The death of Jim Madsen


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Social climber
Across Town From Easy Street
Dec 11, 2009 - 11:58pm PT
It is somehow fitting, that at the end of a tragic year, I find something on the Topo that touches my recollection, and set my sensibilities as a child - to have freedom, but be careful. Even the best of us can perish.

Thanks DE

Social climber
No Ut
Dec 12, 2009 - 01:32am PT
I was just a sixteen year old rube from Utah on my first visit to the Valley. Although I was doing one climb after another, when I heard Jim Madsen and Kim Schmitz planning a trip up the West Face of Sentinel, I volunteered a morning to help them lug their gear up to the start. It was invaluable time for me. I was a sponge, then, able to soak in or grok the subtle nuance and brilliance of accidental mentors, and make some of it my own.

On the hike up, I absorbed the power of the conversational flow between two young budding masters, not really so much older than me. As I watched Jim do the first pitch, unhesitatingly liebacking thirty feet up the initial corner, stopping all of thirty seconds to slam in and clip a 3/4" angle before continuing the essence of going-up-ness, I was imprinted forever with a vision of the grace of power that instantly raised my own climbing to another level.

I was devastated when I heard of Jim's death a couple years later.


sounding out stuff , in the manner of crickets
Dec 12, 2009 - 05:32am PT
"imprinted forever with the vision of the grace of power"

there's a lot more giving in this sport than would meet the eye of the casual observer. clearly jello, you had prepared yourself
to be able to see jim madsen, in the manner of a receptive vessel. as in, when the student is ready, the master will appear.
such a process shouldn't be assumed to be passive so much as resonant.

top moment for me here on the taco stand jeff, the clarity with which you painted the instant of transference.
i feel included as a witness across time to something akin to a sacrament.

it galvanizes the image i carry of meeting kim schmitz, next to rigged tarps on a primative guide's hill, standing tall and aglow
like a beacon, despite being unfairly obliged to describe for the umpteenth time his own broken frame. his true hopefulness
that covered the dubious prospect that his rightful prowess would be fully restored.

i was taking in the stark distinction between just before disaster, and from then on. the cussed irreversability that is the hallmark
of a terrible accident. at the time i was consumed by the injustice of his story, a client pulling him off,
but i see now that it was my time to absorb the message of it

Trad climber
quaking has-been land
Dec 12, 2009 - 07:09am PT

Not coy Mr. Reilly, just curious. I never met Madsen, he was a few years before my time, but I could hear the echo of his footsteps wherever I went. It was like following smoke. He'd be gone before you got there. It was hard to get a handle on what he was like. This is by far the most discussion of him I've ever seen.

I would have thought that Hargis or Givler were a little young to have been much of a free climbing force by the time Madsen died but I can't think of anyone else from the NW in that era that did much climbing in The Trench.

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
Dec 12, 2009 - 11:19am PT
Your thread brought back vivid memories of that awful day: Steve so shocked that he wandered around the meadow hallucinating. Bruce returning to camp pale and talking in a whisper. Days later around the campfire Chris recounting how they had come upon a huge amount of blood ("we thought a large animal had fallen"), until they found the crumpled glasses.

Sitting back now and reflecting so many years later, the gloom that then descended over the Valley is still almost palatable.

Of all the things I learn that first year in the Valley that incident had the most impact: to even the strongest hero, gravity was undeniable if one made a serious mistake. Your thread has brought to the surface what an important lesson that was.
Roger Breedlove

Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Dec 14, 2009 - 11:16am PT
This is a follow up to Madsen's free climbing.

Dick metions that Jim was doing some of the hardest free climbs in the Valley, obviously not frist ascents. I would like to hear more about those.

Also, on the surface, it seems that Mastadon's question was given short shrift. In Wizards of Rock Ament notes that Madsen climbed Easter Overhang at 5.10a and Primate at 5.10c both in Leavenworth, WA in 1967. Madsen and Fred Becky climbed the West Face of South Early Winter Spire at 5.10c in the high country of the Washington Cascades. Seems like pretty high standards for the time. The other strong climbers from the NW that are mentioned up thread are not mentioned in WofR and seem to be younger climbers.

