Climbing Fast, Loose, and Dangerous with Yosemite Legend Ammon McNeely

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Editor’s Note 1: Ammon McNeely, the legendary El Cap pirate, passed away on Saturday, February 18, after an accident in Moab. Details of the accident are still emerging, though Gripped has reported it was not climbing related. We have a comprehensive obituary in the works, but in the meantime here’s Cedar Wright's great celebration of his friend, which first appeared in Rock and Ice No. 204 (September 2012).

Editor’s Note 2: On September 3, 2017 McNeely was seriously injured when he struck a wall while BASE jumping near Moab, Utah. Due to the severity of his injuries, McNeely's right leg was amputated below the knee.

My nerves were shot, and I leaned my head against the cold, blank granite of Iron Hawk (VI A4) on El Cap, just for a second of reprieve. The sensation of falling suddenly jolted me. I shrieked and applied an arm-cramping death-grip to my aider with my battered hand. My other arm spun to keep my balance ... but ... I wasn't falling. I whimpered and watched the knifeblade shift again.

“Ammon, watch me here!" I yelled. No answer. Just the disconcerting rumble of my belayer, Ammon McNeely, snoring. Racing to get in a piece, I fiddled in a cam hook, and put two fingers through the webbing to clip it just as the knifeblade blew. I was airborne. The rope snapped taut on Ammon's belay device, rudely jerking him awake. Some lessons are learned, forgotten, and then relearned in perpetuity. Mental note: Never climb with Ammon again!

Climbing is a refuge for iconoclasts who want nothing to do with the common ideas of "success," and instead choose to follow their passion down an alternative path of exploration and vertical ascent. The pantheon of our sport is rich with characters such as Jim Bridwell, Warren Harding, and Fred Beckey, who climbed hard and lived even harder, embodying a nonconformist lifestyle that placed experience and hedonism before financial gain.

Selfie from The Pirate (a.k.a. Ammon McNeely).
Selfie from The Pirate (a.k.a. Ammon McNeely).

Now, it seems, climbing is mainstream. Every city has at least one gym and a generation of grommets doesn't know Royal Robbins from Baskin-Robbins. Some might argue that the era of the colorful, rule-breaking climbing maverick has ended. For those saddened by this notion, I have two words: Ammon McNeely.

Ammon does not remember the first time we met, but I understand why. If I'd ingested as much Olde English as he had that evening, I'd be too busy getting my stomach pumped to recall much. It was 3 a.m. in the Camp 4 parking lot. Having completed, many hours ago, my nightly ritual of stacking boxes and bags over my truck's mattress to create the illusion of a vehicle too packed with gear to house a sleeping dirtbag, I was peacefully bandit-bivied in the cocoon that was my trusty "Mazda-Ratti" pickup. Somehow I awoke on a pirate ship.

"Arrr, matey! The seeeas arr rough toni-i-ightee, matey!"

My rig shook violently as Ammon fell awkwardly against my truck. My precarious stack of gear shook, shifted, and caved in on me. "Aye, me legs gonna give thee way to thee whennches, says meee."

What in the hell was that? Something about weak legs and girls? And then the Beastie Boys, full blast. If you were in Camp 4 in the spring in the late 1990s, and if at 3 a.m. you were woken by "Listen all y'all it's a sabotage," and thought, "Who is that asshole?"

Ammon, of course!

"TURN THAT SHIIIIIIT UP!" someone yelled.

At this point the music was making my ears ring.

I popped my head out of my truck. "Hey, guys!" I said in an irritated tone. Heads turned and pupils dilated in shock. Before me on a tarp of clusterfucked climbing gear wavered two weathered and burly modern-day pirates, leaning on each other for balance.

"AYE, thar's been a stowaway on the ship tonights, matey!" said one.

"Who goes there?" demanded the other.

"Cedar," I offered meekly. A quick assessment of the situation told me it was time to make friends.

I was able to piece together that they were the brothers Ammon and Gabe McNeely, and that they were racking up to climb Pacific Ocean Wall, a
rather difficult route on El Cap. I was incredulous on several levels. A: I was certain this was a fool's errand. B: There was no way I believed Ammon when he said, "We set sail at first light." C: There was no way these guys were going to make it more than a few pitches before they bailed. To my disbelief, after I spent an entertaining hour of watching them fall down, get up, then haphazardly shove gear into haulbags, they began the long stagger to El Cap. One haulbag was filled almost exclusively with cans of Olde E.

