The Wright Stuff: Stanley Style

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Cedar Wright, Alex Honnold, and Sean Leary in the Palisades of California, on the 2013 Sufferfest.

More than 70 ascents of El Cap. The Nose in 2 hours, 36 minutes. A speed record on the Salathe. Three El Cap routes in less than 24 hours. El Cap and Half Dome all free in a day. Big wall first ascents in Patagonia, Baffin, and Antarctica. Hundreds of wingsuit jumps from most of these formations. Any one of these accomplishments would be a crowning lifetime achievement for most climbers. Who is this badass?

It’s not one of the “big names” in climbing, though it should be. My friend Sean “Stanley” Leary flew under the radar while accumulating one of the most impressive Yosemite climbing resumes of all time.

This past spring, Sean leapt off a cliff in Zion National Park like he had done hundreds of times before. He flew in a wingsuit at more than 100 mph into a notch, then, it is presumed, entered a shadow, lost visibility, clipped a tree, and as BASE jumpers somewhat callously put it, “He went in.”

In that viciously unfair, bullshit moment, I didn’t just lose a climbing partner and friend, I lost my climbing mentor, the one person, who more than any other, shaped the direction of my life.

I was a full-on gumby and had only been climbing three months when I met Stanley for the first time, at a fungus-filled, full-moon, bonfire beach party on Moonstone Beach near Humboldt, California. A friend introduced us as “both climbers,” and later that evening I was pseudo-belaying Sean as he toproped up a swirling, melting face.

This was the beginning of perhaps one of the sketchiest climbing mentorships of all time. With few motivated climbers to turn to, Sean really had no choice but to take me under his wing. The tutelage that followed won’t be found in Freedom of the Hills, and it would probably give the AMGA cold sweats.

My first lesson from Stanley occurred on our first full day out. He “guided” me up my first “lead climb,” a free solo of an 80-foot 5.9 on Moonstone Beach. “You’ve got this dude; just relax,” he coached me, as I fought a wicked pump and deadpointed for jugs more than 40 feet off the ground. That day, I learned to breathe and relax in the face of danger, a highly underrated skill. By the time I started leading with a rope, it actually seemed pretty mellow.

Stanley introduced me to each aspect of climbing in about the most unorthodox way possible. It was often too rainy in Humboldt to climb, unless you were willing to climb in the rain, so that we did—ALL THE TIME. I learned that just because conditions aren’t perfect, it doesn’t mean something is unclimbable. I’ve put this lesson to good use in places like Baffin and the Karakoram.

Sean instructed me that it was prouder (and more efficient) to skip as many bolts as possible while sport climbing, and even better to solo the route. As I learned to trad climb, he taught me that it was more honorable to place only stoppers. He methodically threw me onto dangerous and difficult climbs. Slowly but surely, I took on “Stanley style,” a risky approach to climbing defined by heart-racing thrills and near misses.

A year into my “dementorship,” we bolted a ground-up first ascent on a local limestone crag, using only one very small hook and a hand drill, because “rap-bolting is for pussies.” We both took 60-foot whippers in the process. I slowly learned to trust my abilities, to recognize the difference between just being scared and being in true danger, and to be quite comfortable on runouts and sketchy gear.

This was not your inherently safe, homogenized, “belay card” gym-climbing education. Sean introduced me to an adrenaline-filled gladiator sport where every day could be your last. Soon I was soloing 5.10 on a daily basis because… that’s what Stanley did!

Really, the lessons were as numerous as they were dubious. I learned that you could save good money on climbing shoes if you only used them when you absolutely couldn’t do the route in your bare feet. The same went for chalk. I learned that toproping was much more exciting if the rope was pulled up in 15-foot increments. I learned that if the climber is about to deck, the belayer must run at full speed to keep that from happening.

Somewhat miraculously, I survived Stanley’s tutelage. All the sandbagging, soloing, and runouts had shaped me into a fast, bold climber. Later, I would put that patented “Leary boldness” to good use, setting my own speed records on El Cap and pioneering scary first ascents on the Sentinel. I almost certainly wouldn’t have a professional climbing career today if it hadn’t been for this warped dementorship.

Even more important than climbing lessons, Sean educated me on the dirtbag ethic, or as he once put it, “the bullshit-free lifestyle.” He taught me that doing what you love was true success. He took me to Joshua Tree and Yosemite, and instilled in me a deep respect for these sacred places. He introduced me to countless climbing characters, and encouraged me to follow my big wall dreams. “Just move into your truck and climb,” he suggested, after I graduated from Humboldt State with a bachelor’s in English. That’s what I did. Stanley convinced me that this was an acceptable and normal course of action for someone who loved to climb.

At some point along the path, I was no longer the pupil. I had become Sean’s equal in sketchiness, and when we teamed up, it was a guaranteed epic. Ironically, one of the standout examples of our unique partnership took place on one of the easiest routes in Yosemite. Sean and I had spent the day wallowing in a lethargic Yosemite summer stupor, all too common when you live there. A controlled burn had injected the “ditch” with a dark, caustic, and apocalyptic haze.

