Body of Minnesota climber found in China

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE and BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 8, 2009 - 11:54 PM

A Minnesota filmmaker's body was found on a Chinese mountain. His death resonated around the state and world.

Wade Johnson

Wade Johnson was an avid rock climber who organized trips for his friends in college -- but he was also the guy who reminded them to wear helmets.

"He went out of his way to create adventures for himself and others," said Amy Alstad, a senior at Carleton College who joined other students Monday in a gathering at the Northfield school to remember their friend's life.

Earlier Monday, on a peak in southwestern China, rescuers struggling through high winds and blizzards found Johnson's body. He and two other American mountaineers were buried by an avalanche.

Johnson, 24, a 2007 Carleton graduate from Arden Hills, had been working for Sender Films of Boulder, Colo., which makes climbing and outdoor adventure films. He had planned to start a Ph.D. chemistry program this fall at the University of Washington, where his girlfriend attends medical school.

For younger friends, some of whom Johnson taught to climb, his death was a sobering loss at a moment when they're about to spread their wings. "We're about to graduate. It makes it seem like it matters when you say goodbye to people," said Carleton senior Juliet Dana, who lived in a house with Johnson and other members of the college's outdoor club.

The tragedy resonated, though in a different way, with seasoned mountaineers. "Sometimes, things are just out of your control and you just happen to be unlucky," said Mike Farris, a Northfield resident who has written two climbing books and reached Mount Everest's summit -- nearly losing his own life -- two days after Johnson's party was last heard from on May 20.

The Chinese rescue team had been scouring Mount Gongga in Sichuan Province for the missing U.S. climbers after the first body, that of Jonathan Copp, was found Saturday. The third climber, Micah Dash, 32, who like Copp is from Boulder, remains missing.

Three search teams faced "intense winds, a potential for avalanches and heavy snowfall" Monday, said Gao Min, a spokesman for the Sichuan Mountaineering Association.

A pair of two-member U.S. search teams were headed for a base camp to assist the Chinese searchers.

'Our grief is profound'

On Monday, Johnson's parents, Bruce and Susan Johnson, issued a statement saying, "We are devastated by the loss of our son Wade. Our grief is profound as the reality of his loss sweeps over us. Yet he was a boundless joy for us as his parents.

"We are comforted by the fact that Wade lived and died doing the things that he loved. It has been transformative to experience the outpouring of support and love from literally all corners of the world."

Johnson, who earned Phi Beta Kappa honors at Carleton, was also a potter who played jazz and classical piano. "He was a ridiculously talented kid," said Owen Davies, who went to St. Paul Academy with him.

As an undergraduate, Johnson was a wilderness first responder who participated in the National Outdoor Leadership Schools and the American Alpine Institute, according to Carleton College. He was also chosen as a teaching assistant for a fly-fishing class taught by college President Robert Oden Jr.

He spent his semester abroad in Australia and spent six weeks exploring New Zealand's South Island. Johnson produced his first rock-climbing video while minoring in film studies, and he became a filmmaking intern at Sender Films in February 2008.

In November, he helped supervise a film project involving first-year Carleton students studying environmental justice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

As a student, he also belonged to the Carleton Association of Nature and Outdoor Enthusiasts and worked at the college's climbing wall for three years, where he helped teach classes and set routes. "He sort of was our rock climbing community," said Alstad, adding that Johnson was meticulous about safety.

"None of us can imagine him doing something outside of his abilities," Dana said. "He had worked really hard to know what he needed to know."

Johnson had climbed with Copp in Colorado and Canada. He was filming the attempt by Dash and Copp to scale 22,368-foot Mount Edgar, a peak on Mount Gongga. The search began after they missed a flight from China on Tuesday. They were last heard from May 20 at the Mount Edgar base camp.

Copp's body was found Saturday at about 13,100 feet. Both bodies were left on the mountain because of dangerous conditions, said search spokesman Robb Shurr.

One who came back

Even seasoned climbers such as Farris sometimes question the impulse that leads them to high altitudes. After three decades of mountaineering, Farris returned last week from his "first and last" ascent of Everest, where he ran out of oxygen and was frostbitten so badly he's likely to lose the tips of several fingers.

Recovering in Northfield on Monday, he said that Johnson's death "just brings it home again, how important it is to come back safely."

Carleton will host a memorial service for Johnson, tentatively planned for 10:30 a.m. on June 19 at Skinner Memorial Chapel. A blog with information and a fund to help assist in search efforts are at www.adventurefilm.org.

Staff writer Warren Wolfe and the Associated Press contributed to this report. slemagie@startribune.com • 952-882-9016 vonste@startribune.com • 612-673-7184

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