Will Gadd details a stranger-than-fiction mystery—where rumours and truth can barely be separated—about the life and death of one of climbing’s shadiest personalities
There was always something odd about “Jesse James;” but initially not odd enough to explain why he was found dead in his burned-out vehicle on a Squamish, British Columbia, backroad three years ago. Or why it took until September of this year to figure out who he really was. It looked like murder (hard to set your own car on fire, then die in the blaze), but why would anyone kill a climbing bum living in his vehicle—even an odd one?
I first heard of Jesse James when he attacked me and several other athletes online with a Mountain Project forum post titled, “Red Bull Climbers Suck.” In it, he wrote: “I doubt Will Gadd chugs a Red Bull before clambering up WI6 ice!” (Actually, I do regularly chug Red Bull, so it didn’t bother me much; nor did his attacks on other top climbers, such as Alexander Megos and David Lama.)
Jesse James was on a huge “life extension” kick and took dozens of supplements daily. He didn’t think energy drinks fit into that lifestyle—when he was found dead, I didn’t think it was suicide just based on how hard he was working to stay alive forever.
So, what happened?
Image of Squamish. Unsplash
I BRIEFLY MET him in person while climbing in the Rockies but didn’t put together that the thin-and-odd guy in front of me was the same one who had been attacking me online. And, for all his fire online, he didn’t bring it up to me either; he surely must have recognized me in my Red Bull helmet. If he had something to say, he was a lot less vocal in person.
But then we did a rescue together.
I was guiding classic routes in BC’s Bugaboo Provincial Park. The weather was good, the spires were in perfect shape and it seemed like every climber in North America was in the Bugs. The most dangerous part of climbing in the Bugs is often climbing up and down the col between Bugaboo and Snowpatch spires, the non-reverently named “BS Col.” It used to be better, but climate change has shrunk the ice that held it together, and every day the sun exposure and the day’s heat send a fusillade of rocks crashing down. More accidents happen there than any other spot in the park.
I was determined to get my guests down before it heated up and became congested with climbers knocking rocks on each other in addition to the natural rockfall. I turned my guests around short of the summit; we simply hadn’t moved quickly enough and if we kept going, we’d end up exposed to more hazards than I was comfortable with. At the top of the col we met an older guy, I’ll call him Dave, along with his partner. Dave seemed a little confused as to where to go, and I offered to let him join our team for the descent. He declined, and I pushed my guests hard to get down the 300 metres of snow to the safety of the flat glacier. Just as we reached safe ground I watched Dave slide and fall, developing sickening speed before slamming into the boulders that had previously fallen down the same path as him.
I hit the SOS on my InReach and started running, but I didn’t think Dave would be alive after that impact. Somehow he was. Head injury, neck injury, rib injury; more was broken on him than not and he was lying in the rubble where all the rockfall was going to end up as the day progressed. I got on the radio and let the other guides know to stop people coming down, then started triaging the injuries and forming a plan. The odd rock whirred in the air, a sound that sends chills down any climber’s spine.
Jesse James was one of the first of a half-dozen or so other climbers to arrive and help. I had him spot for rocks and stop any small ones or yell if something big was coming down. We’d have to leave our patient and run for our own lives if that happened. It was a big ask, but I, and all the other people, needed his help—and so did Dave. Again, Jesse had to know who I was, but he went at the task with focus. I literally put my life in his hands and eyes. I was too busy trying to figure out what was a lethal bleed and what was just surface blood to put together that the guy I was trusting pretty much thought I sucked.
Amazingly, Dave survived until the rescue arrived and eventually lived to climb another day.
Back at the Conrad Kain Hut, the custodian did his usual duty of collecting facts about the accident for the provincial record. I had most of them in my guide’s book, including details of the help from one “Jesse James.”
After the rescue finished, Jesse James had boasted about the high-speed satellite Internet in his nearby tent and a few other odd bits. But he and his Internet-wired tent were gone when the custodian went to ask for his statement. Other climbers said he couldn’t talk to the police, or have any photos of him taken, as he was actually wanted by the police. Weird, but there are a lot of kinda weird climbers who have authority issues. I was just grateful for his help, but also a little curious.
When I returned home, I tried to find out more about Jesse James. The name was an obvious pseudonym, but surely someone had to know who he really was? Nobody did, but the more people I talked with, the weirder the stories got.
He said he was rich but lived in his vehicle. He claimed to have a doctorate in physics from Stanford and was a top-level chess player. There were rumours that he’d sold an AI company in Silicon Valley for huge amounts of gold. He had to be secretive because some people wanted him dead, apparently, but he had a very active online persona on multiple different platforms. Just no photos of his face, ever. It all seemed almost childishly dramatic.
Then he was found in his burned-out vehicle, and we learned who he really was.
Rescue. Credits: Will Gadd
HE WAS DAVIS Wolfgang Hawke, a reviled “Spam King” who made millions selling herbal Viagra through AOL. AOL sued him for illegally spamming their customers and won a $12.8 million judgement. There’s even a book called Spam Kings, which claims, “he became a major player in the lucrative penis pill market—a business that would make him a millionaire and the target of lawsuits.”
In one of those lawsuits, AOL got a judgement to dig up the land at his parents’ house to look for any buried gold, but AOL didn’t follow up on it. His dad was reportedly a very smart employee at MIT, and also Jewish, so it must have been heartbreaking when Hawke started a Neo-Nazi group called, “The Knights of Freedom.” In 1999, Rolling Stone magazine even published an investigative feature on him titled “The Campus Nazi.”
Not one of the outlandish theories I had heard about “Jesse James” turned out to be anywhere near the real story, and none explained his fiery end (the cause of death was also determined to be a bullet to his head). Someone actually did want Hawke dead.
When DNA identified Davis Wolfgang Hawke, the story broke about the “Spam King Nazi.” Most assumed that he’d cheated his business partners back in the day and gone into hiding before they’d found him and killed him. But one of his business partners saw a Facebook post I put up about the story, and even went so far as to defend Hawke—and their business relationship. An old friend of his messaged me as well, and told sweet stories about Hawke and his mom from when Hawke was a kid. (Hawke’s mom, however, was quoted as saying she’d hoped her son was dead during the period he vanished behind the pseudonym of Jesse James.)
And Hawke wasn’t even his surname; his family name is Greenbaum, which didn’t work very well for a Nazi leader. As far as the unsolved murder goes, Hawke’s father is offering a $10,000 reward for information; a loyal dad even after being disowned by his son in name, blood and action. (If you know something, please contact the Squamish RCMP.)
"Jesse James." Supplied by Wil Gadd.
MAYBE HIS FATHER’S money will get an answer, but rumours swirl that Hawke’s death was a professional hit. There are even more rumours about angry folks who had been catfished with a brilliant AI program Hawke wrote, which scammed money from them with various schemes.
As a rule I really dislike spam, and I and feel roughly the same about Nazis as I do about falling rocks (they can f*ck right off).
In Squamish, Hawke (or “Jesse James”) was known as a self-important but harmless vegan climber who sometimes attacked outdoor companies for under-representing minorities. How does all that square with the “Spam Nazi” of his past?
Maybe one day we’ll know all—and the answers will take a lot to surprise me. As his ex-business partner said, “If he ever were to fake his death, this is how he’d do it.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020/21 issue, Everybody Outside