But Stanley had an idea. A cloud of mosquitoes buzzed hungrily around our heads as we jogged toward Nutcracker, a five-pitch 5.8 and one of the most popular climbs in the Valley. “I can’t believe a bear broke into my car,” I lamented, as I swatted a mosquito.

“You did have an empty can of herrings in your car,” Sean pointed out.

“Details, details,” I retorted.

“Alright, on three-two-one.” Stanley clicked his stopwatch, and we relinquished to the spastic maniacs within. We darted up through the swirling smoke with blistering speed. The 5.8 layback on the first pitch went by in 30 seconds. Stanley’s feet skated and scratched as he halfclimbed, half-dynoed up the route. This was a ridiculous, alarming, and lung-blasting pace, but I wasn’t going to let him dust me. I huffed guttural gasps and felt like I might vomit at any moment, but I stayed on his heels. If Sean fell, I would almost certainly be ripped off the face. This only egged Sean on to go faster. Sweat and sunscreen stung my eyes as I launched onto a mantel. We were climbing pitches faster than most people set an anchor. This was stupidly dangerous and absurd! But you know what? It was fucking awesome.

Sean turned Nutcracker into a race course. I was hyperventilating and dizzy to the point of passing out and teetering backward off the cliff. Less than six minutes later, we lay at the top of the route, coughing and gasping the thick smoky air. For a fleeting moment, we were heroes (or at least felt like heroes). For several weeks after that, I had a chronic cough. The lessons with Sean continued, and that day drove home the fact that a shitty day can easily be transformed into an awesome one in a matter of minutes. It’s your call.

A couple weeks later, we accomplished the first free ascent of the Porcelain Wall, onsight in a day, at 5.10d X. What stands out in my mind is that Stanley padded his way up a 140-foot 5.10 friction slab with no protection for the entire stretch!

“That would be a classic pitch if we had bolts,” he joked. Sean was one of the boldest climbers I have ever climbed with, right up there with Honnold and Potter.

Eventually I got the chance to repay Sean for the life of adventure he had gifted me, but not in a way I would ever have wished. That winter, Sean lost the love of his life, Brazilian climber Roberta Nunes. On their way to Moab, the car rolled, and she died in his arms.

I raced to see Sean in Moab. Understandably, he was a complete mess and no fun to be around. Totally dark. I cooked him food, got him out climbing, and tried to keep him occupied. At times, I thought he might kill himself. He’d lower off a pitch and start sobbing. At one point he had an outburst. “What’s the fucking point?!” he screamed, as he threw his phone and wallet into the desert, then took off in his car. I fretted for hours, confronting the reality that I might not see him alive again.

Slowly, Stanley clawed back to life, and soon took an obsessive interest in BASE jumping. He channeled his loss and grief into learning a new and dangerous sport. It wasn’t long before he had jumped El Cap and Half Dome. Sean was still an emotional mess. I didn’t really like the idea of BASE jumping, but I couldn’t deny that it seemed to be therapeutic for him.

“Every time I jump, I have to pull the cord and save my life,” he confided in me.

Sean had promised Roberta that, if she died before him, he would scatter her ashes in Patagonia, where she loved to climb. Sean carried those ashes and the pain of her death with him for two years, unwilling and unable to let go.

Finally, he made it to Patagonia with Renan Ozturk and myself. Despite crap weather and endless winds, we managed to put up a first ascent, and Stanley became the first person to wingsuit off El Mocho. He packed Roberta’s ashes in the chute. When it opened, Roberta returned to the mountains she loved.

In Patagonia, Sean finally let go of his pain. He began to laugh and then even love again. I was so happy to see him marry a sexy and whip-smart medical student named Mieka. Stanley married a doctor, and I married a lawyer.

“Dirtbags like us need sugar mamas,” I joked with him.

Right before he died, Sean was enjoying a personal renaissance. He was starting to get some of the recognition and support he deserved, including trips to Baffin and Antarctica with Leo Houlding, and some well-earned sponsorships. He was pioneering numerous legal BASE exits in North America and working on a cutting-edge free climb on Mount Watkins with Jimmy Hayden. He was also going to be a father.

I’ve lost some of my best friends to climbing, and if I’m honest, I’m still confused and conflicted by that. We were supposed to be old farts talking shit and trading war stories some day. Sean’s death made me furious. Fuck BASE jumping, I thought.

But as reality set in, I had to accept the fact that if Stanley had played it safe, he wouldn’t have been the guy I loved and respected. Stanley lives on in the countless climbing and life lessons I learned from him, and I continue on the trajectory that Stanley created for me.

Before he died, Sean helped Steph Davis with her healing process after she lost her husband, Mario, to BASE jumping. “Right now your grief is this giant gaping hole with sharp edges, but as you move forward in life, the edges soften and other beautiful things start to grow around it, flowers and trees of experiences. The hole never goes away, but it becomes gentler and sort of a garden in your soul, a place you can visit when you want to be near your love.”

I miss you and love you, Stanley. Here’s to raising hell in the garden.

Cedar Wright is a professional climber and contributing editor for Climbing. Beware of him honing his Stanley style at a crag near you.