Trad climber
Dec 14, 2009 - 11:33am PT
Madsen and Beckey were doing new routes togather up at Liberty Bell in Washington, and in that same time period I noticed that Jello also put up a new route close by. Jello, can you elaborate on that by chance, what motivated you to come up to Washington, was it Madsen who told you about the area and route possibilites? As that was before the North Cascades highway was in, and kind of remote and hard to access area.
Peter Haan

Trad climber
San Francisco, CA
Dec 14, 2009 - 11:48am PT
I agree PhilG.

There was this "thing" still in camp and in our climbing for years afterwards. It wasn't just that Jim was well-liked, a cool guy in our midst and of course a luminary, it was also the horribly violent nature of his passing.

It is barely possibly even 41 years later to remember him without also the cinema playing inside one's head of his going off the end of his rope and his subsequent gigantic fall. It is the stuff of our worst, deepest fears and nightmares, always will be. It recast our sport/art in a light no one wished it in. Just too terrifying; it was just about the worst thing that could happen. I think only when new climbers came who weren't part of that earlier community were most of us able to lift our vision to something more hopeful, to a new vision of modern, often joyful, rockclimbing.
Darryl Cramer

Social climber
Dec 14, 2009 - 01:15pm PT
Here is a pic of the Golden Arch route on the Upper Town Wall at Index. The large white ledge below the climber is named "Madsen's Ledge."

Madsen was on the FA. Despite the passing of 40 years it still is a classic route and local rite of pasage for those learning hooking. Which raises the question: When were hooks first used? Perhaps Madsen nailed this section. Photos by a young Bringmedeath.


Trad climber
quaking has-been land
Dec 14, 2009 - 08:26pm PT

I doubt that Madsen and Burgner had hooks, at least commercially made hooks, when they did Golden Arches in the 60's. I didn't know Madsen but I know Burgner wouldn't have been caught dead using ghey little tricks like that. Those were the days of creative nailing. Burgner almost hit me with a 2" bong one time when we were doing Midterm in 1973. I told him it went with hexes but he insisted on taking a rack of pins. He was in the wide hand section and getting pumped when he pulled a 2" off the rack and tried to fit it into the crack. When it wouldn't fit (and I started laughing), he hucked it, full force, at me. I stopped laughing. He sucked it up and went for the top.

As for Madsen's free climbing---some of the cracks he free climbed in Washington in the 60's are still something to be reckoned with. He was always such a mystery to those of us that came after him. It was like he left some kind of magic behind when he died.

Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Dec 14, 2009 - 08:59pm PT
The Chouinard Cliffhanger hit the market in 1966 and the Golden Arches went up the following year which is not to say that Madsen was ghey but I bet he used hooks.
Jim Logan

Dec 15, 2009 - 12:38pm PT
Reading this makes me really sad. Jim Madsen was the best climber I ever climbed with, and over the last 50 years I have climbed with some really great climbers. He had great expectations of taking the valley big wall techniques to the high mountains that obviously were never fulfilled. He wrote me a letter the week before he died (I was in the army at the time) that said the valley was a crazy place and he was leaving forever to climb in the big mountains. I miss him.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Dec 15, 2009 - 12:48pm PT
Jim- do you have any photos from your climbing with him that you would care to share as this thread has become a memorial to the man?

A thousand thanks for inventing Logan hooks, by the way.
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Dec 15, 2009 - 02:26pm PT
Good to hear from you Jim. I remember you were right there
with us that one year, can't just recall which year, but
just before Madsen's death. I remember driving out to the Valley
with you one year, with Goss, can't remember exactly when that
year was either, and I recall I was kind of out of it then,
and you had a lot of clarity and focus. Yes Jim was the big
wall master of his day. It makes me feel glad that we can
remember and know how much love we had. Sometimes we can't
get to such feelings when people are right there, alive,
with us, the dull mindset of the moment sometimes.... And
yes he had his opinions about the Valley, which changed about
every day. I heard him say he had to get out of the Valley,
then later was back and caught up in some great
time. We all hated the madness of living there at times, and by
then the numbers of climbers and people had wildly increaed --
nothing compared to today. Imagine what Madsen would have thought
(or any of us would have thought) had he
been given a little window into the future -- a look at the Valley
today! Those times back then would have seemed as primitive as
the stone age... and quite private, by comparison. I mean we
could still do a wall and have the entire grand edifice to ourselves.
Tell us about the climbs you did with Jim. And letters. Post that
one if you feel so moved to share something so personal. I always
saved them. I have piles form Kor, Robbins, Pratt, Gill, all my
friends through the years. I cherish them. I think I have a few
from Jim even. He was trying to get me to come out and do some
wall, but I had lost interest in big walls at that time. He
thought for a short time he would change my mind, but it was futile.
Pratt too wanted me to do the Arrow Direct with him, and I frustrated
him by talking about some short hard cracks I wanted to do instead.
He took my friend and protege Ruwitch up the Arrow instead, and I
hung around the edges of the climb as moral support. Now I wish I
had done those climbs with Madsen and Pratt... But at least we did
the climbs we did, and I'm pretty sure the love we all had was the
same, whatever the climbs...

