In 2004 Martinez visited Yosemite Valley for a two-week visit for the first time, which turned into eight months. He’s still here, entrenched with the park’s denizen climbers — the dirtbags who sleep in caves — who taught him how to climb walls and wingsuit BASE jump.
Growing up thousands of miles south of Yosemite in the sprawling city of Londrina, Brazil, Nick Martinez was fascinated by the climbing culture up north. His favourite movie was Masters of Stone 4, and he’d repeatedly play the Yosemite scenes, including Dean Potter speed soloing the Nose on his VHS.
Since Londrina didn’t have a gym, he and his friends climbed at a nearby quarry, where they lapped sport routes under hot, humid conditions. To make their fingers iron-strong, Nick and his friends built a compact climbing wall.
Soon after his mother died from cancer in 1997 when he was 17, Nick moved to Arco, Italy, where he got a job as a sous-chef at a mountain hut. Being high in the mountains made it easy for him to frequent the Brenta Group in the Dolomites, an area rich in climbing history. After Italy, he went to London, where he worked behind a bar for the next two years. In 2004, Nick was 23 when visited Yosemite for the first time, and he fell in love with the park. “I had a rope, a rack and a sleeping bag,” he says. “That’s all I owned.”
Nick’s arrival in Yosemite coincided with the rise of the Yosemite Stone Monkeys (from the late 90s to early 2000s). It included big wall free climbers Alex and Thomas Huber and aid climbing experts Dave Turner and Aaron Jones. By night everyone would party in Camp 4, and by day they’d rack up in the parking lot for their latest project.
Intoxicated by the energy in Camp 4, Nick extended his stay and moved from the campground to the nearby talus, where, like many others around him, he laid out his bivy under a damp boulder. Soon, the climbers he’d read about in magazines became his friends, including Dean Potter and Jim Bridwell, and they took him under their wing. In turn, for teaching him the ways of climbing and living in Yosemite, Nick would carry his friend’s haul bags to the base of El Cap and help them bring their gear down from the top.
Weeks turned to months.
Dave Turner, a wall climber out of Sacramento, California, known for spending weeks on the side of El Cap while establishing first ascents, became Nick’s close friend and mentor. Dave helped him prepare for climbing El Cap in the same style that he did on the 3,000-foot formation, climbing it alone. To prepare, Nick bought wall climbing gear from postings on the Camp 4 bulletin board and his friends who worked for Yosemite Search and Rescue. Within a month, he learned how to climb aid on the shorter walls in the Valley, including Washington Column and Leaning Tower. Six weeks after arriving in the park, Nick climbed his first El Cap route, Mescalito, which he soloed over 11 days.
During his week and a half ascent of Mescalito, Nick heard hollering from below in El Cap meadow. Unbeknownst to him, the Huber brothers were speed climbing the nearby line Zodiac, lapping the route day after day to shave minutes off the record. Each day the Hubers climbed, crowds gathered in El Cap meadow and cheered them on. While on the East Ledges descent, the teams ran into one another, where the Hubers told Nick of setting the record on the route in 1 hour 51 minutes, and he told them of his first El Cap solo. Soon the three became friends and the Hubers recruited Nick to help them work on their upcoming film ‘To the Limit,’ which documented their quest to break the Nose speed record.
Between helping the Hubers and following his own climbing goals, Nick spent countless hours schlepping loads up to the Big Stone. He climbed seven El Cap routes that first season, including the testpieces Sea of Dreams and Zenyatta Mondatta, aid lines once considered the most challenging in the world.
The film required several years of shooting, which meant years of work for Nick. Each season when the Hubers arrived, they’d hire the same crew of elite climbers who they relied on to carry camera gear up and down El Cap, rig anchors, and help their film crew get in position on the wall. The work brought steady income and new opportunities for the Stone Monkeys. Soon they didn’t need to survive off recycling cans and scrounging food off cafeteria plates. Many, like Nick, invested their income into skydiving and BASE-jumping gear.
Soon California airport drop-zones were filled with ripped, tanned Yosemite climbers who wanted to jump off Half Dome and El Capitan. Due to its low prices and Wild West vibe, the Lodi Airport, located two hours west of Yosemite Valley, became the climber-turned BASE jumper hang out. Dean Potter, Ammon McNeely and others gleaned whatever they could from instructors so they could advance from jumping out of planes to leaping off cliffs.
