FEBRUARY 2014: Eight days into our trip, and we finally lay eyes on the wall. As we break out of the rainforest, I stumble onto a sandy riverbank, colliding with my friends Althea Rogers and Niels Tietze. Stunned yet giddy, I stare up in awe. It’s not as steep as El Capitan, Althea says, but it’s much bigger. At least 1,000 feet bigger. And it seems close. A sense of relief filters down my knotted right shoulder and aching back. I’ve spent three years dreaming about this peak. Now, the existence of El Hermano is confirmed, its location pinpointed. The sun is setting. The heat of the austral summer is fading, and the tabano flies are dissipating. Against the shadowed hillside, the pure white granite of our peak glows. This is happening.
ALONE IN A HOTEL ROOM at the Yosemite Lodge, I put on my black dress. It’s late July 2012, the morning of my brother Mike’s memorial service. In another room, a babysitter watches my twin boys. Only two and a half years old, they splash in the tub, oblivious. Around my neck, I fasten the strand of pearls that Mike gave me when I graduated from college, and then the pendant containing some of his ashes. I attach a black veil over my long hair. At last, I walk slowly into the banquet room, where people are already gathering.
Dappled light pours through the windows. The tables are covered with white cloth and pinecones, which a friend’s daughter collected that morning. The simmering heat of midsummer ripples in the air. A month before, Mike died while attempting a solo traverse of the Sawtooth Ridge in the Sierra Nevada. He was forty-five years old. Three women now introduce themselves with anxious expressions: Alex, who reported Mike missing to the Mono County Sheriff’s department; Marissa, who climbed with Mike around Lone Pine, during the last week that he was alive; and Christine, who has flown all the way from Hong Kong to say good-bye. Is it my somber clothing that reveals me as his sister? Or is it my expression of grief? I’ve never met any of his climbing friends before.
The ceremony seems to pass behind a fog, and I barely hear a word. During the reception, I watch people milling around the room. Some are wearing button-down shirts. A few have ties on: Mike’s editors at the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. Others are dressed in shorts and T-shirts. I see my other brother, Gary, sitting at a table with our cousin Carmen, who used to babysit Mike as an infant. My mom talks earnestly to an unfamiliar young woman with red pigtails and an orthopedic boot. I wander from table to table, but I have a hard time figuring out how most of the guests fit into the narrative of Mike’s life.
When the reception is over, my mom tells me that the red-haired woman is named Libby and that she injured her leg in a climbing accident. Sometime afterward, I leaf through the guestbook until I come to Libby’s message: “El Hermano will be had, my friend.” I close the book and put it back in its protective box. For some reason, it’s important to me that it doesn’t collect dust.
Curious to know more, however, I look through my brother’s files in search of “El Hermano,” which turns out to be a giant wall in the Chilean Andes. In 2011 Mike had traveled to Palena Province to interview the climber and conservationist Doug Tompkins for a book project. In his notes from the journey, Mike wrote, “Unconnected by road to the rest of the country until just a few years ago, Palena is an area of vast granite walls carved by glaciers.”
After Mike returned to California, Doug emailed him pictures of some of the unclimbed rock faces in the region. One photo showed a wall of gleaming granite rising from a jungle. “What’s that one near? How do I get there?” Mike asked. “Finally someone truly interested to try this climb!” Doug replied. “It will take a little work to get there, but it is far from insurmountable.” Mike called the mountain El Hermano, the brother to El Capitan in Yosemite. Just a few months before Mike’s accident, Doug wrote to him, “We still wait for your visit to give Yosemite South a shot. I am waiting [for] news of your imminent arrival.”
Mike, Gary and I had grown up in the irrigated desert of Los Angeles, a place that seemed like the opposite of this distant, fecund Patagonian wild. Each day, our local weather station featured an air-quality report. The usual projection was “poor” or “unhealthy.” The sky was often brown, water was rationed during droughts, and green lawns were rare. When Mike was around nine years old, he used to say that he was born in the wrong century; he would have felt more at home in the Wild West. Our grandmother made him a hat out of an old fur coat. I can see him as a little boy again, his dark hair bleached by the harsh Southern Californian sun. Despite the heat, he is wearing that fur hat, and he is smiling. In that moment, he is on the frontier. He is Daniel Boone, not merely a child pretending to be an adventurer beneath the smog of a suburban backyard.
