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Climbing Fast, Loose, and Dangerous with Yosemite Legend Ammon McNeely

Editor’s Note: What you are about to read contains a plethora of illegal activities, dangerous climbing techniques, and unsavory lifestyle choices that are in no way condoned or promoted by the editors of Climbing magazine. Read at your own risk.

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This article first appeared in Rock and Ice No. 204 (September 2012). On September 3, 2017  McNeely was seriously injured when he struck a wall while BASE jumping near Moab, Utah. Due to the severity of his injuries, McNeely’s right leg was amputated below the knee yet he continues to climb to this day.

My nerves were shot, and I leaned my head against the cold,
blank granite of Iron Hawk (VI A4) on El Cap, just for a second of reprieve. The sensation of falling suddenly jolted me. I shrieked and applied an arm-cramping death-grip to my aider with my battered hand. My other arm spun to keep my balance … but … I wasn’t falling. I whimpered and watched the knifeblade shift again.

“Ammon, watch me here!” I yelled. No answer. Just the disconcerting rumble of my belayer, Ammon McNeely, snoring. Racing to get in a piece, I fiddled in a cam hook, and put two fingers through the webbing to clip it just as the knifeblade blew. I was airborne. The rope snapped taut on Ammon’s belay device, rudely jerking him awake. Some lessons are learned, forgotten, and then relearned in perpetuity. Mental note: Never climb with Ammon again!

Climbing is a refuge for iconoclasts who want nothing to do with the common ideas of “success,” and instead choose to follow their passion down an alternative path of exploration and vertical ascent. The pantheon of our sport is rich with characters such as Jim Bridwell, Warren Harding, and Fred Beckey, who climbed hard and lived even harder, embodying a nonconformist lifestyle that placed experience and hedonism before financial gain.

Now, it seems, climbing is mainstream. Every city has at least one gym and a generation of grommets doesn’t know Royal Robbins from Baskin-Robbins. Some might argue that the era of the colorful, rule-breaking climbing maverick has ended. For those saddened by this notion, I have two words: Ammon McNeely.

Ammon does not remember the first time we met, but I understand why. If I’d ingested as much Olde English as he had that evening, I’d be too busy getting my stomach pumped to recall much. It was 3 a.m. in the Camp 4 parking lot. Having completed, many hours ago, my nightly ritual of stacking boxes and bags over my truck’s mattress to create the illusion of a vehicle too packed with gear to house a sleeping dirtbag, I was peacefully bandit-bivied in the cocoon that was my trusty “Mazda-Ratti” pickup. Somehow I awoke on a pirate ship.

“Arrr, matey! The seeeas arr rough toni-i-ightee, matey!”

My rig shook violently as Ammon fell awkwardly against my truck. My precarious stack of gear shook, shifted, and caved in on me. “Aye, me legs gonna give thee way to thee whennches, says meee.”

What in the hell was that? Something about weak legs and girls? And then the Beastie Boys, full blast. If you were in Camp 4 in the spring in the late 1990s, and if at 3 a.m. you were woken by “Listen all y’all it’s a sabotage,” and thought, “Who is that asshole?”

Ammon, of course!

“TURN THAT SHIIIIIIT UP!” someone yelled.

At this point the music was making my ears ring.

I popped my head out of my truck. “Hey, guys!” I said in an irritated tone. Heads turned and pupils dilated in shock. Before me on a tarp of clusterfucked climbing gear wavered two weathered and burly modern-day pirates, leaning on each other for balance.

“AYE, thar’s been a stowaway on the ship tonights, matey!” said one.

“Who goes there?” demanded the other.

“Cedar,” I offered meekly. A quick assessment of the situation told me it was time to make friends.

I was able to piece together that they were the brothers Ammon and Gabe McNeely, and that they were racking up to climb Pacific Ocean Wall, a
rather difficult route on El Cap. I was incredulous on several levels. A: I was certain this was a fool’s errand. B: There was no way I believed Ammon when he said, “We set sail at first light.” C: There was no way these guys were going to make it more than a few pitches before they bailed. To my disbelief, after I spent an entertaining hour of watching them fall down, get up, then haphazardly shove gear into haulbags, they began the long stagger to El Cap. One haulbag was filled almost exclusively with cans of Olde E.

McNeely on the tenuous Space (VI A4+), right side of El Cap, which he climbed with Cedar Wright, and Timmy and Sean O’Neill. Photo: Ben Van Der Kooster.

By 6 a.m. they were climbing.

They didn’t fix lines; they just blasted off. For several days I’d cruise out to El Cap Meadow and spy them, each time a few pitches higher. I was impressed. These guys were hardcore. They also weren’t hard to find. Each day I had to smile as they hoisted a skull-and-crossbones flag from their portaledge “crow’s nest.”

It looked like they were going to defy my expectations until the mother of all storms unleashed its hellish fury, slamming the Valley with 60-mile-per-hour gusts and a torrential mix of rain, hail and sleet. On day two of the two-week storm, I grew concerned and ventured to the meadow to check on the pirates,
perilously adrift in a rough sea of granite. The swirling fog and relentless rain parted for less than a minute—just long enough to spy their camp two-thirds of the way up the wall, getting pummeled by a waterfall. My heart sank; this is how people die on El Cap.

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