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Remembering Tim Klein: All About Others

Tim Klein, 42, along with his climbing partner Jason Wells, died in a tragic accident on El Capitan, Yosemite, on June 2, 2018. Here, Jim Herson remembers his close friend Tim---his incredible capacity for compassion and empathy, and his nearly unparalleled resume on the Big Stone.

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Tim Klein in his element. Photo: Greg Murphy.

That you cannot write a remembrance of Tim Klein without making it about others is pure Tim Klein. Tim’s fundamental guiding principle was deceptively simple: make others better. It wasn’t an aspirational goal; it was organically baked into every fiber of his being.

Tim taught for 17 years at Palmdale High School, 60 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Tim’s climbing partners knew he taught. Tim’s students knew he climbed. But neither of us really had any idea what that really meant.

For the last 11 years Tim served as co-director of the Health Careers Academy (HCA) at Palmdale, which has a diverse, high risk, 70%-low-income student body.  The HCA offers strong vocational training as a gateway into challenging medical careers as well as a strong academic college path. Under Tim and his co-director Angela Hefter’s leadership, the academy doubled in size to 400 students with a 100% graduation rate.

Tim’s visionary effort, though, was conceiving of an EMT program for high school seniors—the first of it’s kind in the California. With the meticulousness and tenacity he brought to his audacious climbing, he navigated an impenetrable bureaucracy, winning, through sheer determination, final approval and funding for his EMT program from the school board, county and state.

But Tim was not about graduation rates, funding levels, curriculum, college acceptance and job placements (although he was all that in spades). Tim was about affecting deep, personal change.

Photo: Greg Murphy.

Like the young girl who was afraid to admit she dreamed of being a UCLA Bruin. One day Tim sensed something was wrong. With his warm smile and soft voice, he slowly coaxed it out of her: Her mother had been arrested. Tim bailed her mother out of jail. Without Tim bailing out her mother, the young, promising freshman may have had to drop out of school to care for her younger siblings. She graduated valedictorian. She is a junior Math major at UCLA.

Or the young girl who refused to go through her second open heart surgery. She preferred to die at age 15. She had had enough. Tim talked her into enduring another surgery.  He passed away before she woke up in recovery.

Or the student who was having seizures. No one would listen to her. Tim told her she could get through it. He was there for her brain surgery. She graduated and now has a career in laboratory science and a family of her own.

Or the 9th grader who was shot in the head, an innocent bystander in a senseless drive-by shooting. She survived and regained her cognitive abilities, but refused to return to school. She feared the kids would be mean to her for being in a wheelchair. So Tim held a fundraiser. He’d climb the equivalent height of Mount Everest in the gym for his student.

He ruthlessly trained for the Everest challenge. All night self-belay sessions at a local crag before racing back in time for the 7:00 a.m. school bell. On the day itself, Tim shattered the Guinness record by four hours. He climbed 29,029-feet of the same mind numbing 5.4 in a blistering 9 hours 26 minutes 15 seconds.

Tim won all sorts of awards and recognition for his Everest fundraiser. But what Tim really did—his plan all along—was make the girl a local celebrity. With newfound confidence drawn from the event, she returned to school.

Just as with his accomplishments as a teacher, to reduce Tim’s climbing down to a list of ascents would miss the point. Tim was utterly incapable of boasting about himself. No one knows all of Tim’s climbs.

But suppose you could make a list of Tim’s climbs. First, you would need a very long piece of paper. Second, you would need a very long and productive climbing career to appreciate the length and difficulty of his climbs.

Tim climbed El Cap 106 times, over 75 of those with his perpetually psyched climbing-machine of a partner, Jason Wells. Tim and Jason routinely linked once-in-a-lifetime, multi-day climbs in a single, casual day: the Nose and the Salathe; the Nose and the Triple Direct, Nose and Lurking Fear; the Nose twice; the Nose and Half Dome; and others I’m sure I don’t know about.

Jason Wells (left) and Tim Klein. Photo: Greg Murphy.

Tim and Jason’s was an inseparable friendship. A friendship which created, in raw vertical granite miles, the most productive Yosemite partnership ever. But as in all big-wall climbs, and in life, it is the details that inspire.

Details like Tim and Jason’s ascents always being in a day so they could get back to their families and careers. Jason would fly to L.A. from Denver Friday afternoon, and then they’d drive five hours to Yosemite. Waking at first light the next morning, they’d whoop and laugh their way up the Big Stone with blazing speed. They’d then turn around and take another lap on Sunday and finish the weekend with the five-hour haul back to L.A.

Details like Jason flying out to L.A. to be by Tim’s side and keep him climbing with jokes and encouragement for the entire Everest climb-a-thon.

Details like Tim—on a family outing to the Valley—sneaking out for a night mission to solo up the South Face of Washington Column after putting his boys to bed in the tent at 10:00 p.m., and waking them up at 6:30 a.m. for a morning hike.

Tim was hilariously fun to climb with. But you had to watch what you said. It led to some embarrassing moments until I grasped just how deeply Tim’s mission to help others really went.

On a hike out once, I casually mentioned I was turning 54 and wouldn’t it be cool to link the 54 pitches of El Cap and Half Dome. It was the harmless banter of a delusional old man. I wasn’t sure Tim even heard. At 7:00 a.m. the next morning I received a text: “I checked my calendar. I have an all day conference in Sacramento Saturday that ends at 7pm. I’ll drive to the Valley by 11pm.  We’ll start climbing at 2am. Topout by midnight and run back to the car, start driving by 2am, and get to school by 7am. I might have to skip the shower before class though.” I took a nap after just reading his text. But Tim was dead serious.

Jim Herson (left) and Tim Klein. Photo: Jim Herson.

Or after our first half dozen trips up the Nose. I realized I always lead the magical Stovelegs so I offered Tim that block. Tim refused. I kept pressing it each ascent. Tim kept cheerfully refusing.  Finally, it dawned on me. Every time I led the Stovelegs I’d excitedly go off on just how perfect the Stovelegs were. Once Tim knew how much joy the Stovelegs gave me, he just insisted on doing all the heavy lifting just so his prima donna climbing partner could enjoy that section.

Often texts between Tim, Jason and I were about weather. Lousy weather. “70% forecast of freezing rain. That leave 30% of the day to climb El Cap. Cool!” Of course, I couldn’t resist encouraging them in all weather just because they were so much happier the stupider the climbing conditions.

Their love for stupid conditions was problematic though. When Jason met his wife Becky there was a glow in Jason I had never witnessed. He had that gleam in his eye which meant Becky was about to be very thirsty. I tried to intervene—I was too late.  Jason and Tim already had Becky halfway up the West Face of El Cap in the 100-degree direct sun for her first El Cap route. I said Jason and Tim were brilliant climbers. I never claimed they had a clue about courtship.

Tim lit up when he talked about his wife JJ. To the point that I was eventually like, “Dude, 17 years? The honeymoon phase isn’t suppose to last that long.” But from Tim’s quiet infatuation with JJ and JJ’s unabashed declarations of her wildness for Tim, it was clear that Tim and JJ were in no danger of moving past the honeymoon phase.

I loved asking Tim about his boys: Levi, 13, and Jack, 10. He wouldn’t boast, but he’d light up. He was so proud of the young men they are growing into.

The boys will always have a huge hole in their hearts, but Tim left them a bright, clear path to a truly meaningful life. Tim lived by example. Tim made us all better people.

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