At first, when Mike became a journalist, he mostly wrote about politics, but he remained drawn to the outdoors. In his late thirties, while trekking in Peru, he signed up for lessons at an ice-climbing school. He sent a postcard of Alpamayo to our mom. “This picture shows the final exam!” Later, he began making frequent trips from his San Francisco home to Yosemite. He wrote about his experiences in Wall Street Journal columns that resembled poetry: “The night sky is ablaze with stars–except for the black void that looms overhead, cleaving the heavens in two…. Silverfish skitter crazily over the cool granite.”
The original team Mike assembled for El Hermano–Libby Sauter, Gil Weiss and Mayan Smith-Gobat–all consisted of climbers he’d met in the Valley. When Gil learned of Mike’s death, he wrote on Pullharder.org, “I sit here in a coffee shop in Huaraz, Peru, planning another foray into the Cordillera Blanca, where the sense that one’s life is in the hands of the mountains can be as blinding as the endless white glaciers…. Michael climbed in these mountains as well, and no doubt came away from his experience with far more than met his eyes or chilled his bones.” Not long after that post, Gil and his climbing partner, Ben Horne, fell to their deaths on Palcaraju Oeste.
As the months pass, I periodically flip through the guest book. The procedure is always the same: sitting on the floor of my mom’s bedroom, I take the book out of a bookcase, then out of its box, always making sure not to get fingerprints on it. I inspect it for dust.
One winter evening in 2014, the quiet dark fills my Los Angeles house. My kids are asleep. In the faint light, the furniture turns to black, heavy shapes like trees at dusk, a shade deeper than the dimming sky. I think of how the granite walls of Yosemite shone against the approaching night the last time I was there. It’s hard to accept that Mike won’t have any more adventures. The phone rings. Libby is on her way to the Los Angeles airport to catch a plane for Chile, where she’ll attempt El Hermano with her friends Althea and Niels.
I remember one of the last times I saw Mike getting ready for an expedition. I’d walked into our mom’s house to find climbing gear spread all over the living room. Mike was sitting on the floor, meticulously going through his haulbag. He looked up at me, his face radiant: he might have still been that little boy in the fur hat.
I TRAVEL WITH A BLACK DRESS. I live on the road, and next to my rack, my bivy kit, cooking gear, climbing shoes and torn jeans lies a crumpled black dress. My funeral outfit. During the last two years, I’ve lost friends in climbing and BASE-jumping accidents. In July 2012, I was lying on my mom’s leather couch, sunk into the divot that my body made, when I heard that Mike was gone. My right leg was elevated, still not healed despite the titanium rod that doctors had hammered down the bone. Like Mike, I’d fallen in the Sierra. A boulder in the approach gully to the Third Pillar of Dana had slid, taking me with it. But I’d hit a ledge and stopped, shattering my leg into unnatural angles. It could have been much worse.
A week afterward, I read an email from Niels: “I go to bury my oldest. I am the last standing.” His elder brother Eric had fallen 500 feet in the Tetons, just twenty months after his middle brother, Kyle, had died. Two weeks later, I was driving timidly with my left leg to Yosemite for Mike’s memorial, my right leg propped up on the passenger seat. In Bishop, I checked my phone to see if Gil had returned my email about El Hermano and Mike. Instead, I saw a post that Gil was overdue from the Cordillera Blanca.
So much pain emanated so quickly from an activity that I once obsessively, unequivocally loved. I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to keep climbing. Yet I couldn’t stop the tingling in my palms when I discussed a beautiful ridge, or the dreams of mountains that passed through my mind like the shadows of clouds. As Niels wrote after my friend Felix died on El Capitan last year, “Climbing never promised loyalty or security…. In that sense, it cannot betray that which was never there.” Maybe I was testing my dedication when I decided to reorganize the search for Mike’s southern El Capitan, to complete the adventure that Gil called “the trip of a lifetime.” Or maybe I was just giving into compulsion. We’ve all slipped. We’ve all watched rockfall nearby. “Even the legends have shattered,” Niels says. But like me, he and Althea chose to go. Unsure why, but unable to refuse.
