We don’t own anything in this life. What we have is the here and now and the love we feel for the world and everyone in it.
I met Sean Leary years ago. He was part of the original floating group of friends who were living on the road with chunks of time in Yosemite, in Moab and in Patagonia, many of whom have become legends of climbing now twenty years later. One winter in Potrero Chico Sean found a tiny golden puppy with its throat slit. He brought her home to nurse her back to life, and she grew into a gorgeous, muscled greyhound-esque creature he named Nexpa, prone to fear and with a scar around her neck. Nexie was good friends with my dog Fletch, and they were both excellent at fading into the shadows in Yosemite when a ranger appeared.
Over the years Sean became one of the very best Yosemite climbers and the guy who was a key part of many speed ascents and crazy expeditions, yet his greatest talent was for somehow staying out of the limelight, part of his humble, gentle nature.
In 2006, Sean’s beautiful Brazilian girlfriend Roberta died in his arms on the side of the road after she crashed the car while driving them from Moab to Salt Lake City, while Sean was hardly injured at all. Sean had just bought a house in Moab, where he and Roberta had planned to live–something which made me overjoyed…and now this. Sean was devastated. They had climbed and traveled the world together, and as Roberta fervently told me every time I saw her, with her blue eyes wide and earnest, “we are SO IN LOVE, Steph!” Three days before the accident, Roberta had asked Sean to promise her that if anything ever happened to her, he would continue to live life al ful. A gypsy fortune teller in Brazil had warned her she could die that summer, and she turned down a women’s trip to Pakistan to spend the summer with Sean in Utah and Colorado–she didn’t want to risk losing what they had together.
Without Roberta, Sean fought to keep the faith in Moab in a now empty house, the walls freshly painted by Roberta in bright colors, with friends helping him to force through the motions of daily life. That’s when he started to skydive and base jump and moved back to California. He made a wingsuit base jump in Patagonia, where he’d had many adventures with Roberta, letting her ashes fly out of his parachute when he opened. He told me it was a surreal experience, the wind lifting him up so much he thought he would not get down.
After some years, Sean met another beautiful woman named Mieka, and fell in love with her. I saw him in Lauterbrunnen, flying his wingsuit, just before their wedding in Yosemite. We ate dinner together in the kitchen of the Im Rohr hostel, and he was so happy–eyes sparkling, face glowing. He was one of those special people who carries a light inside, and the light was blazing bright.
Seven months ago I lost my love and at first I wasn’t sure I would survive it. I wanted to talk to Sean, because he was as close to being like me as anyone could be, and he had clearly made it through to the other side, and had refound happiness and love. We’d been friends for many years, but did not see each other all the time, and we reconnected six months ago through this shared experience. Two weeks after Mario’s death, we talked by text (I still wasn’t able to talk to anyone by phone), and later on we talked by phone. The few people I spoke to honestly were disturbed by my blunt questions and feelings of doubt about the point of living without Mario. Sean was not afraid, and simply told me, “Steph no one will blame you if you kill yourself and everyone will understand, but you’ll be missing out on a lot. And your family and friends will be really sad.” Sean is one of the people who saved me and gave me hope that I could live and I could be happy. As the months went by, and I healed, we started talking about getting together for some climb/jump adventures. There are so few people out there who have the skills to really combine these two passions, and we got excited brainstorming about trips we could do in the upcoming year.
Sean came back to Moab just two weeks ago and made a wingsuit base jump off Adobe Mesa across from Castleton Tower, something people have talked about but no one had yet done. Mieka is pregnant, and he was on his way to Zion for a film job with the BBC and would then head back to California to get ready for the baby to come. I talked to Sean on the phone in the morning on March 13, about the baby, about wingsuits, about trip ideas. That evening he made a wingsuit base jump in Zion, planning to report for work the next morning, and he impacted a ridge and died. Through a horrible string of unlikely coincidences: work thought he flaked out, Mieka thought he was in the backcountry out of cell range for work, no one realized he was missing for over a week. When he missed his flight home, the community went into overdrive, with family, climbers and jumpers flying to Zion to look for him.
His facebook page is filled with tributes and love from the countless people who knew him. One of my favorites, from one of the original Yosemite monkeys, Brian Kay, is the story of how Sean got his nickname Stanley:
Stanley, the big wall hammer. There we were, you and I. Talking a bunch of smack about climbing El Capitan at the SAR site, back when we looked up at the walls in awe. We ran down to your El Portal trailer to gather your things, and rack up. We realized that you had no hammer, so being the nothing is going to stop me guy that you were, you reached into your kitchen tool drawer and pulled out that now infamous Stanly hammer…. Later that day, there I was, standing at the bottom of the first pitch of Zodiac; mine, and your first El Cap route. I was looking up bewildered at how we were going to pull off this massive stunt. Earlier that day, Cade Lloyd had told us, “anyone can slam a pin with a Stanley, but it takes a Yosemite Hammer to remove them”. So, there I was, leading up El Cap with a freaking claw hammer with my Yo Hammer clipped to you! We stuck it out, and even had, “sweet success”.
