Sometime on November 13, Niels Tietze, 31, fell to his death in what appears to have been a rappelling accident on Fifi Buttress in Yosemite National Park. Friends found him four days later, when he failed to meet up for climbing plans or return calls after a two-day storm.
Niels and I met in early May 2011 when he rode into Camp 4 on a motorcycle adorned with a sheepskin pelt and a brimming haulbag for his first season with Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR). Niels wrote of his arrival, “The travel out to Yosemite was made more difficult (or simpler depending on perspective) by me only owning a motorcycle. Attempting to fit as many worldly possessions into a single bag was a lesson in my own skewed value system. I managed to bring my machete, climbing gear, five books, three rolls of duct tape, a harmonica, [and] thermos but somehow only one change of underwear and now even that is lost.”
Niels made his motorcycle pilgrimage following the death of his middle brother Kyle in 2010. He had dropped out of his university and come to Yosemite seeking salvation on what he called the “godly granite” of the Valley. His wry smile, penchant for philosophizing and blatant grief instantly drew me to him. We were fast friends and subsequently became tumultuous lovers.
In the first month of knowing each other, Niels and I foolishly attempted to return to Yosemite’s Camp 4 late in the afternoon on the Memorial Day weekend. The roads were jammed with irate visitors stuck in their cars during the typical holiday gridlock that brings all Valley traffic to an inner-city standstill. Nearby, the Merced River swelled from early season rain and high country snowmelt.
As hour two of the traffic jam approached, I diverted my yellow Volkswagen beetle to a paved pullout. Niels and I quickly agreed that the best solution to our predicament was to park the car, take off our clothes, jump into a calm section of river and swim across. Niels pointed out a section that appeared deceptively suitable for our swim: a 50-foot stretch of flat water between murderous rapids choked with felled trees. We would then run the remaining miles back to the SAR site in our underwear and flip-flops.
Excited by the absurd idea, Niels bolted from the car without hesitation, skipping on one leg as he dropped his trousers and placed them atop his head. With a feverish whoop of joy, Niels dove into the bloated, frigid river and reached the other side with little effort. As I would be so many times in the years to come, I was fooled by the ease with which he completed the task at hand. I followed him into the river with a much-less-graceful splash and made it just over halfway before my limbs started moving slower as they froze in the icy snowmelt.
Panicked, I gulped, “I need help!”
The wild joy washed from Niels’ face. He swiftly waded into the water and pulled me, sputtering, to shore. The rattlesnake tattoo that wrapped his bulging bicep prickled with goosebumps and his eyes sparkled wide with delight. He later pondered, “Why is stupidity such a source of joy? I do not know.”
The rain pelted us as we ran in our skivvies past a large, ambivalent bear and some gawking tourists, hightailing it to the SAR site where we cuddled and regaled our teammates with my close call. Forgotten was Niels’ onsight of the 5.12 finger crack Tips in the pouring rain. He was more pleased with the adventure we had crossing the river.
“Our Merced swim is one of my more cherished blankets,” Niels wrote years later, the term “blanket” referring to a memory he could reflect upon for comfort and joy.
Raised on the edge of Salt Lake City with Mt. Olympus as his backyard, Niels grew up the youngest of four–three boys and one girl. Part of a tight-knit family of capable eccentrics, Niels easily out-climbed his older siblings. But as passionate as Niels was about the vertical realm, and as much as he relished his solitude, Niels felt compelled to contribute to the greater human experience. It was that duty toward the collectiveness of humanity and a love of climbing in its entirety that helped propel him, still grief stricken, to YOSAR in 2011. Niels took his search for purpose a step further in 2012 when he spent three months cramped in a tiny room with the indefatigable Timmy O’Neill, each training as an ophthalmic assistant in Nepal. From then on Niels volunteered a few months each year with the Himalayan Cataract Project, helping to bring sight-restoring surgery to thousands across Nepal and Ethiopia. Niels specialized in surgery for the progressive eye disease of trachoma. He joked that with his newfound surgical skills he could “undercut the Yosemite Clinic and offer under the (picnic) table stitching and surgery for a very low price.” While he eventually finished his Bachelors of Science and scored well on the entrance exams for medical school, Niels struggled to pry himself from his love of the land. He traveled to Patagonia and then bought a plot of waterless land in western Nevada. Of his time working in low-income countries, Niels mused, only half speaking of others, “People’s stoicism in digesting the tragedies of life never ceases to amaze me.”