A worn, pale speedboat dropped us off on the salt-and-pepper sandy beach of Lago Yelcho. For almost ten miles, now, we’ve followed a trail built by a rancher who spends his summers by the mouth of the river. About a mile from our first glimpse of the wall, the path ends at a weathered clapboard refugio. Out come the machetes. It takes us six days to forge the final four miles through barriers of bamboo thickets to the base of the climb. As Niels leads the way, his arm muscles flex. Through a torn sleeve of his once-blue-now-grey threadbare cowboy shirt, his rattlesnake tattoo flashes. The robust, sharp bamboo stems stick up, as if waiting to trip and impale us. Bent under awkward sixty- to eighty-pound loads, we traverse over mossy, decomposing logs suspended well above the uneven rainforest floor. At one point, my machete ricochets off a tree and into my kneecap, drawing a topographical line of deep red. When I pull up my pant leg, I’m relieved to find only a minor laceration.
The weather–notorious in this region for pounding, unrelenting rain–holds. The sanguijuelas, or leeches, don’t appear. Each small success is a step toward Mike and Gil’s summit. Finally, Niels’ machete cuts a window through the bamboo barricade, revealing a cobblestone beach and the silty glacial blue waters of Rio Correntoso. The wall shimmers above. Two dikes crisscross halfway up like an X on a treasure map. Unlike the other cliffs of the valley, most of El Hermano appears devoid of plant life, except for a few green ledges. Niels suggests the proudest line–the prow. Althea concurs. By following the elongated contours of the main buttress, we expect to summit and descend in two to three days. We hope.
Just as Doug promised Mike, the granite resembles Yosemite rock. But unlike the cracks on El Capitan, each fissure flows like a river of vegetation toward the summit of El Hermano. The unrelenting jungle has crawled its way into every gap in the stone. What looks like a plush ledge from a distance turns out to be a vertical bundle of oversized bushes–nowhere to sleep. The light deepens to a tired yellow hue. Here and there among the branches, the bright pinks and reds of orchid-like flowers, flor del Voqui, glow in the alpine sunset. Niels stares at the images of the wall we have on our camera. Peering over his shoulders, Althea points to a picture that shows our location, disappointingly low. We haven’t allotted enough food for such a slow pace. “The logical thing is to go down and reassess,” she says, and she sighs.
We bail, leaving lines fixed to our highpoint. As I rappel, I think about the first time I met Mike. In the summer of 2009, he and a mutual friend, Chantel Astorga, had decided to climb the Steck-Salathe on the Sentinel. From my tent cabin in Camp 4, I watched them climb into the dark, their headlamps steadily moving up the wall like two satellites crossing the night sky. When they walked back into camp the next morning, they laughed as they recounted how they’d spooned under a summit boulder and done jumping jacks to stay warm. Mike loved a little suffering. I wonder what he’d say if he were with us now. I find myself smiling as I remember his joke about using helicopters to rap-bolt El Hermano and create the world’s longest sport route.
The next morning, we plan to take a full, glorious rest day–our first since we began the walk in. Althea perches on a downed log over the roaring river to call her husband, Andrew, for the weekly weather report. Three and a half clear days, he tells her, followed by a biblical storm. Forty millimeters of rain the first day, then thirty millimeters the second. So far, the only rain we’ve seen–two millimeters–caused the river to rise nearly a foot. Our advance base camp is on the opposite side of the river from the wall. If the waters swell too much, we might not be able to return to our tent, let alone make the trek out.
To climb–and then escape–El Hermano, we’ll have to move fast. While we pack, Althea chirps at us in a high-pitched imitation of Jane Goodall’s voice, and her quips about scurrying monkeys turn our somber mood to tear-wrenching laughter. We jug back to our highpoint. As the last one up, I pull the ropes behind me and coil them, erasing our path to the ground. Althea leads on into a torrent of green, slick corners, her fists clenching mud, her feet buried in oozing slime. Now and then, I hear her grunts and giggles. As she is forced out onto the face, mud trails cold and damp into her armpits, and her foot slips. “Don’t you dare fall!” Niels hollers. At last, she returns to us, filthy, spent and smiling: she has found a good place to stop. After our first bivy on what we call “Mike’s Pleasure Garden Ledge,” we wake to clouds–the sunken, swallow-you-up-and-hinder-your-line-of-sight-to-about-thirty-feet kind.
