I’ve finally come to terms with some difficult news I received a few weeks ago, and wanted to take a moment to pay tribute. My longtime friend Sean “Stanley” Leary died in a wingsuit BASE jumping accident in Zion National Park a few weeks ago. My heart goes out to his family and close friends, and especially his beautiful wife, Mieka, a Sacramento-based ophthalmologist, who is expecting their first child in May.
Sean and I are about the same age, and we’ve known each other since college when he was at Humboldt State. We’ve climbed El Cap together, taken a trip to Peru together, and over the years, I’ve used him to help me with rigging or as an athlete for various assignments. Just last year we used him in a Nikon ad campaign.
To me, the most defining characteristic about Sean is that he was always the unsung hero in whatever groundbreaking climbing achievement he happened to be a part of. He was the wingman, so to speak; figuratively, and later, literally. Sean was the guy who was invariably up on El Cap with much more famous climbers, like Dean Potter and Alex Honnold, climbing right at their levels but choosing to never ask for hype or receive any of the fanfare surrounding those ascents.
For example, in 2010 he climbed El Cap three times (!) in a single day with Alex Honnold; they climbed the Salathé Wall, Lurking Fear and the Nose, about 8,000 feet of steep and technical rock, in under 24 hours. Later that year, Sean set the speed record on the Nose with Dean Potter, climbing the famous El Cap route in 2:36:45.
His sense of adventure saw him establish big-wall climbs on the famed Tepuis of Venezuela, as well as in the frigid big-wall mountains of Antarctica.
Most Yosemite climbers knew Sean by his nickname, “Stanley.” The name is a reference to a now infamous Stanley hammer that Sean employed in place of a normal climber’s hammer (used for placing pitons) during his first of what would become over 50 ascents of El Cap. Another climber had told Sean, “Anyone can slam a piton with a Stanley, but it takes a Yosemite hammer to remove them!” Yet, Sean and his partner, Brian Kray, stuck it out and ultimately got to the top successfully. After that, the nickname “Stanley, the big wall hammer” stuck as a nod to the fact that nothing would stop Sean from hammering his way up and onward.
Sean was also an enormously respected wingsuit pilot, who took up BASE jumping in the wake of his girlfriend, Roberta’s, death in 2006. They were driving to the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Salt Lake City when Roberta fell asleep at the wheel and rolled the car. Sean was hardly injured, but Roberta died in his arms on the side of the highway. Her death of course caused Sean huge grief and nearly brought him to the brink. He took up BASE jumping as a way to overcome that grief. Many of his friends credited BASE jumping, ironically, as saving him. It obviously became a passion, as evinced by this video, in which Sean describes how fulfilled he felt when flying.
Two and a half years after Roberta died, Sean brought Roberta’s ashes down to Patagonia, and packed them inside his parachute. He BASE jumped off the top of a mountain in Patagonia and released them over the mountains when his canopy opened. Uncannily, during his descent, he got caught in a rare updraft that pushed up and up and up into the sky, where he flew with the condors, for over 20 minutes. The whole story was documented in the Reel Rock film “Patagonia Promise,” which you can watch here.
It was miraculous to see that Stanley overcame Roberta’s death and allowed himself to find love again, with Mieka. They married a few years ago. Mieka is 7 months pregnant, which makes this already hard situation much worse.
Stanley, thank you for the inspiration and friendship over the years. You’ll be greatly missed by everyone in our community and tribe.