Social climber
No Ut
Dec 16, 2009 - 01:39pm PT
Good observations, Hooblie. Kim Schmitz was influential too, with that piercing intelligence shining through his eyes, but it was Madsen's energy that picked me up by the bootstraps, and set me down on a higher course than the one I'd been charting just moments before.

That might be an interesting thread, for people to think back on their climbing lives and try to identify those sudden times when their own climbing notched up a level or two.

Jim Logan

Dec 16, 2009 - 06:50pm PT
I realy like Jeff's statement "the essence of going upness". I think that covers both Jim and Kim. It is dificult to think of one without the other. One spring, possibly 1967, we had a haul bag on Sickle ledge and after spending several days in a wet snowstorm sleeping under a tarp that Bridwell had, we decided to seek refuge in Berkeley. When we went up to the Nose we found huge sheets of ice breaking loose from the top and smashing up on the lower slabs, but occasionally spinning out into the forest and hitting trees. Somehow it was decided that Madsen and I would jumar up to Sickle and get the haul bags. On the way back down I was rappelling down to Madsen and when I got to the anchor I looked over and it was a total mess with no place to clip in. Just then another ice sheet cut loose and we could hear it in the air above us. Without a word being spoken, Jim reached out and lifted me up with one hand by my coat like a puppy being held up by the scruff of his neck. I unclipped from the rope I was on and swithed my carabiner brake to the next rope just as the ice exploded above us. We just had time to protect our hands as the ice shattered around us. While I was switching the rappel my only tie in was Jim holding me there one handed. I think that exresses the idea of Jim Madsen being someone you could totally trust.
I am sad to say I have no pictures or other artifacts of those times.

Social climber
Across Town From Easy Street
Dec 16, 2009 - 07:08pm PT
Thanks so much for sharing your stories, Jim. Much appreciated.

Erik Wolfe Borghoff
Dick Erb

June Lake, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 18, 2009 - 01:49pm PT
I certainly could not make a list of the Valley free climbs that Jim Madsen did, but I know he did an early ascent of Twilight Zone, and us other guys were generally in awe of his free climbing. There were other awesome free climbers from the Northwest, but we in the Valley never saw them until a while after Jim showed up. In the late 70's I moved to Seattle and was impressed by the standards of free climbing up there as well as the stiff grades. It had gone way over my head. Talking to the locals I found that Madsen was quite a legend and was definitely a step above his peers.
Patrick Oliver

Boulder climber
Fruita, Colorado
Dec 18, 2009 - 08:28pm PT
That would really impress me if Jim did the Twilight Zone. I wasn't
aware he did that route. Does anyone here know for sure about that
one or who he did it with? That's pretty impressive. I
remember him telling me he didn't like off-widths.
By the way, my comments were in no way intended to be
derrogatory. I was as much in awe of Jim as anyone, and I liked him
even more than I was in awe, but he had always given me the impression
his goal was to get up the walls and do so fast. He was strong in that
area. If he also did those hard free climbs, that's one more tribute
to him... of which I just wasn't aware. On more than one occasion he
followed me around the boulders, and that was definitely not his cup
of tea. As I said before, of anyone he reminded me of Kor -- a real "life
force," to use Huntley's words.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Jan 14, 2010 - 11:30am PT
Madsen Bump!
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