Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
Mike Corbett, also known as “Mr. El Cap,” passed away from unknown causes at his home on May 8, 2022. He was 68 years old and is survived by his wife, Jennifer; his daughter, Ellie; his grandchildren; and his beloved animals.
I rolled into Mike Corbett’s driveway on a sunny day in June three years ago. He greeted me outside of the home he shared with his wife, Jennifer. With a wiry build and a grey mustache, his ice blue eyes were serious under the rim of his blue baseball cap. I was expecting to dive right into his life as a climber in Yosemite Valley, but as we stepped onto his front deck, he proudly pointed to a sculpture of a man he had fashioned out of driftwood and metal, and as we entered his home through his front door, he introduced me to two of his cats and explained their personalities and their eating habits. He showed me the “Catio”, a structure he built in the sunroom by his front door which enabled the cats to go outside but remain safe from the predators that roam around his home in the Sierra Foothills. My heart melted and I hid a smile. It was a while before we began to talk about climbing.
We spent the day together and spoke about his life. He showed me several neatly organized scrapbooks of personal photos as well as newspaper clippings showing some of his proudest moments. Corbett arrived in Yosemite in the mid-70s during the height of the Stonemaster era, a term coined by a group of Southern California climbers led by Jim Bridwell. He didn’t consider himself a part of Bridwell’s subculture, though his accomplishments easily placed him in the master class of Yosemite climbers. Corbett immediately began ticking off popular rock climbing routes in Yosemite Valley (his first climb was a popular route on Glacier Point Apron called Monday Morning Slab, right side) and soon set his sights on El Capitan. In 1976, Corbett and Ken Yager hit the big wall scene when they teamed up to climb Triple Direct (5.9 C2). Within six months, they had completed four El Cap routes together.
Always a champion for other climbers, Corbett was happiest when helping others realize their goals. Corbett was perhaps best known for leading Mark Wellman up the Shield (5.8 A3) for the first paraplegic ascent of El Capitan 1989. That same year he led Warren Harding on his last climb of the Nose. The list goes on. He helped Gerry Bloch become the oldest person to climb El Capitan at 81 years old in 1999. In all, Corbett climbed El Capitan 56 times, including nine single-day pushes and three first ascents. In more recent years, Corbett and Ken Yager worked together to achieve the goal they set more than 20 years ago: to create a museum about the history of Yosemite Valley Rock Climbing.
“He was the happiest I’d ever seen him this last week.” Yager says as we talk of Corbett’s excitement about being a part of the climbing museum. “He was so excited to be a part of it.”
Corbett was also trapped for days on Half Dome in what was surely one of Yosemite’s most miserable bivys. Read John Middendorf’s story here: