These are the words that self-describe Tony Yeary, our favorite resource at the Arcadia, California REI. His knowledge and stories were so extreme that the first few times we met him, we struggled to think he wasn’t making it up. As we knew more and realized it was all true, we knew we needed to find out more about his crazy, adventurous life.
We sat down in our favorite sushi restaurant a short time ago and this is what we found out. The arrogant punk is now gray-haired and mellow, but he told us that back in the day it was about being excellent and being able to brag about it. As he tells it, there was the Sierra Club school of thought to climb through the grades, be safe and don’t take risks. Then there was the group he fell into which was, “Climb everything you can until you fall off…it makes you learn fast.”
When asked what made him a mountaineer, Tony explains that he started by reading a book about Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Mt Everest in 1953. He thought it looked like a “cool” thing. Shortly after, Mt Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains became his Everest and he climbed it many times.
Tony’s first higher altitude climb was Mt Whitney by the main trail in 1973, but his first truly high venture was in 1983 when he climbed Mexican volcanoes over 5600 m (18,500 ft). Soon after he was in Costa Rica, Guatamala and Nicaraugua passing through checkpoints manned by government soldiers in World War II surplus uniforms and American weapons, and then 50-60 km down the road, another checkpoint manned by guerillas armed with AK-47′s and wearing Levis. He learned Spanish on the streets of places like Mexico City and Lima…much more useful than the German he had learned in high school.
When asked who were his inspirations, Tony cites John Bachar, one of the best solo climbers in the world in the 70′s and 80′s. He also lists Hermann Buehl, an Austrian who pushed the boundaries of alpinism by applying its techniques to high Himalaya peaks. The last inspiration Tony brings up is Tobin Sorenson, a climber who died in 1980, but not before earning consideration as the finest all-around climber in the US.
Financing his passion involved making money where he could, which included working for Patagonia’s Yvonn Chounard in Ventura, California in 1975 when the business was still the Great Pacific Iron Works and the products were equipment and not clothing.
In true climbing style, Tony spent 32 years and 1o months (his words) working for Ralphs Grocery in Southern California, where he could accrue a great deal of vacation time and also switch to part time when his vacation limitations held him back from his passions.
Tony’s best climb was in 1973 on the French Route of Huascaran Norte in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. He explains that it isn’t about success or failure in reaching the peak, but about the struggle. This climb was a failure measured against attaining the summit, but a great adventure of spending three days and two nights on a ledge at 21,000 ft waiting for a storm to blow through. While his favorite place was the Sierra Nevadas growing up, it is now the Cordillera Blanca. As he explains it, there isn’t a peak in the range more than two days from Huaraz, Peru, a place some call the “Chamonix of the Andes.” His favorite place to stay? Casa de Zarela, the climbers HQ when in the area.
Tony’s worse climb was in June 1974, at the Palisades, the most alpine-like peaks of the Sierras with jagged needles and a significant glacier. Tony and his climbing partner, Steve Evans, were camped on the glacier when they heard a noise and saw something come down Clyde’s Couloir very rapidly. It turned out to be a 16-year-old named Dale Snyder from Lancaster, California. He fell400 meters down the gully onto the ice and was killed instantly. Tony and Steve spet the next three days helping to carry the body out, including spending a night in the local sheriff’s station. Before that, Tony says that he never contemplated death even while he saw broken arm and other injuries, but never saw death. By the time they brought the dead teen down, the teen’s parents had already read about his death in the Lancaster paper. Tony sums it up with, “I’ve had friends die, but nothing like that.”
What’s up next for Tony? The peak he’s dreamed about for at least 25 years, Alpamayo in the Cordillera Blanca of Northern Peru. At 5497 m (18,034 ft), it is not just a tall mountain, but its heavily glaciated peak is one of the most photographed in the world. Tony plans to tackle his dream mountain by the French Direct Route, one of many ways to the top. We’d love to join him if we can be ready.
His dream stems from a trip in 2002 when he was in Peru with six other climbers. The group was divided on whether to climb Alpamayo or Huascaran and it came down to the flip of a US quarter. A friend won the toss and left for Huascaran, while Tony’s group went to AlpaMayo. On the way back, he stopped to talk to American trekkers who let them know that three Americans were killed in an avalanche on Huascaran. It was his friends and they died in an avalanche based on the outcome of a coin toss. Such is life when it is lived to the fullest.
Tony isn’t a wealthy man by American financial standards but he has spent a lifetime of ‘earning’ memories from fantastic experiences. He has more interesting stories from his life than can be adequately covered in this post. He has lived a life of maximum adventure that is still underway and adding new chapters. We draw inspiration for our adventures from people like Tony. If you want to meet him, he’s often found at REI Arcadia helping people with some of the best advice they can get on not just equipment, but on where to go and what to do. Thank you to Tony for all you’ve helped us with and for the awesome stories.