We went light on that trip.. and you thinned your rack down to a flight suit since then. I am glad I got to share this world with you, and that you never gave up on that “nothing is going to stop me” style of yours. I will miss you coming by the Rock Monkey Ranch, and seeing you in the valley. Some people are angry that you got into BASE, I am not. I could see how much you enjoyed it, and the way you dove into it, and excelled. It wouldn’t be Stanley if you didn’t push it. You literally got to “choose your exit”, and I know you enjoyed the ride while you were on this planet. Thanks for being my friend. I will see you on the next plain my friend, and we will compare notes then.
My heart is broken for Mieka, Sean’s family, and for all the friends who loved this gentle, kind person without reservation. Several months ago, I got through the depths of my grief for Mario, and I called to tell him, “Sean, you were right. Thanks for making me stay.” He was so happy. All of us who try to touch the sky know that sometimes what gives us the most also takes the most away: everything must balance, as Mario always used to say. Sean kept his promise to Roberta to live life al ful. And he also gave me mine.
August 29, 2013
Hi Steph, I just want you to know I’m here if you want to talk or need any support from someone who understands what you’re going through. I won’t lie, it’s the shittiest most unfair thing but believe me it does get better. You just have to try and remember that. When you can. And let the love and support of your friends carry some of the pain. I’m here if you want to talk anytime. I love you.
Thanks Sean. R u happy now? That’s the part I can’t see. For the future.
I am now. It’s a long road and happens in tiny little steps at first. You’ll find yourself happy too, but there’s a lot of stuff you’ll have to face before that happens. At this point it’s best to just deal day to day or hour by hour and not think too much about the future. Right now your grief is this giant gaping hole with sharp edges but as you move forward in life the edges soften and other beautiful things start to grow around it. Flowers and trees of experiences. The hole never goes away, but it becomes gentler and sort of a garden in your soul, a place you can visit when you want to be near your love.
at first it’s all you can do to deal with your basic needs, and that’s what your best friends are helping you with now. Soon the sadness will come in waves, and you have to hold on through the intense parts, letting them well up inside you, carry you for a bit, then subside. It’s all important stuff to feel. Don’t fight it, but don’t get carried too far.
Just hold on.
It gets better and you’re not alone. You’re part of this fucked little club now, and the other members will come to help heal your pain with empathy and promise.
You are going to get through this. Even though this loss will shape who you are forever, you’ll be happy again. You will find peace.
Sean, talking to other people and reading books and things is making me feel hopeless. I want to hear one person say “it was hard and sad for a long time but now I’m as happy as I was before. Maybe in some ways more happy. My memories of him/her give me strength and happiness instead of sadness.”
Except you, I’m hearing almost the opposite from the majority and I’m not sure it’s worth it if that’s going to be how it is.
Steph, it’s worth it. I didn’t think it was either for a long time but if you just get through the days one at a time life starts to improve. You have to be proactive about it, and make yourself get out & do the thing you love. Especially, for people like us, big exercise sessions like long runs or bike rides. Stuff where you get anaerobic enough that you just focus on breathing for awhile. It’s not going to happen all at once, its gradual with a lot of lapses .
I just had Roberta dreams last night, and I talked with her a lot. It was really special and it made me miss her but I’m still happy. Life is special and death is part of it.
The main thing that kept me going after Roberta died was a promise I’d made to her like three days before the accident, that if she died I’d keep living life and doing what I loved.
What I also experienced was that the things I found important were suddenly distilled and clear. Like love and freedom and bullshit free lifesyle. and.committing to that life eventualy brought happiness. Mario loved you so much, and for sure he wants to see you live and be happy. Just like if the circumstances were reversed you’d want that for him. But like I said it’s a hard path to follow at first and you need to start simple and make yourself go climbing, go for a run, even if you have to stop and melt down during it. There are a lot of different levels to grief I found, and times where it feels super shitty and hopeless but you can pull through. I promise that it gets better and if you get through the first days, then months, then year you will start to find new levels of positivity. I know the two main things that kept me going at first were Roberta’s desire that I keep living “al ful” and Nexpa needing me and being an amazing source of love.
I’m sure its different for everone but I promise you that you can make it through. You’re changed forever, or at least your perspective on life, but you can get through. Don’t give up.
Sent from my iPhone