McNeely on the tenuous <em>Space</em> (VI A4+), right side of El Cap, which he climbed with Cedar Wright, and Timmy and Sean O'Neill. Photo: Ben Van Der Kooster.
McNeely on the tenuous Space (VI A4+), right side of El Cap, which he climbed with Cedar Wright, and Timmy and Sean O'Neill. Photo: Ben Van Der Kooster.

By 6 a.m. they were climbing.

They didn't fix lines; they just blasted off. For several days I'd cruise out to El Cap Meadow and spy them, each time a few pitches higher. I was impressed. These guys were hardcore. They also weren't hard to find. Each day I had to smile as they hoisted a skull-and-crossbones flag from their portaledge "crow's nest."

It looked like they were going to defy my expectations until the mother of all storms unleashed its hellish fury, slamming the Valley with 60-mile-per-hour gusts and a torrential mix of rain, hail and sleet. On day two of the two-week storm, I grew concerned and ventured to the meadow to check on the pirates,
perilously adrift in a rough sea of granite. The swirling fog and relentless rain parted for less than a minute--just long enough to spy their camp two-thirds of the way up the wall, getting pummeled by a waterfall. My heart sank; this is how people die on El Cap.

Eight days later, by no small miracle, they oozed into the Yosemite Cafeteria, smelling and looking like death. They had been trapped for over a week in their portaledge waiting for the weather to clear. By day five they had finished off all the beer and food. Finally the scales tipped from "waiting it out" to a dire reality: bail or die. When they started rappelling, they were soaked to the bone, delirious and hypothermic. Had I been up there, I surely would have perished, possibly by unclipping and jumping. Their 2,000-foot descent entailed hip belays, extreme down-aiding, exploding bolts, and disappearing haulbags.

After that season Gabe headed home, but Ammon augured hard into the Valley. Spring became summer became fall as he knocked off one hard El Cap route after another, always hoisting his skull-and-crossbones flag, and returning with tales of huge falls and other near-death experiences. Ammon was on his way to becoming a Valley legend when he got arrested.

Fresh off an epic A5 solo sufferfest, Ammon headed for dinner at the Garden Terrace Buffet. Already a few too many celebratory beers deep, he neglected to pay before he ate. When a security guard approached, all Ammon had to do was pay, but the half-wild beast in him took control and trumped logic. He booked. Even that would have been OK if he hadn't circled back through the parking lot a mere five minutes later, just in time to bump into several rangers and security guards trolling the parking lot.

"That's him!" yelled a guard. The chase was on. The lack of a headlamp was but one of Ammon's disadvantages. He sketched a few feet into the forest, only to look back at the approaching flashlights, and tripped over a root. He picked himself up, scrambled a few more feet, looked back, and ran into a tree. The rangers finally caught up with him crumpled in the talus.

Ammon spent hard time in the Yosemite Jail, aka "The John Muir Inn." It wasn't his first visit and it wouldn't be the last. In fact, Ammon is well liked and on a first-name basis with the guards. I had a friend who went in recently for drunk biking and asked if he could wear McNeely's orange jumpsuit, a request met with smiles.

In 1997 Ammon returned to the Valley with a skateboard. At the time the "Center of the Universe" was a parking lot across from Camp 4, where the dirtbags parked their cars for the season, and met to socialize. On Ammon's first day back in the Valley, he was ollying off the tailgate of my truck when he landed too far back and shot the skateboard up into his face. Blood was everywhere, and a huge gash across Ammon's cheek definitely needed stitches. Instead he duct-taped the cut and the next day headed up to solo the Sea of Dreams. The super-manly badass face scar remains to this day.

The master at work, doing his thing high on El Cap. Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely.
The master at work, doing his thing high on El Cap. Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely.

A year later I landed a climbers' dream gig: a spot on Yosemite Search and Rescue, which meant enough work for a hand-to-mouth existence and a shanty at the back of Camp 4. I was the king of the world. I honed my skills on Yosemite's endless supply of long free routes, and on my rest days I hung with Ammon and the rest of the "Rock Monkey" clan. We'd meet in the morning for coffee at the lodge cafeteria, then head to the Center of the Universe, or The Office, a nook in the woods designated for Safety

By then most of the regulars had acquired retired Yosemite rental cruisers, and my old-school Stonemaster friend Bullwinkle (Dean Fidelman) and I invented a game called "Bike Wars." It started as a gentleman's competition of strategy, where, with both on bikes, you try to get in front of your opponent's bike, edging him toward an obstacle. If he put his foot down, you gained a point. We introduced the game to Ammon, whose strategy was less gentlemanly. He'd grab you in a headlock, then ride you toward a parked car. If you didn't put your foot down, he'd crash headlong into whichever vehicle was in his path. I have a distinct memory of the two of us rolling violently up onto the hood of a BMW.