When I look up, Althea’s fixed rope evaporates into the grey. Granite blends into a fog without margins. I feel as if I’m jugging to nowhere. Slowly, the clouds rise and swirl around us and evaporate away. The plants in the cracks begin to shrink. Bushes and grasses give way to moss. The hanging gardens dwindle. I take the last pitch of the day and emerge from a chimney with a face full of fertile soil and grass under my fingernails. Ahead, there’s a perfect crack, as immaculate as the grouted tile in my mother’s kitchen. Happiness. We fix our lines and rappel to our second bivy ledge past the ebbing green rivers, through the oranges and pinks of another dusk.
Tomorrow is summit day. We seem to be just over halfway. In my haulbag, I have laminated pictures of Mike riding an elephant and Gil hugging a llama. The absurdity of the images seems appropriate: after all, we’ve trudged up seemingly never-ending garden rows just to climb an obscure, unnamed rock face. On an expedition fraught with such initial loss, I can’t take any of our actions too seriously. I think of lukewarm beers with Gil and Mike in El Cap Meadow. Of whippers and blown gear while cragging in Yosemite with Mike. Of melting ice climbs and foul text-message jokes about snakes. I try to fall asleep thinking of these memories, instead of the thousands of feet left to go.
Again, I wake to thick, swirling fog so dense it almost seems to be raining. We leave our bivy gear and part of our rack on the ledge, and we press on. As we learn the mountain, our speed increases. On pitches that would have once taken days to climb, each leader now moves faster than the followers can keep up. By early afternoon, I join Niels and Althea on an improbably large, flat ledge. Gradually, the strength of the stone has diminished. Cracked and decomposing granite rises overhead. We could continue for two more pitches on deteriorating stone or unrope and hike across a horizontal choss gully to the summit ridge. To my amazement and disappointment, the tabanos have managed to follow us all the way up here. But the air is crisp, and the mists have finally vanished. More than 4,000 feet now stretch between us and the valley floor. With the storm coming tomorrow and the length of time needed to rappel unknown, we agree on the easy mountaineer’s finish.
After weeks encased in thick foliage and imposing walls, I’m startled by the openness of space, the empty summit. Niels releases the ashes of Kyle and Eric. His wide shoulders slump as he stares at the orange handkerchief that once held their remains. Mike and Gil’s summit. Eric and Kyle’s summit. Our summit. There are a few giggles and hugs, but the wind whips away any spoken words. Months later, I’ll think of the lines that John Muir wrote during his Yosemite wanderings, more than a century ago: “It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.”
For the moment, though, I’m silent. Niels is right: climbing hasn’t offered me any loyalty or security, but it has given me this–a quiet place amid the gusts, a wordless intimacy with the present, the eternal and the lost. I leave pictures of Mike and Gil tucked under a boulder. Hidden in the huecos and beneath the rocks, I find piles of ash left over from the massive 2008 eruption of the Chaiten volcano, which almost destroyed the nearest town. Here, mixing with the ashes of Eric and Kyle and the photos of Mike and Gil, the powdered, silky dust has lain undisturbed, unchanged, until now.
WHEN I HEAR FROM ANDREW that the team has reached the top of El Hermano, I imagine Mike perched on a summit boulder, tan and happy with a mop of dark, curly hair and a big smile, the way he looked as a teenager getting ready for a scuba dive. Before the team returns to the US, they meet with Doug. “I am 100% certain,” Doug writes to me, “that Libby and her companions were carrying a heavy load of sentiments of Mike to the top, and this was a climb for HIM! In this sense, he was there.” One story of Mike’s life seems complete. Others trail off in unfinished notes and unpublished manuscripts, flashes of dreams and memories vanishing into night.
Mike’s final communication took place at 10 a.m. on June 30, 2012, as he signed the summit register atop Matterhorn Peak: “Attempted route in Croft book. Only the last notch seemed on route. Onwards. Mike Ybarra.” What exactly happened after that moment, no one knows. It’s a secret the mountains hold close. But I believe, now, that Mike still continues with his adventures, somewhere out of sight. Twilight has always been my favorite time of day. There’s something about the fading glow that lends itself to reverie. And sometimes in the dim light, I think I see shadows, somewhere, just out of reach.
Summary of Statistics: Cenizas a Cenizas (aka: “Ashes to Ashes,” 5.11- R A3, ca. 4,000′), February 19-23, 2014, Althea Rogers, Libby Sauter, Niels Tietze, first ascent. Only one bolt was placed on the route. The climbers rappelled the line of ascent using nuts and slings.