Five months after picking skydiving, big wall climber Chris McNamara took Nick to a bridge over the Snake River in Idaho and helped him make his first BASE jump.
Once back in California, Nick jumped out of planes, hot air balloons, and cliffs alongside the Stone Monkeys. He also continued to aid-solo big walls in Yosemite. This included spending 16 days solo on El Cap’s Tempest, a radically steep line with 100-foot fall potential. After Tempest, he upped the ante with a repeat of the loose and technical A5 line When Hell Was in Session on the Porcelain Wall.
Just as the VHS tape Masters of Stone 4 inspired Nick to come to Yosemite, reading Pete Takeda’s story of the first ascent of When Hell Was in Session in Climbing Magazine inspired him to climb the route. For 11 days, he nailed and hooked his way up the severe line that leads directly through a rockfall scar.
Midway up the wall, “there is this light gray circle called the Circle of Death,” Nick says. “It was wide here, with big blocks stuck inside expanding plates. I barely weighted my placements so I wouldn’t cut the blocks loose. I was worried that the whole side of the wall would come down on me.
“Soon after I climbed the route, that section fell off.”
Nick continues, “That was the hardest thing I climbed in my life.” After climbing Hell Was in Session, Nick attempted to make the second ascent of Queen of Spades on Half Dome, but a block cut loose from the wall, broke his hand and nearly cut his rope. Nick self-rescued, and after that near-miss, “I moved on from climbing death routes,” he says.
BASE jumping became Nick’s central focus. He also fell in love and married Allisyn Beisner. The two honeymooned on El Cap’s historic aid route, the Muir Wall. When the two reached the top after nine days — for her first big wall — they leaped from the edge together, flying through the air and reaching terminal velocity before landing softly in El Cap meadow. Their honeymoon extended to Arco, Italy and the Dolomites, to the same area where Nick had once worked as a sous-chef.
During one side-by-side jump, the two launched from a gray limestone wall over meadows of green grass. Mid-flight, when he looked back, his wife had fallen out of view. When he landed, she was gone. “Our honeymoon turned into a nightmare,” he says.
Despite his wife dying while jumping in 2010, Nick continued. “I jumped to connect with nature and the people around me. I jumped with my friends to share the passion of human flight.”
He continued to jump for the next five years. He also studied technical rope-access rigging and began repairing wind turbines around the country. Over these years, one after the other, his BASE-jumping friends died. “We did ash jumps,” he says, describing scenes where he and his friends would commemorate the fallen and release their ashes mid-flight.
The fallen included Stone Monkeys Sean Leary who died in Zion and Graham Hunt and Dean Potter who died in Yosemite. “Eventually, I grew numb to the pain,” Nick says. “Looking back, I wished I’d processed these deaths better.”
One night in July 2015, Nick and his crew lept from a secret location to celebrate the life of Dean Potter. When Nick jumped, a malfunction occurred with his parachute, and he went into an out-of-control spiral. One hundred feet above the ground, he slammed into a tree, breaking his sternum. As he bounced toward the ground, he broke every branch in his path before slamming into the dirt. Bones punctured his lungs, his lower back felt on fire, and his left foot hung loosely to one side.
His friends rushed him to the hospital, where surgeons removed an aneurism, drained fluid from his damaged lung, and fused six vertebrae in his spine. He spent two weeks in the intensive care unit. While there, he posted on social media that he would never BASE jump again. He’s since made a full physical recovery, but the scars remain.
“All the deaths and the accident caused me PTSD,” he says. “To recover, I just kept climbing and spending time in between Yosemite and the Utah desert.”
“From a young age, death was part of my life,” he says, “to losing my wife to losing some of my closest friends and heroes. It’s inevitable, so you got to live and do things you love. I’m just continuing my path by spending time with friends and sharing meals with them around the fire.”
Today the Yosemite community remains Nick’s home and a converted Sprinter van doubles as his getaway vehicle and shelter. Days are spent in El Cap meadow, at the crags, and at friends’ houses in the nearby communities where they share stories and plan adventures. And he climbs.