Michael J. Ybarra, a freelance writer for both Alpinist and The Wall Street Journal, died, last weekend, during a solo climb along the Sawtooth Ridge, in California’s Sierra Nevada. (See: The Wall Street Journal.)
As Michael’s Alpinist editor and as one of his many readers, I got to know him, gradually, through the stories he told. According to his Contributor Bio in Issue 36, Michael began climbing in 2004. Since then, he’d wandered and road-tripped from range to range around the world. When I asked him what hometown to list in his byline, he suggested simply, “My Car.” He had a quiet, humble sense of humor, describing his official position at The Wall Street Journal–“extreme sports correspondent”–in a joking manner as “the silliest job title he could think of after life coach.”
Yet his modesty could not conceal the extent of his accomplishments. The series of essays he wrote for that newspaper introduced a wider audience to a genuine, in-depth experience of the climbing life, from someone who actually knew what it was like to have an ice block strike his helmet partway up Cerro Standhardt and to hear the sound ringing in his ears as it nearly knocked him out; from someone who had gazed up at El Capitan before attempting to climb the Nose in a day and seen “the night sky…ablaze with stars–except for the black void that looms overhead, cleaving the heavens in two.” Michael could translate an alpinist’s experience of risk, immersion and commitment in such lyrical, funny and disarming terms that even a non-climber might understand. During a stormy trip to the Bugaboos, he wrote: “I’d hate to think I can have fun only if I’m scared, exhausted and in danger–but I was beginning to wonder.”
In one Wall Street Journal book review, he noted, “People love and respect that which they know intimately.” Michael knew the climbing world intimately, and his deep affection for the community, the history, the people and the landscapes showed in all his work. And he could use that knowledge to write for lifelong climbers, as well, in ways that captured the geographies of our own imaginations. In his essay for Alpinist 36, he described the art of Dee Molenaar, one of the survivors of the 1953 American K2 attempt: “His map of Mt. Rainier is painted in muted tones, a bird’s eye view of the snow-capped volcano, its ridges radiating like the arms of starfish…. A series of small sketches depict flanks, glaciers and valleys. It’s less an exercise in cartography than a hymn.”
Michael lived his life like a hymn–his published words express a ceaseless shout of joy at the wonder of the world. To me, it is agonizing to think about how much more he had to share: the unfinished stories, the ongoing manuscript of his book, the climbs and conversations with his countless friends, who are left, now, with a sense of a broken-off correspondence, an incomplete tale.
During the past two days, I’ve found myself thinking of everything I wish that I could tell him: how much I would like, after all those editorial emails back and forth, to meet him in person; how much I appreciate his writing–as clear, spare and translucent as watercolor paintings, as if the light shone through his words; how much it meant to me to be one of his editors and to watch new layers of his vision unfold, more beautiful with each draft.
All great writers leave a trace of themselves in their readers’ minds. And we will all carry fragments of Michael’s memories with us for the rest of our lives, trying to complete them, as we can, by seeking our own adventures, by telling some of stories he might have told.
Three years ago, in The Wall Street Journal, Michael wrote an elegy for John Bachar, another Alpinist writer who died on a solo climb, and I think of Michael’s words, as many others now do, when I grieve for both men:
“Everything in life is a risk of some sort. Many climbers have been seriously hurt or killed driving home from the hills. Climbing holds can break unexpectedly, but lightning also strikes. Most people exist so swaddled against danger, measuring out their lives with coffee spoons that those who reckon by a different calculation of risk and reward appear insane. Yet to survive a perilous situation is to love life more than the average person can imagine.”
Michael and John both seemed to love existence more than most people, even many climbers, can imagine. What we can do for them, now, is to try to love the world as fully, and to think of them in the hills.