While I had become a decent crack climber, I wasn't much of an El Cap climber. My only attempt at an in-a-day ascent of Lurking Fear had taken 40 hours and entailed heinous forearm cramps, debilitating dehydration, dropped headlamps and a shiver-bivy. But when Ammon asked if I wanted to climb the Zodiac in a day, I said, "Hell yes!"

The day before our big climb, the de facto "spiritual leader" of the Monkeys--Chongo--offered his wisdom and support. Chongo is famous for having written a big-wall book that is larger, heavier, and more inscrutable and open to interpretation than the Bible. There are three chapters on carabiners alone. Five years before, Chongo had actually coached Ammon up his first big wall in exchange for beer and grass. Surprisingly, his advice to us was solid.

"Cedar will do all the free climbing," proclaimed Chongo, "And Ammon will do all the aid. Dean Potter short-fixes. You should short fix, too.

"And remember: Bitchin' is a state of mind."

We decided to bivy at the base. The Zodiac loomed above us as we set up camp. Ammon made a six-pack of King Cobra disappear, and entertained himself yelling and making ape calls to the 20 or so climbers on the wall. I joined in and soon we had all of El Cap alight in flashing headlamps and banshee wails. Around midnight Ammon passed out in a circle of cans. I was jumpy, and my nerves weren't allowing much sleep. El Cap is sooo big. A thousand what-ifs gnawed at me. When the alarm went off at 4 a.m., I had barely slept a wink.

"Just a bit more sleep," Ammon muttered before rolling over and turning off the alarm. I drifted in and out of nightmare-ridden restlessness. I met first light with a mixture of relief and dread. So much for the 5 a.m. start. It was 8:30 a.m. when I pushed start on the stopwatch. The first lead block was mine.

I climbed 30 feet, then whipped 28 feet down the wall. Ammon laughed like a pirate. "Get back up there, matey!" he boomed.

"Fuck it!" I yelled and in that moment I became possessed by Ammon's infectious gung-ho spirit. I bat-manned up to my high point and attacked the wall: back-cleaning, blindly trusting, and in general being a dangerous dumbass.

The night before, we had discussed how awesome it would be if we could finish in less than 20 hours. We were halfway up the wall in less than four hours. We could hear ape calls from the other Monkeys in El Cap Meadow. A small crowd of our friends had gathered to watch the action. We were rock stars, hooting and hollering our way up one of the best big-wall climbs in the world as if it was a day at the crag. Nine hours later I clicked the stopwatch at the top of El Cap. Neither of us could believe our time.

"And remember: Bitchin’ is a state of mind."

We received a heroes' welcome on the Valley floor: A couple of nobodies had nearly broken the record on one of El Cap's most famous climbs. Drinks and tall tales flowed at the Mountain Room Bar that night. Then Ammon got arrested for his specialty: disorderly conduct. They let him out the next day, and he said the food wasn't half bad and the beds were "pretty comfy."

That year Ammon went on to climb several other difficult big walls in record time with other climbers, and Chris McNamara and I managed to break the speed record on the Shield. Our commitment to climbing was paying off. Slowly we were carving out our own little piece in the Valley's storied climbing history.

But by the end of the year, Ammon's wild ways and one too many trips to the John Muir Inn came back to haunt him. The Valley Court handed down the dirtbag death blow. Ammon was declared "persona non grata" and banned from Yosemite for one year. Returning early meant big fines and real jail time.

That coming spring Ammon and I rapped in to a burly big-wall first ascent on the obscure SuperNova buttress in Yosemite. Both of us had a lot to lose: Ammon his freedom, and me, by association, my spot on Search and Rescue. As there was no great approach from below, we had thrown off 1,000 feet of rope for the rap in. The wall was so steep the rope went straight to the ground without touching rock.

