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Dec 9, 2009 - 10:47pm PT
Thanks for sharing this. There was also some discussion of the accident in the Chris Fredericks thread:
http://www.supertopo.com/climbing/thread.php?topic_id=367615&msg=949376#msg949376
Prod

Trad climber
Dodge Sprinter Dreaming
Dec 9, 2009 - 10:55pm PT
Dick,

That must be a hard story to retell. So sad.

Prod.
Jan

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Dec 9, 2009 - 11:24pm PT
Thank you Dick. That story has needed telling here in this forum. I would add that the way you related Chuck's account of it from his perspective is word for word the same account he gave me. However, Chuck and I then had a lengthy discussion of what went wrong and how it could have been prevented.

As I recall, Jim rappelled off with five ropes around his neck and only one overhand knot at the ends of his rappel line and no prussik loops or jumars. It was an end of season, at the height of physical powers and feeling overly confident type mistake, as so many of the fatal accidents are. Coming so soon after Jim Baldwin's death when his rappel ropes were too short and he jumped for a ledge and missed, it definitely made everyone pay more attention to their rappels after that.

The saddest thing was that it couldn't have happened to a nicer person. Jim had dinner with Frank and myself in Berkeley just a few days before the accident. Afterwards Frank and I remarked at what a fine person he was, so thoughtful for someone his age and how we looked forward to getting to know him better. It made perfect sense in retrospect that he would have been the person to launch a rescue.

Meanwhile, I wonder if anyone knows about his family? The climbing community in America didn't have much experience with fatal accidents at that point in time and were not as supportive to family and friends as we are nowadays. It would be nice if somehow we could let his family know that he is still well remembered among us.
Jan

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Dec 9, 2009 - 11:43pm PT
Another aspect of Jim Madsen's death and what it taught us is the fact that Tom Gerughty attributed his accident to the same end of season carelessness, but survived his because everyone was a little more careful after that.

I can't remember the details exactly but Tom was jumaring up El Cap and absent mindedly clipped in his jumars upside down. When he stepped up he went flying down to the end of the rope and was arrested there because everyone was careful to put more than one knot in the end of their line after Jim's accident. As it was Tom hung on to the rope with his bare hands all the way down and burned them hideously, needing surgery to deal with some of the scar tissue.

Anyway, Tom gave credit to Jim's example for saving his own life.
Jan

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Dec 9, 2009 - 11:45pm PT
I'm not sure if this is following ST protocol or not, I am taking the liberty of posting the relevant comments about Jim Madsen's accident which appeared on the Fredericks thread directly to this one so that there will be some consistency to Jim's thread.


From John Morton:

climber


No one has mentioned this, but ... it saddens me to say that one of the most enduring associations of Chris Fredericks and Yosemite is that it was while attempting the rescue of Pratt and Fredericks with Kim Schmitz that Jim Madsen fell to his death. Dick Erb wrote me with this news, and I was numb for a few days, thinking about those people and how our whole community would be affected. I remember Dick telling me that after they figured out what happened (overhand knot pulled through a biner brake) they set up that rig in Camp 4 and it pulled through every time (!!!)

John

........................................................................
Jan

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan

Sep 4, 2009 - 10:38am PT
Jim Madsen's death had a profound effect on Chris, particularly given the circumstances. He and I had a long talk about it afterward as Jim had eaten dinner with Frank and I in Berkeley only four days before. Chris and Chuck knew nothing of the rescue but on their way up came to realize that something or someone had fallen, and then had the horrible realization of who it was when they came across Jim's glasses lying on a ledge. The last few pitches were climbed under that dark cloud, and was the experience I believe, which caused Chris to go from being a dabbler in meditation to a serious practitioner.

........................................................................

TomKimbrough

Social climber
Salt Lake City

Sep 8, 2009 - 02:55pm PT
I was on top of El Cap with Madsen checking on Pratt and Fredricks.
As Madsen was rigging the rap off the top I walked around to near the top of the Salathe to peek over and heard sounds of P & F climbing. They were OK; we didn't need to go over the edge. As I was walking back to call the effort off Loyd Price met me with the news that Jim had fallen.
Most of the crew left but Schimtz, Bridwell and myself waited for P & F who didn't arrive until almost dark.
I think the accident took a lot of the joy out of climbing for Fredricks.

.......................................................................

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA

Sep 8, 2009 - 03:20pm PT
Tom/K, it was also not clear how well Kim Schmitz did afterwards. A really horrible moment in our history. I think it was the first really wretched thing to befall any of you guys back then and at times when I climbed with Kim a couple of years later I could feel it working in him and he did not want to talk about it.

.......................................................................

guido

Trad climber
Santa Cruz/New Zealand/South Pacific

Sep 8, 2009 - 03:39pm PT
It was only a month later when myself, Schmitz, Kimbrough, Steck,Robbins and I believe Fredricks were all together on Half Dome to pull Rowell and Harding off the South Face.

I had forgotten the close proximity to the Madsen accident until a recent e-mail from Kimbrough. Christ that was 41 years ago!

When Baldwin fell off the East Face of the Column in 1964, it was Sacherer, Herbert and myself that first arrived. That was a wretched experience.

.......................................................................

