Michael J. Ybarra died trying to accomplish one of his longtime goals, according to his family and friends.
The avid rock climber and freelance writer was attempting to traverse the length of the dangerous Sawtooth Ridge, which borders the northern side of Yosemite National Park, when he fell more than 100 feet to his death.
Ybarra, 45, of Los Angeles, set out on June 30 to complete the traverse alone, starting at Matterhorn Peak near Bridgeport and continuing east to Blacksmith Peak. Something went wrong while climbing a vertical face between Matterhorn and Cleaver peaks, which was where search-and-rescue teams found his body July 3.
“He wanted to do something really big and he wanted to do this for years,” said friend and fellow climber Alex Few.
Few was the first to notify search-and-rescue personnel July 2 that Ybarra was overdue after he didn’t call her the night before. She informed the Mono County Sheriff’s Office the next morning when she couldn’t reach him by phone.
She said the area is known for its very loose granite rock that can pose a threat to climbers, citing a passage from Peter Croft’s 2002 guidebook “The Good, the Great, and the Awesome” that features descriptions of 40 rock climbing routes in the High Sierra including the Sawtooth Ridge traverse.
Marissa Christman, of Reno, met Ybarra last fall in Truckee and climbed Mount Whitney with him just days before he left on his trip to traverse the Sawtooth Ridge.
Ybarra, who was unmarried and didn’t have children, was living mostly out of his car at the time of his death, traveling from area to area and writing to pay the bills, Christman said.
“He was this person who sort of did what we call ‘living the dream,’ ” she said.
Ybarra worked as a freelance journalist for the Wall Street Journal for the past several years, among other writing gigs.
He contributed more than 30 articles for the newspaper’s leisure and arts section that chronicled his adventures in rock climbing, hiking and kayaking.
Eric Gibson, leisure and arts features editor for WSJ, had never met Ybarra in person, but got a sense of him through his writing.
“You got the vivid sense of the challenge for making that climb or taking that hike, as well as the exaltation for being in nature,” Gibson said.
Ybarra started with the Wall Street Journal as a staff writer at the San Francisco bureau after graduating from University of California, Berkeley, in 1992 with a master’s degree in political science.
Ybarra’s sister, Suzanne, said her brother had sustained an interest in journalism after writing for his high school’s newspaper during his senior year.
Suzanne Ybarra said her family would often take trips to Yosemite and other national parks. Her mother, Lillie, told her that Michael first showed interest in rock climbing as a teenager after a trip to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming with his brother, Gary.
She said the family was “extremely proud” of his accomplishments in his professional life. He authored a biography in 2004 about former U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran’s role in the anti-Communist hearings of the 1950s and was working on another about Yvon Chouinard, a famous climber and founder of outdoor clothing company Patagonia.
“He was passionate about everything he ever did whether it was climbing, kayaking or writing,” she said.
Ybarra said her family would always get a little bit nervous when Michael would go on one of his climbs, but knew he was experienced and would take the proper precautions.
“Even though it’s a risky sport, he was always extremely responsible,” she said.
Ybarra’s family was in Oakdale late last week making funeral arrangements and plans to have a memorial service in Yosemite National Park.