Somehow Ammon had packed his belay device away and he figured it would be fine to rappel on a Munter hitch with a 100-pound haul bag clipped to his harness. Almost instantly the Munter spun him rapidly in circles. Since he had no wall to brace against, the farther he went down, the faster he spun. By the time he reached the base he was spinning so fast I couldn't tell arms from legs. Upon touchdown he puked in the bushes.

What followed was my first experience with "hard" aid climbing. On pitch five I watched Ammon hook out an overhanging wall for 20 feet with nothing between him and the anchor. He pasted in a "bomber head," then hooked for 35 more feet. PING! Ammon was airborne. The rope snaked about in the air as he spun his arms to stay upright. He fell more than 70 feet and past the belay. I was white-knuckled and nauseous, but Ammon just laughed. Then the copper-head blew and he factor-twoed onto the anchor. Now he was another 40 feet below me. I was mortified.

I sent him the jumars so he could get back up to the anchor. He cracked a beer, and we discussed options. I threw out possibilities such as bailing or drilling a bolt. Both suggestions were met with disgust. Ammon slammed the beer, then sent the pitch, which involved 80 feet of hooking with no protection! It was a pretty easy pitch to clean.

The most dangerous hooking pitch in the world brought us to a 30-foot horizontal roof with only a hairline seam in it. It was my lead, but all I saw was certain death.

"Look there in the roof," I said. "I think it says 'McNeely' on it."

Ammon quickly racked up and set off into the unknown, and I bore witness to the most impressive and ballsy aid climbing I've ever seen. He leaned hard off the anchor and tapped a bird beak about a sixteenth of an inch into the incipient seam in the roof. He clipped his aiders in and had me lower him onto the piece. To this day I cannot believe that beak held. Literally just the very point of the beak was into the rock! Then he went into full superhero pirate mode. He clipped his chest harness in and pressed his legs hard against the aiders, stretching horizontally with his back to the abyss. He reached out as far as he could and placed another bird beak that was even shallower than the first one.

Author Cedar Wright, who has shared some of McNeely’s exploits. Photo: Ammon McNeely.
Author Cedar Wright, who has shared some of McNeely’s exploits. Photo: Ammon McNeely.

Just then two rangers arrived at an adjacent cliff to investigate reports of an illegal highline. The highline had already been removed, but we were in full view, and a good friend happened to be shooting photos of us. When the rangers asked who was climbing, our buddy was forced to make up some less-than-believable-sounding names. "Oh, that's Armando McMenez and Caesar Left," he said sheepishly. The rangers bought it!

Oblivious to our near miss, Ammon reached out and clipped his aider into the next beak. I couldn't believe it even held its own weight.

"Lower me very slowly," he said, with just a hint of fear in his voice. We locked wild eyes. The beak held! Unbelievable! He repeated the acrobatic rigging maneuver and, again horizontal in the roof, reached out to a far mini-seam. If he fell now, he would slam upside-down against an unforgiving spiky wall. Breaking bones would be a best-case scenario. Two more tipped-out bird beaks and a shitty copperhead brought him to a "bomber" double-zero TCU in a loose flake. Defying logic, sanity and the laws of physics, Ammon pulled around the roof.

Now it was my turn. I had already given up one lead, and couldn't give up another. I was hoping for a sweet A2 crack but was greeted by a shallow bird-beak seam. I got up about 20 feet off the portaledge and begged Ammon to let me drill a bolt.

"Don't make me cut the rope!" he half-joked. I stepped onto another beak and was flying. I landed in the portaledge just as the rope went tight. Only a few times in my life have I wanted to bail more than I did in that moment, but pride got me back up to my high point, and a desire to make Ammon proud got me to the end of the pitch without drilling. A couple of heinous, dangerous pitches later, we had topped out on our proudest big-wall first ascent.

Though my time as a Valley dirtbag eventually came to an end, Ammon has remained rooted in Yosemite--pushing the limits of big-wall climbing to places I never believed possible, safe or sane. Ammon is still a lovable rogue, but he has toned down the drinking and his run-ins with the law have been less frequent. Though Ammon has gotten into BASE-jumping in recent years, his first love will always be El Cap, where he holds more speed records and first in-a-day ascents than anyone, by a wide margin. In an era where shirtless douchebags with beanies down-rate each others' lowball choss nuggets, Ammon McNeely is strong evidence that climbing will never be mainstream. In fact, it seems like climbing is doing just fine.

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