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Sports Outdoors and Recreation

Sean 'Stanley' Leary dies at 38; mountain adventurer

When Sean "Stanley" Leary's friends heard he'd gone missing in Utah's Zion National Park, they drove hundreds of miles to help.

Leary was well-known in the tight-knit world of mountain adventurers. At Yosemite National Park, he was an old hand, with more than 50 ascents of El Capitan under his belt — including a record-setting 2 1/2-hour scramble up a 2,900-foot wall that demands several days from seasoned climbers. He explored new routes up peaks in the Arctic and in Antarctica and was an ardent BASE jumper — an adventure enthusiast who leaps off mountains and other high places.

In 2009, he leaped from a peak in Patagonia called El Mocho to spread the ashes of his girlfriend, a climber who was killed in a car crash, over the mountains she loved.

PHOTOS: Sean "Stanley" Leary on a climbing expedition to Antartica

He had jumped in remote spots throughout the world and he was familiar with Zion's desert stillness and haunting rock formations.

He was due back in California on March 23. When he didn't return, worried relatives alerted park officials.

Hours later, Leary's body, rigged up in his BASE jumping gear, was found 300 feet beneath a high ridge in the park's West Temple area. Because of weather delays, his remains were not recovered until Tuesday.

He was 38 and about to become a father.

BASE stands for buildings, antennae, spans (such as bridges) and earth (meaning cliffs and mountaintops). BASE jumpers often use wingsuits that help them glide before releasing parachutes that slow their descent.

Leary took up BASE jumping after the 2006 death of world-class Brazilian climber Roberta Nunes in a rollover accident on a Utah highway. She was driving and died in his arms. Devastated, he found solace in a typically high-energy fashion.

"I needed something new that would take me to a different spot," he once told an interviewer. "After Roberta died, I took up BASE jumping because it felt like a release."

Those who knew him say it worked.

"It helped him survive," said his sister, Erin Martin. "When he was flying, it was the happiest point of his life."

BASE jumping is illegal in national parks. Authorities at Zion said Leary's solo jump was well within the park's boundaries. Other climbers and jumpers said Leary was dedicated to finding "exits" — the jumpers' term for takeoff points — on public lands where the sport is not forbidden.

In either case, Leary's moments aloft buoyed his spirit.

He once described the adrenaline-pumping thrill as "watching the previously inconceivable turn into the possible."

"There's a second of absolute freedom," he told filmmaker Chad Copeland. "You're floating, you're floating — it's just magic when the wingsuit pops open and inflates and you start to take off."

In 2009, on an expedition captured in the television series "First Ascent," Leary packed Nunes' ashes into his parachute and, soaring off a remote peak, released them in a cathartic puff of white.

It was a promise he had made to her just days before her death, and it took him more than 2 1/2 years to fulfill it.

Friends said the intensity of Leary's mourning enabled him to help others with their own.

"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," he wrote in a note to Steph Davis, an old friend who had experienced a similar loss. "The hole never goes away but becomes gentler and kind of a garden in your soul."

In 2011, Leary married a Sacramento ophthalmologist, Annamieka, who is due to give birth to their child in May.

"To see him rise from the ashes, fall deeply in love, look forward to having a family — and now this," said Nick Rosen, director of the "First Ascent" episode. "It's tragic."

Born in San Joaquin County on Aug. 23, 1975, Sean Patrick Leary grew up in the small Northern California town of Pine Grove. His family also had a home in El Portal, near Yosemite, where as a teenager he fell in love with climbing.

While he was a student at Humboldt State, Leary worked as a mountain guide.

On one of his early El Capitan climbs, he breached the climber's code and failed to bring along the kind of hammer specifically meant for climbing. Instead, he grabbed a standard, Stanley-brand claw hammer from his house and was from then on known among climbers as "Stanley."

James Lucas, a longtime friend and Yosemite climbing buddy, recalled Stanley's "unbridled, sometimes manic energy."

After a particularly brutal six-hour climb, "all I wanted to do was eat elk burgers," Lucas told The Times. "All he wanted to do was to keep climbing. It was like being attached to a bullet."

Leary was a specialist in speed climbing. In 2010, he and elite climber Dean Potter scaled the Nose, El Capitan's vertical southeast face, in two hours, 36 minutes and 45 seconds. Although their record fell two years later, it was a big achievement on a route that for more than a century had been thought unclimbable.

In addition to setting other records on El Capitan and Half Dome, Leary, as part of a team led by British climber Leo Houlding, made the first ascent on the east face of a remote Venezuela peak called Cerro Autana. Houlding's team, which included climber Jason Pickles, also tackled Mt. Asgard on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, as well as Antarctica's Ulvetanna Peak — Norwegian for "wolf's tooth." All were featured in adventure films by British director Alastair Lee.

Like a number of other climbers, Leary earned money as a rigger on outdoor films. At Zion, he was in touch with friends March 13 and was to meet a film crew the next day. He never made it there.

At least eight of his climbing friends showed up at Zion to help search and rescue crews. His body was discovered near West Temple, in a formation called the Three Marys. He may have clipped a rock wall on the way down, his sister said.

In addition to his wife and sister, Leary's survivors include his grandmother Colleen Lane; mother, Marilou Mullan; father, John Leary Jr.; half brothers Will and Christian Mullan; stepmother Patti Leary; and stepsisters Kimi and Angelia Schlegel.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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