A Los Angeles-based freelance journalist and extreme-sports correspondent for the Wall Street Journal fell more than 100 feet to his death while mountain-climbing at the edge of Yosemite National Park over the weekend, according to authorities.
Michael J. Ybarra’s body was found by search-and-rescue crews Tuesday. Friends and family called authorities the day before because he was expected to return Sunday evening and they could not reach him, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Ybarra, 45, embarked on a solo climbing trip Saturday morning with plans to traverse the length of Sawtooth Ridge from Matterhorn Peak to Blacksmith Peak, according to a Mono County Sheriff’s Department statement Thursday.
The shattered-granite ridge consisting of several peaks borders Mono County to the north and Yosemite to the south.
After the initial call, Mono County authorities deployed search-and-rescue teams to look for Ybarra. They discovered he had signed the summit register at Matterhorn Peak, but not at Cleaver Peak, so search efforts were intensified between the two, the Sheriff’s Department statement said.
A Sacramento-based National Guard crew aided in the search using a Black Hawk helicopter. Ybarra’s body was found Tuesday by the helicopter crew on the steep western flank between Matterhorn and Cleaver peaks, according to the statement.
The final cause of death is still pending an autopsy, but it appears he died from the fall, authorities said.
Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said Ybarra fell between 150 and 200 feet into the park’s side of the ridge while solo-climbing a vertical rock face. She said it could not be determined exactly when or how he fell.
After finding Ybarra’s body Tuesday, crews at Yosemite had to wait until Wednesday to extract him from the area because the helicopter used for that type of operation was undergoing routine maintenance, Cobb said.
The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team was consulted and planned to assist with the search, but Ybarra’s body was found while the searchers were en route, said sheriff’s deputy and search-and-rescue coordinator Robert Lyons.
The Wall Street Journal said in statement that Ybarra was an “extraordinary journalist” who “enlightened and engaged readers on a wide array of topics in vivid, clear prose.”
“His passion for the outdoors was evident not only in his writing for the Leisure & Arts and Books sections — reviews and essays written with such verve you felt you were right beside him on a mountain face or in a kayak — but in the way he lived,” the statement said.
In a Wall Street Journal piece published March 27, 2008, Ybarra wrote: “Part of the attraction (and no little the terror) of climbing is problem-solving, figuring out what to do in a situation where there are no great options and no little peril in making a wrong move.”
Ybarra authored a 2004 book, “Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Columnist Hunt,” a biography that shed light on the former Nevada senator’s actions during the anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s.
Ybarra also wrote articles about arts and books for the Los Angeles Times.
Ybarra’s friends took to Facebook to pay tribute after the news of his death broke.
“I will think of him often, miss him, and laugh hysterically at many great memories. Can’t believe he’s gone,” wrote Annie Trujillo, a climbing partner.
“And another one of us passes... Here’s wishing you endless handcracks to infinity, Michael Ybarra... Wish we had gotten to climb Castleton one last time,” Abe Traven wrote, referring to a 400-foot sandstone tower in Castle Valley, Utah.
Brad Young, a Sonora attorney and avid climber, didn’t know Ybarra personally, but said he knew about him through the close-knit rock-climbing community.
“It feel like he’s a kindred spirit,” said Young. “You never like to see something like this happen, and of course, you’re always wondering if it could be you next.”
Young has completed at least a half-dozen routes to the summits of various peaks along Sawtooth Ridge, but has never traversed the length of it as Ybarra was attempting to do.
“Doing the entire traverse is a pretty serious undertaking,” he said.
The difficulty of completing the traverse comes from the complexity of the ridge’s rugged terrain and determining which routes to take, Young said.
Young added it’s not uncommon for experienced climbers to traverse the ridge alone.
Young said a number of things could go wrong, such as the shattered granite coming loose or a cord being cut by falling rock.
It will likely remain unknown exactly what happened to Ybarra because he was climbing alone.