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A Climber We Lost: Dr. Michelle Yao

Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.


You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.

Dr. Michelle Yao, 56, July 18

The climber and radiation oncologist Dr. Michelle Yao passed away on July 18, 2022, on the Snow Creek Wall near Leavenworth, Washington, the area’s showcase multi-pitch granite cliff. She and her climbing partner, Lauren Schlatter, had spent the evening previous in Yao’s beloved cabin in Plain, Washington, then set out the next day to climb the classic six-pitch Outer Space (5.9) together.

According to Vernon Nelson, Jr., with Chelan County Mountain Rescue, at some point they decided to bail due to it being late in the day and began rappelling via a different climb (Outer Space traverses much of the wall). Somewhere below “1 Tree Ledge” near the bottom of the cliff, with Yao rappelling first, something went wrong. After an hour had passed without Yao responding, Schlatter rappelled, finding her climbing partner clipped into an anchor below but unresponsive. Schlatter called 911 at 9:45 p.m., and Chelan County Mountain Rescue reached the climbers at midnight, initiating a rescue and body recovery. Yao’s cause of death remains unknown (autopsy results have not been released), though there were no obvious signs of trauma or a fall.

Yao hailed from Michigan, the eldest of four siblings; she held degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan Medical School, and worked treating cancer patients at the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, where she saved countless lives. In her obituary, many of her former patients chimed in to say what a profound effect Yao had had on them. Wrote Erika, “She had compassion, humanity, and humor in the darkest time of my life. Despite [my] being scared and hurting, she did everything she could to ease my pain, my anxiety, and encourage me.” Posted Susan, “She was such a wonderful physician who was so compassionate and kind. She made me feel as though I was her only patient.” And, wrote Laurie, “She was a caring, compassionate physician, and her attention to detail and her desire to help her patients have the best possible outcome was a great comfort to me during one of the most difficult times of my life.”

As Yao’s brother Steven posted on her tribute page, Michelle Yao was highly intelligent and driven, yet also balanced her academic and career ambitions with various passions, including cuisine, world travel, and music, in particular hearing live music in the jazz and blues crucible of New Orleans. In addition to rock climbing, she also enjoyed skiing, fishing, and mountain biking—anything that got her into the outdoors with friends and family—as well as spending time at her mountain cabin.

The night before Yao’s passing, as she and Schlatter got ready for their climb the next day, racking up in the cabin, they discussed how important it is for climbing partners to look out for each other in the alpine environment—while simultaneously still enjoying the experience. Posted Schlatter in a tribute, “What can I say, friend? I am deeply ruined that we did not walk out together as we should have the next day. Nothing about the end of our day July 18 will ever be okay. But I take comfort knowing that we were protecting each other and laughing with each other up until the tragic moments we still don’t understand.”

—Matt Samet

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2022 here.