How Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Grounded a World-Class Climber
When one of the world’s best crack climbers was grounded by chronic fatigue syndrome—a mysterious illness with disabling symptoms that can include a mix of confusion, headaches, and sensory overload—his life became an uphill struggle just to feel human again.
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The Leaning Tower is a perfect piece of granite, rising from the Yosemite Valley floor like the point of a crown and forming the spillway of Bridalveil Fall. Climbers know it as one of America’s most continuously overhanging cliffs, and the way it leans gives an impression that is both gentle and imposing.
For Mason Earle, the tower has deeper significance. This is where he was climbing on the day when, as he puts it, he died.
On May 11, 2018, around 5 P.M., the golden hour of a Yosemite spring evening, Earle and his climbing partner Nik Berry were finishing a productive session together. Earle had sent the crux pitch on a route they’d chosen, called Wet Lycra Nightmare. He was exhausted, but it was the settled-in kind of fatigue that comes from working hard.
They rappelled off the cliff and were starting the walk back to their vehicles when Earle suddenly felt an excruciating pain in his neck, along with the overwhelming sensation that his whole system was crashing. “By the time I reached my van, the only thing I could think was, Something isn’t right,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, This isn’t something that’s going to go away.”
Earle, 29 at the time, was considered one of the best crack climbers in the sport. Sponsored by Eddie Bauer, he’d put up bold first ascents in places like Venezuela and Canada’s Northwest Territories, and he’d completed one of the hardest crack climbs in the world, a 5.14 overhanging finger route called Cobra Crack in Squamish, British Columbia. He’d also appeared with Berry and Alex Honnold in Sender Films’ 2016 production Showdown at Horseshoe Hell, a quasi-documentary in which Earle and Berry comically portray a pair of scrappy underdogs.
Earle treated climbing like a job, but he also found time for other interests. He played guitar, banjo, and lute. He built things, including a decorative steel fire pit and other functional art. Before his mysterious episode in Yosemite, he was planning to get married to his great love, Ally Coconis. They’d met at the national park in their early twenties. She was working for its wildlife-management program—a summer job linked to the career she was considering in wildlife science—while he was living out of his Volvo and climbing. “It was a romantic and carefree beginning,” she says. “We were very young and living our best lives.”
In September 2017, they bought a house together in Salt Lake City, where she worked at the Natural History Museum of Utah while he made regular trips to Moab. Earle was nearly always doing something, even on rest days. He’d work on their house or on art projects. He loved riding bikes and kept a fleet of strange rigs he’d built or modified—including his pride and joy, a bike with a lightweight, propane-powered engine on the back that shot flames. They had good friends and were part of a tight-knit community. There was a lot of lightness in their existence.
But there was something hanging over 2018. Earle had been getting sick a lot that spring. Little colds here and there, then a case of the mumps. He didn’t know it at the time, but that day on the Leaning Tower would be his last as a climber.