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Legendary Yosemite Climber Ammon McNeely Dies

The "El Cap Pirate" pushed the limits of big wall speed climbing and was one of the best aid climbers in Yosemite Valley

One of Yosemite’s most iconic big wall speed climbers, Ammon McNeely, has died at the age of 52. Details of the accident are unknown, but sources close to McNeely say that he fell off a cliff near Moab, but it wasn’t climbing related. During his time in the Valley, McNeely climbed over 60 routes on El Capitan and spent hundreds of days on the wall.

“McNeely was a driving force for wall climbers in Yosemite for many years,” said Yosemite photographer Tom Evans. “He was a unique character who was respected by all the climbers in Yosemite and around the world. He will be missed and remembered in the Valley. Condolences to friends and family.”

Skiy Detray, Ammon McNeely and David Allfrey. Photo by Tom Evans

McNeely’s list of El Capitan speed ascents is long and impressive. He made the first one-day ascents of several routes, including Never Never Land with Chris McNamara in 2004, Atlantic Ocean Wall with Brian McCray in 2004 and Wall of Early Morning Light with McCray in 2004. In 2006, McNeely, Dean Potter and Ivo Ninov climbed The Reticent Wall in 34 hours and 57 minutes, which bested the previous best time by five days. And in 2011, he was joined by Skiy Detray and David Allfrey to make the fastest ascent of Scorched Earth.

In Zion, McNeely became the first to climb all three routes on the Streaked Wall in a day: Latitudes 5.9 A4+, Rodeo Queen 5.10 A4+ and Tale of the Scorpion 5.10 A3+. Known for his bold BASE jumps, he survived several accidents, including one in 2017 when he lost his right leg below the knee. After a 2013 accident, he wrote on the old SuperTopo forum: “Do we stand up and take the risks and have a blast enjoying our passion? Or do we hide in the shadows, being afraid of what might happen if we are so bold to follow our dreams?”

We’ll miss hearing about McNeely’s adventures. Our deepest condolences to his family and friends. For a tribute to McNeely by Yosemite veteran “Pass the Pitons” Pete Zabrok, see below.

Ammon McNeely Tribute by Pete Zabrok

Ammon showed up in Yosemite for the first time in the mid-90s, and soloed El Cap’s North America Wall as his first ever big wall. And from that point forward, he never let up. He was the hardest charging big wall climber I ever met, making one-day ascents of El Cap’s most dangerous nailups in lightning speed with its best climbers like Dean Potter, Ivo Ninov and especially Fly’n Brian McCray. Ammon displayed utter fearlessness to the point where you honestly wondered if he could feel fear at all, so perilous were his ascents. He had the ability to lead a horrifying A4+ pitch in an hour or so – he declared he had never met a true A5 – and continue doing it for the entire wall. It’s impossible to describe the risks he was willing to take and his incredible talent to survive these adventures – sub-24-hour ascents of Erik Kohl horror shows like Get Whacked and Plastic Surgery Disaster.

Ammon made the second ascent of El Cap’s most talked about route Wings of Steel, which consists mostly of micro-hooking on edges so small you can’t see them – you can only feel them – up dizzying runouts between ancient rivets. He wore motorcycle hardware to protect him against the long falls, because Wings of Steel is not a route where you might fall, it’s a route where you are guaranteed to fall – repeatedly, and far. Ammon told me he took six hundred feet of falls to climb a thousand feet, many falls in the 30-, 40- and 50-foot range. He described the climbing as “tedious” and then downrated the route from A5 to A3+.

On his solo of Surgeon General, Ammon got off route on a hooking pitch and took a massive fall, striking his head so hard it crushed his helmet. He was passed out upside-down on the end of his rope for five or ten minutes, then came to, righted himself and returned to his belay. In a famous scene, he waved off rescue from YOSAR and successfully completed the wall, in spite of reporting a grey fluid draining from his ears.

Ammon was a passionate and unstoppable BASE jumper, and the Yosemite “tools” considered him to be the ultimate villain and most coveted prize. They didn’t catch him too often because he was stealthy and smart, resorting in one instance to tasing him in the back of his neck. His BASE jumping crashes were the stuff of legend, and he would publish his sickening X-rays online. His knee revealed coils of wire wrapped round it like World War I concertina, and his ankle was a shattered mess of bent plates and busted screws.

One viral YouTube selfie video shows Ammon with his foot 90 per cent detached, held to his leg by only the thinnest of sinews, calmly describing how he crashed and apologizing to his mom. Somehow the surgeons reattached it, although in subsequent crashes it was amputated – Ammon was finally a true pegleg pirate. But this inconvenience didn’t stop Ammon from climbing El Cap yet again, although his prosthesis fell off one pitch from the summit of Muir Wall, and Nick Martinez had to retrieve it and carry it up to the top so Ammon could hike down. Ammon’s survivability through repeated perils and trauma was testament to his incredible strength and fortitude.

No one could party on the wall like Ammon McNeely! He was known as the El Cap Pirate for the Jolly Roger he flew from his portaledge, his All Beer Ascents, and his eloquent pirate-speak: “Yaarrr, may-tee! Get yer scurvy-ridden legs up into those topsteps or I’ll make ya walk the plank!” So today we denizens of the Ditch raise our beers to toast the memory of our comrade who brought so much joy and excitement into our lives – fly free, brother.