Remembering Ammon McNeely, the El Capitan Pirate
Friends pay tribute to an icon of the Yosemite climbing scene
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This article was first published by Climbing.com.
“I would rather live 40 years of excitement and fun and exhilarating and WOO full volume than 80 years of la-dee-da-dee-da. You know…boring,” Ammon McNeely said in Yosemite Valley in 2006 while shooting The El Cap Pirate a segment featured in the anthology film The Sharp End. “Why not get out there and live it?”
Loved by many for being a rowdy, charming, and encouraging, and for channeling a pirate’s attitude, Ammon passed away on February 18, 2023 in Moab, Utah at age 52. With over 75 ascents of El Capitan, nearly two dozen speed records of big wall routes in Yosemite and in Zion national parks, and first ascents of hard aid climbs across the U.S., Ammon made a huge impact on big-wall climbing. Besides his extensive BASE jumping resume and innate boldness, Ammon’s friends and family remember the nearly six-foot man with the earrings, the narrow face, and the wide grin for his kindness, his support, and his ability to authentically and unapologetically be himself. Ammon lived a life of volume.
Born in June of 1970 as the third of five kids to Ron, a construction worker, and Joan, a stay-at-home mom, Ammon grew up in a Mormon family in Saint George, Utah. “He almost killed himself every year of his life,” said his brother Gabe McNeely, who is 15 months older. Ammon dodged death from the start after being born breech. At 2 years old, he hopped into a raging section of the Colorado River. His uncle dove in and rescued him. As he grew, danger followed Ammon, or he followed it. He started climbing young, getting high in trees in Saint George and scrambling up 5.6 routes in Snow Canyon state park. He sometimes climbed a hundred-foot radio tower near town. “He would walk along the top,” Gabe said of the stunt. “It was only a foot wide.”
“We used to skate halfpipes when we were kids,” Gabe said. Ammon would do hand plants, the rail slides and pull air way above the coping. When his parents divorced in high school, and his mother moved to Huntington Beach, California, Ammon lost his access to skating. In 1988, Ammon married his high school sweetheart, Kim Page, and their four-year marriage gave him his first son, Austin McNeely. He had a second son Zach, in 2001 with Shannon Culver and a third son Aiden, in 2001 with Saskia Stallings. In 2002 he married Catra Corbett. The pair divorced in 2007.
Living around Huntington Beach and Lake Arrowhead in the 90s, Ammon slowly explored the climbing at Taquitz, Suicide, and the crags of Southern California. Primarily self-taught, Ammon’s knowledge came from John Long’s climbing books and in buying a rope and shoes in 1995. He decided to push himself and became fully invested in the sport.
“He went up on the NA with nothing,” Ammon’s friend, Kurt Arend, said of Ammon’s 1996 arrival in Yosemite and his 10-day solo ascent of the North America Wall. “I think he just had a couple set of cams and a ton of pins. He didn’t have a clue but he didn’t give a fuck. He was just going for it. True Ammon style was just go for broke.” After summitting El Capitan, Ammon met the infamous big wall guru “Chongo” Chuck, who in exchange for Olde English and some Indica taught him all about hauling systems. Ammon moved into a tent in the woods behind Camp 4. With a bit of wall knowledge from Chongo and an unparalleled boldness, Ammon began raging the granite seas of Yosemite. He quickly became known as the El Cap Pirate, climbing routes that others had bailed on and flying his skull and crossbones flag on the side of El Cap. “To plunder the booty!” He’d exclaim with a hearty “ARRRRG MATEY!”
“I wanted to hit El Capitan with all the force I could muster,” Ammon wrote in Alpinist of coming into Yosemite in 2004 for an unmatched season of wall climbing. While known for his antics on the ground, on the wall Ammon was known for his efficiency, safety, and willingness to keep going. “It was like having a special weapon going up on the wall, if you had Ammon, you were going to succeed,” Gabe said of climbing with his brother. His 2004 season reinforced that.
“In all, I climbed 11 El Cap routes in five months, nine of them in record time, five as first one-day ascents,” Ammon wrote in Alpinist. “It was the greatest number of speed records anyone has made in a year in Yosemite. But without my partners, it would not have been possible. I owe many thanks to Chris (McNamara), Ivo (Ninov), Cedar (Wright) and Brian (McCray) for these amazing adventures.”
Ivo recalled their record setting May 2004 33:02 ascent of the Pacific Ocean Wall route on El Capitan. “We blasted with Ammon leading the first 11 pitches,” he says. On the Island in the Sky ledge, at the end of Ivo’s block, Ammon just wanted to sleep, so Ivo pulled two beers from their haulbag. “We drank the beer and blasted to the top of the Capitan.” says Ivo, “He’s my brother. We didn’t have to talk.” The pair climbed 30 El Capitan routes together and set numerous speed records, including on the routes Pressure Cooker, Zenyatta Mondatta, Native Son, Magic Mushroom and The Reticent Wall. “Rarely do you find people like this.”
Chris McNamara also set speed records on El Capitan and in Zion with Ammon. “I can’t say I ever saw him get scared,” says Chris, “He’s also just one of the biggest hearted, nicest people.” The combination helped Ammon push his partners in a supportive way. On Rodeo Queen, Chris had a meltdown in the middle of the night wanting to bail on a pitch. “You’re going to feel a lot better if you finish this,” Ammon said, wanting his friend to make it through the difficulties and raise his game.