TomKimbrough

Social climber
Salt Lake City

Sep 8, 2009 - 05:10pm PT
Yeah, that accident did affect us all. Kim has had his problems and some this year as well. Even Pratt's best climbs may have been before that black day. I didn't do much in the Valley after that for about 10 years. Steve Williams was the first to find Madsen and I don't think that image ever left his brain. What about Bridwell? Well, he is a hard man.

........................................................................
jstan

climber

Sep 8, 2009 - 07:39pm PT
Momentarily I ran into Madsen Schmitz in C4 right after they had their first amazing year. Jim was kind enough to answer my silly eastern question. It is always good to run into very able youngsters driven purely by the excitement to be found in the world. You can tell when there is any other reason.

What happened affected those of us in the east also. Of course we wanted to know why this had to be. When told it was Pratt on the wall

nothing more needed to be said.

Edit:
I have not seen it mentioned so I will. Both Chuck and Chris must have been devastated by what happened.

When we all are off doing whatever, maybe we should think about this, more than we do. About what will be left behind.

.......................................................................

Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA

Sep 8, 2009 - 07:56pm PT
Johno Stannard, I agree. That Pratt was down there on the wall was a huge part of the situation. A fact not always accounted for. We all loved him so and it appeared to be a huge situation to those/you guys..

TomK, I did not know that Slings (Steve Williams) was the first to find Jimís body. god...when I knew him he was in desperate shape by 1970. Badly.
......................................................................



Dick Erb

climber
June Lake, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 9, 2009 - 11:55pm PT
In Tom Gerughty's accident, he was jumaring up the rope with them right side up. He arrived at a carabiner where the rope beyond it was horizontal. He unclipped the top jumar from below the biner and reclipped it above. He did not however push the bottom of it into alignment with the rope and the cam did not fully engage. He then unclipped the lower jumar and the uppper one popped off. He fell to the end of the rope to which he was tied.
SteveW

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Dec 10, 2009 - 12:02am PT
Dick

That just slows life. I cannot imagine having to live
through something like that.
I hope letting it out might help some.

Be well.
Jan

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Dec 10, 2009 - 12:14am PT
Dick-

Thanks for the clarification. If I understand you right, Tom was able to grab the rope while he was free falling and hang on to the rope until he hit bottom?

In any case, thank goodness he was well tied in at the bottom of the rope. That was the true lesson. I distinctly remember Tom saying that he normally didn't tie the end of the rope, but remembered Jim and had an intuition that he should the day that he took his fall.



Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Dec 10, 2009 - 12:21am PT
Dick- Thanks for revisiting that dark event. Have you written about Jim's death before this because you really describe the entire situation so vividly.

Jan- Thanks for transposing the text from the Fredericks thread.
survival

Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Dec 10, 2009 - 12:29am PT
Unbelievable how seemingly simple things can be our undoing.
I've read this before but it's still hard to fathom.
Thanks Dick, you have posted some amazing stuff.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Dec 10, 2009 - 12:37am PT
I went looking for a picture of Jim and found this in Roper's Camp 4.


Dick Erb

climber
June Lake, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 10, 2009 - 12:45am PT
Steve - I have never written this before. Much of the past is unmemorable but there are some times and events when life seemed more intense or I was much more in the present. I haven't really written much about any of it until I got into Super Topo where the threads and writing has prompted me to recall some of these times. It has been fun and satisfying and this one came out as sort of a catharsis.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Dec 10, 2009 - 01:11am PT
Thanks again for doing so. Your writing makes the events so immediate and personal.
Mungeclimber

Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
Dec 10, 2009 - 01:23am PT
Thx Dick. I think you've hit onto what is at core of the writing in Supertopo forum and the peoples that make it work that way.
Karl Baba

Trad climber
Yosemite, Ca
Dec 10, 2009 - 01:27am PT
Thanks Dick.

There's so much value in your story, finely told, for our community.

It is history with heart, and speaks to the dark and light extremes of climbing that make it an intense experience of life.


Peace

Karl
MH2

climber
Dec 10, 2009 - 03:34am PT
Well done, Dick Erb. A good friend, Don McPherson, was among the many affected by Madsen's death. Your account is good medicine for old pain.
Roger Breedlove

climber
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Dec 10, 2009 - 08:37am PT
Hi Dick. Thanks for posting--a painful story to recall.

I did not know Jim--before my time--but knew many of his friends, all of whom were deeply affected by his death. Can you comment on any overarching effect Jim's death had on the Valley climbing community? Jim's death seems to coincide with the beginning of the 'lull' in climbing activity in the Valley, at least for new routes, that lasted until 1970 when a newer generation of climbers showed up. Do you think there was a connection?
SGropp

Mountain climber
Eastsound, Wa
Dec 10, 2009 - 03:36pm PT
Thank you for posting this story. I will forward it to a friend of mine who was an early friend of Jim Madsen. He was not a climber and never knew the full story of Jims death.

About 1973, Steve Hong and I came unawares across the grisly remnants of a fatal rappelling accident at the base of North Gateway Rock in the Garden of the Gods. This being a city park , the body had been taken away and the place was empty. There was only a chalked outline of a spreadeagled body with a pool of blood where the head had been , slowly drying in the afternoon sun.

It was a vivid reminder to us of the dark downside of this beautiful and dangerous game we so blithely played.
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