Never one to sacrifice a special moment for practicality, Niels fully believed iced beers and whole melons were the appropriate way to celebrate topping out a climb. Because of his unparalleled physical strength, he was easily able to haul such luxuries for his fortunate partners to the top of most climbs, from spires in the Italian Dolomites, to new routes in Ethiopia or seemingly effortless El Cap ascents.
It was his love of combining work and play, fun and suffering–his “pure joy of all ideas, good and bad,” said Scott Deputy, senior SAR site member–that led everyone to have their own, personal version of Niels. Deputy recalled the time when they attempted an ill-advised one-day ascent of Mescalito (VI 5.7 C3, 3,000′) on El Capitan without rain gear. The two nearly perished from hypothermia when a storm unleashed. Niels, reveling in the chaos, “screamed out lines about lightning and rain from Bob Dylan’s ‘Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie‘ that echoed over the hopelessness of our situation,” Deputy said. Through the wild, the planned, the accidental and the eventually comical, “we all rode the waves of good and bad with him,” Deputy lamented.
He left lasting impressions on all he met, even in the briefest of interactions. As news of his passing spread, countless examples of his instant, unforgettable presence were shared widely across the Internet, a great paradox that Niels, the self-professed Luddite, might have found distastefully humorous after a few gulps of whiskey. One such example, retold by Robbie Brown on Facebook, is of the time Niels had just completed a solo of the Shield on El Capitan in three days without a portaledge. Back on the Valley floor, Niels joined a group of revelers as they illegally jumped from El Cap Bridge into the Merced River. He emerged from the leap with a badly bleeding laceration on his foot from a submerged tree limb. “The irony is not lost on me, Mountain!” Niels quipped, shaking a fist at El Cap.
As a man who was obsessed equally with beauty and the absurd, it would not be unusual for Niels to approach a climb in tattered denim and on horseback or with freshly picked flowers in his hair, a faded, superfluous scarf wrapped around his head and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons blasting from a duct-taped speaker. Joy often exploded from Niels as he indulged in adventurous exploits climbing desert sandstone, playing a ceramic flute to drive his family’s Dobermans into frenzied howls, or while wrangling cattle on his friend’s ranch in rural Utah. But such happiness contrasted his frequent torment. His parents wrote after his passing that Niels was “a man who in so many ways embodied the complexities of the Universe.”
His descents into darkness grew in frequency after his eldest brother, Eric, passed away in mid-2012 while soloing the Teton Traverse, just 15 months after the loss of Kyle. “Why now? Why like this? But…the mountains comfort even as they kill. From this place I know that beauty and misery are universal,” he reflected. Despite his own familiarity with suffering, Niels never shied away from others in pain. Rather, he walked toward their suffering, guiding and caring for those around him with his ample experience, sharing his belief that “redemption lies in the influence our lost loved ones still have on us; what we see or do that we wouldn’t if they had never walked in our lives. This is why silence buries someone much deeper than dirt ever can and why I try often to talk of my lost loved ones.”
Capricious, well-read and strange, Niels was a modern-day Renaissance man. His artistic skillset ranged from being a guitarist, to pottery thrower, to being a trained masseur after running off to Hawaii as a teenager. Conversely, he was a sensitive ranch hand mixed with aspects of being a rugged, odorous, prayer bead-wearing hippy who longed to learn how to sail. Although he declared, “I’m definitely planning on being forgotten,” Niels’ impact reaches well past his impressive list of athletic feats. While his physical prowess was made evident by such varied climbing accomplishments as a free ascent of El Capitan’s Salathe Wall (VI 5.13c, 3,000′) and a rapid climb of the Himalayan peak Ama Dablam (6812m) with Ueli Steck, Freddie Wilkinson and Scott McIntosh while “tied in with an 8mm static Korean boat cord,” Niels will be most missed for his frantic passion, his pure love of (dis)honest fun and his bottomless affection for those nearest and dearest to his full, aching heart. He is at peace, at last.
“Next bottle of whiskey you tilt, think of me and I’ll do the same for you…with a lemon.”
[Libby Sauter co-authored a story with Suzanne Ybarra for Alpinist 48 titled “Beyond the Dusk” about a first ascent she did in Chile with Niels Tietze and Althea Rogers to honor the ambitions of Michael Ybarra, who died while soloing a traverse in the Sierras in 2012–Ed.]