“He truly was like that modern day pirate,” says Chris. “He was charging hard at all times, life to its fullest and always a little on the edge of what’s appropriate or legal.”
Dave Allfrey and Skiy Detray were with Ammon when he took a 70 foot fall in 2010 while short fixing on the first one day ascent of a route called Scorched Earth. “He burned the ink out of his arm,” says Dave. When he fell, his aiders caught in his belay system, disengaged his GriGri, and he fell to the end of his rope. His fall bent the third bolt of the anchor upwards. “It’s not to the bone, let’s keep going,” Ammon said, according to Skiy’s recount of the ascent. The fall, one of many giant whippers in Ammon’s life, left a permanent scar in the tattoo band on his left forearm. The team fired the route in record time.
In late summer 2011, he made the second ascent of the notorious hooking route Wings of Steel over 13 days with Kait Barber. Jeff Vargen made a short documentary, Assault on El Cap, about their ascent.
Austin McNeely, 13, alongside his father and Uncle, Gabe, made the first ascent of the Jose Memorial Variation, a five pitch variation to the Zodiac. He presented the epic to his fifth grade class for a “What I Did This Summer” presentation. He described not pooping for six days, and then doing the porch swing, the hundred foot rope swing at the top of the Dawn Wall. “They didn’t believe me dad,” Austin told his father. Surprised, Ammon gave his son a disc of photos from their trip showing them on the side of El Cap and the epic. Austin returned to his fifth grade class and gave his presentation again. This time, the teacher’s mouth hung open. Austin climbed a few other walls with his father, including a spring 2020 ascent with their friend Hayden O’Shay, which involved another classic Ammon epic.
“I thought he was falling to his death. He was screaming ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’” says Nicola “Motherfuckin’ Nickoli” Martinez. Ammon had led most of the Muir Wall on El Capitan and, on the last pitch, Nickoli had hiked to the top of El Cap to help the team carry down loads. “I thought I lost my friend,” Nickoli says. After a moment, Nickoli yelled. “Ammon! Ammon! Are you there?”
“Yeah,” Ammon responded, pretty bummed. “I lost my leg.”
During one of the tension traverses on the last pitch, his prosthetic, which was attached by a button, scraped against the granite. The button came undone. His leg, which hadn’t been backed up to his harness, flew off the wall, bouncing past the Heart, past Mammoth Terraces, and onto the Valley Floor. Nickoli helped the team haul the last pitch and then hiked down to find assistance for Ammon’s descent. Before he drove to El Portal to get crutches, he stopped at the base of El Cap and hiked up to the area between Sacher Cracker and Moby Dick.
“I fucking found the leg,” Nickoli said. Just two feet from the wall, Ammon’s leg sat there, having taken a 3,000 foot fall and surviving unscathed. Nickoli returned to the summit and gave Ammon his leg.
“He had the biggest grin,” Nickoli says.
Beyond his leg taking flight, Ammon himself had an extensive flying career, having started BASE jumping in January of 2007, jumping off the 486-foot IB Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho, with Chris McNamara, Ivo Ninov, and Sean Leary. He base jumped off of El Capitan, often narrowly and sometimes not so narrowly escaping the rangers upon landing in the meadow below. Once, he got tased by the rangers after jumping the formation. Unfortunately, Ammon suffered a few accidents while base jumping, twisting an ankle badly after jumping off El Cap in 2007. In 2013, Ammon nearly lost his left leg while base jumping in Moab Rim. On September 3, 2017, Ammon struck the wall while base jumping in Moab. He spent thirteen hours at the base of the wall before being extracted. Besides fractures of his left wrist, left leg tibia/fibula, and left clavicle, Ammon also severely damaged his right leg, resulting in amputation. He received his prosthetic after the accident. He often base jumped with a crew in Moab, Utah, climbing towers like Castleton and jumping off. With his prosthetic, it became easier to do the short hikes and base jump than the long approaches to climb.
Ammon supplemented his climbing and base jumping by working as a rigger over the years, often hanging acoustic insulation. With Ivo, he drove across the Midwest changing fiber optic cables in ATM machines. He occasionally worked doing tandem base jumps at skydiving sites. The past few years, Ammon had been working seasonally in Moab, Utah, for a hot air balloon company chasing the balloon and then loading it when it came down. Before his death he was transitioning to a job with Austin working for a Moab zip line company. In between work and base jumping, he continued to climb, establishing new routes in the Bartlett Wash including The Never Ending Story with his partner Sarah Watson, who had met him in Moab.
On February 18, Watson, Ammon, and a friend hiked to Hurrah Pass to watch the sunset. Watson stepped down on a diving board, which had a two hundred foot drop. As the sun dipped towards the horizon, Ammon lowered his prosthetic to descend onto the small stretch of sandstone. Weighting it incorrectly, Ammon lost his balance and fell to his death. He was 52.
The following day, a crew of Moab residents jumped to his body. They built a shrine where he fell and marked it with a flag. Below Last Hurrah Pass, the pirate skull and bones of the Jolly Roger flies.